Tips from a Life Coach: Divorce Isn't a Zero-Sum Game


How Win-Win Thinking Helps During Divorce

The first time I went to university, I studied politics. This was before the Berlin Wall fell; Brian Mulroney was still Prime Minister; and the Cold War was in its final days. Yes, this was a while ago now. In my studies, a key theme in understanding the political world was the “Zero-Sum Game.” This is the notion that if I win, you lose. It is a “…mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant's gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants” according to Wikipedia.  

This is a fine idea when applied to game theory; but applied to life, relationships, separation and divorce, this is a path that can lead to heartache and disaster. And yet, so often this is the approach we take to dismantling our relationships.

What Are the Dangers of Zero-Sum Thinking?

Zero-Sum thinking means I “win” ownership of the house and you are left homeless; you “win” keeping your pension and I lose any kind of support during my pending retirement; you “win” primary custody of our children and I lose unlimited access to their lives. What the kids see is competition between their parents over the things they love and need to feel supported in their lives.

When my ex-husband and I were dividing up our belongings, we used a financial approach at first, dividing the value of things.  This was a “zero-sum” approach.  As we talked it out together, we managed to effect a paradigm shift.

The couch became what our children sat on to watch cartoons in the morning, under the quilt his father had once given us for Christmas during happier times. The towels and face cloths became things our children needed post-bath time. The dining room set became the place where our kids ate dinner. In the end, the kids and I took what we needed to make a life without dad till he wanted to be involved again, and he took the rest. I gave him joint custody so he wouldn’t have to fight for his place when he was ready to be dad again. He wasn’t a bad dad, just an overwhelmed one. We were able to place the happiness and needs of our children first, and set aside the “win-lose” nature of our split aside.

As you’ve heard me say before, I believe that kids need connection and support from both parents. If I believe that the best thing for me is to “win” something over my ex, how does that serve my sons? This kind of thinking sets up a competitive relationship when what is needed is a collaborative one.

Win-Win Thinking

Win-win thinking allowed us both to look at our separation through different eyes – the eyes of our sons. It allowed us to maintain our relationship (supporting our future co-parenting); focus on interests, not positions (enabling us to consider each other’s needs, wants and emotions); and generate a variety of options that resulted in creative solutions to what we now saw as our shared responsibilities.

Ultimately, the boy’s dad helped us move from Toronto to Ottawa and get settled in our new home. He spent our first Christmas “apart” in my new home with our sons so we could share some family time, and found his way back into their lives after taking some time apart for him. Win-win thinking made the difference for us, and it reflected our collaborative way of managing this new life.

Zero-sum thinking would have lit a torch to our lives and brought more havoc than was necessary. I am so grateful we were able to work things out like this. Our sons are better young men for it now, all these years later. That’s not to say that this approach can work for everyone. You’ve got to find the approach that works for your situation. Talking things through with a life coach can help you understand what you want and need, and find the right balance between your legal needs and your family needs in this new tomorrow you are building.

Trudy Chapman is an integral development coach with Chapman Coaching Inc. in Ottawa. She works with people facing transitions like divorce and separation and helps them find a way forward that works for them.  Trudy can be reached at or you can learn about her via her website at