Gabrielle Hartley is a leading divorce attorney, mediator, coach, author and speaker. Her book, Better Apart: The Radically Positive Way to Separate, is the first book of its kind to combine the life changing, healing wisdom of mindfulness, meditation and yoga with practical advice and legal wisdom to get the reader through and beyond the divorce. Better Apart was named “the conscious uncoupling how-to” by People Magazine. She has also been featured throughout media channels including The New York Times, The New York Post, Yoga Journal, & Mind Body Green. She is known for a unique, non-toxic approach to divorce that she developed over two decades in practice. She served as court attorney for Judge Jeffrey Sunshine in NYC matrimonial court and is a member of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation. Gabrielle brings her spirit, smarts and energy to every life she touches. She provides a robust array of resources (webinars, live classes, one to one coaching, workshops, key notes and connection to other professionals and resources) for people who are ready to feel better through and beyond divorce. Gabrielle will help you move beyond feeling victimized by your relationship or situation, learn to manage your emotions around your ex’s manipulations (or irritations) and start to feel better. She currently resides in Northampton, MA with her husband and three sons.
In This Episode, You Will Learn:
- The greatest challenges that most couples face during divorce.
- Five essential elements to cultivating an elegant divorce.
- How to deal with an ex who isn’t interested in an elegant divorce.
Connect with Gabrielle:
- Better Apart: The Radically Positive Way to Separate
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Gabrielle, thank you so much for taking time to hang with us today.
Thank you so much for having me.
So, you have worked with a lot of couples that are in the midst of turmoil and challenge. What are the primary reasons that you see why couples are getting divorced these days?
That’s a question that I’m asked quite often. People ask if it’s because of money or because of cheating. I was recently asked by someone who interviewed me, he was pretty young and he said, “Do they get divorced because of stuff?” I was like, “No, not so much.” I would say really when it comes down to it, when most people separate, it’s about communication. Sometimes it’s because somebody grew within the relationship, they changed over time and somebody else stayed stagnant. Sometimes somebody had a low lying mental health issue that comes out more as we age and it’s become an impediment to the communication. But I would say, if we had to pinpoint one issue that really is the thing that drives couples apart, it is the failure to listen.
I think about the fact that I got married at twenty-one, my wife was twenty-two. We just celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and there was a point about eleven years ago at which we were headed for divorce but we made it through. We have changed a lot over those twenty-five years. I mean, of course the core of who we are is the same but we have radically changed. I think that has got to be hard for most couples because you do change over that amount of time.
I would say we become more of who we are. In the book that I wrote, Better Apart, it is a divorce book but the essential elements of it apply to all of us. It’s just about getting deeper into your own internal monologue and tapping into your internal narrative and figuring out how much of it is based on externalities versus what is truly inside of us and then taking a look at how we can enhance what’s in us. Sometimes with relationships, we get into a negative pattern and we can’t grow and become more of our true selves and I think that that’s what makes relationships come to their demise.
So, we are focused on your book today; Better Apart but one of the things that I want to hear from you is, what are the greatest challenges that couples face during divorce? Your book is all about how to have an elegant divorce and how to uncouple. So, when they’re uncoupling and when they’re separating, what are the challenges that most couples face? I know we’ve got listeners who are in the midst of divorce right now and they’re probably asking themselves, “Am I alone in this?” “Am I the only one that’s facing this?”
I think the greatest challenge is all the self-shaming that we do and all the stigma that’s still out there and all the hiding in the shadows on the topic of divorce. I think that that’s really prevalent and that is half the reason I wrote the book, I wanted people to feel held and to let them know they’re not alone. No matter where you live, no matter who you are or if you’re educated or didn’t finish eighth grade, if you’re poor or you’re rich, no matter what language you speak, the main thing to know is you are not alone and you are going to be okay and you’re going to get through this. I would encourage you to focus on you and your part and what you need to do to bring yourself forward.
As we know, we cannot change other people, we can only control how we respond to other people. I know our parents say that and we hear people saying it, we might even say it to each other, but it’s so hard to do when it’s ourselves. It’s really hard to not to react. It’s also difficult sometimes not to distinguish the fact pattern of your breakup from one of your friends and then to overgeneralize. And then if things went really bad with them, you start to assume that the same thing is going to unravel in your life. But remember, although patterns may be generalized, we’re highly nuanced beings and when you bring two people together, it’s a whole other level of distinction of how we’re going to interrelate.
Also, do not get swept away by the what your lawyer might be saying. Obviously, many, many friends and colleagues of mine are divorce lawyers but they kind of make fun of me. To them, I’m the “woo-woo” divorce lawyer but I always say you can be strong and kind at the same time. One thing to really focus on is getting really granular on what your needs are and then really listening to what your partner’s needs are.
“But I don’t care about my partner’s needs. That’s why we’re breaking up, Gabrielle.”
The way you’re going to get what you need is by giving them what they want.
Give me an example of that. How would that go down?
Okay, so somebody comes in and they say, “Oh, my God. Gabrielle, I want to stay in the house but I know that she wants the house and the kids are there,” and they have this whole internal dialogue and they’re totally insane about it in their mind as any of us may be.
How long do you listen until you cut them off?
Well, it depends. People need to unload. We all need to, especially when we’re emotionally charged.
Right, they probably won’t be able to listen to you until they get it out.
Exactly. So, then I might say, “Have you asked if she cares about the house?” “Well, no. But I know she wants to stay with the kids.” Sometimes it’s as simple as asking the question and she might say, “Well, I’d like the stay in the house,” but that’s not like the thing that she’s focused on. Maybe she’s focused on, “I had an affair but I still want 50/50 custody and I think you’re going to say I’m a bad mom.” Or, “Maybe I don’t make as much money and I want to make sure that I get as generous a division of property.” Or, “Maybe I have family money that I really don’t want you to touch and because of that I’m willing to let you keep the house.” That’s just one example but there are so many ways and so many angles.
I’ll tell you an unrelated story just really quickly. Your typewriters are making me think of my grandma because they’re old school, but when my grandma died, there was this tray she owned from probably the sixties or before I was born and we called it the “sick tray”. It’s this tin tray with crazy orange and yellow flowers on it and she used to serve my brother and my cousins and me if we stayed at her house when my parents went to work when were sick. I have such great memories of her cutting up an orange into many, many pieces and just spending quality time with her. So, when she died, I was so sure everybody was going to want the sick tray. So, when I was at her house, I was just waiting for the right moment. I went and I got the sick tray and I went to my cousins and to my brother and as it turned out, nobody else cared about the sick tray.
It’s important not to assume that your spouse cares as strongly or in the same way about the same things you do. Or maybe you’re concerned about the parenting plan and you think, “Oh, well my spouse is a really great dad or mom, but she drinks too much.” Maybe you make certain rules around driving. There are always ways to explore a parenting plan that meets everyone’s needs. And I use the word “needs” and not “wants” specifically.
You talk about having an elegant divorce. How would you define an elegant divorce? How would you describe that?
What makes a divorce elegant or easeful or better, is one where everyone feels that they’re at a point of stasis. So, I talk about peace. Peace is not about fluffy fairy unicorns; it’s about feeling okay and about noticing the neutral. When we’re at a place of neutrality, then we have somewhere to go. Now maybe you’re dealing with someone who has a true narcissistic personality disorder and you’re just forever frustrated by them because the conversations don’t go anywhere because they’ve got their own dialogue in their head, but that’s okay. You can still be neutral with them because you can still convey concise messaging to them that they will hear or at least have to respond to as long as you don’t allow yourself to get swept up into their drama. They’ll find somebody else to be receptive to their drama because it’s not really about you. Most of what comes at us has nothing to do with us.
Elegant is being internally and externally aligned and feeling at one. I think a lot of people compare elegance to fashion, but what is elegant fashion? It’s simple, it’s clean, right? And so, it’s the same when it comes to divorce. I had a call recently where somebody said, “Hey Gabrielle, I just want to run something by you. You’re going to kill me. I was too generous. It was three years ago and I gave away so much.” And then I said, “Well, what do you have?” It turns out this person makes significant money and it was not hard at all for him to pay a lot of money because he had plenty.
We went through the whole thing and I asked, “How’s your relationship,” and “How’s this?” “Everything’s great but maybe I paid too much.” I said, “It doesn’t sound like you did to me. It sounds like it worked out great. And how’s your relationship now?” “It’s great and actually maybe I don’t have to pay forever.” “Well, that’s great.” So, sometimes it’s okay to give more. It’s also okay to take less because you might not need as much as the law gives you. People should know, because your listeners are probably all over the country, I’ve been a divorce lawyer in more than one location and I talk all over the country, so I meet with a lot of divorce lawyers. One thing to know is that the law is just trying to capture in broad brush strokes what seems fair enough. Your outcome may be quite different if you live in upstate New York and downstate New York or if you live in Texas and California. You’re the same people, you have the same emotions but your rights may be very different. That’s just interesting information.
Especially if you’re talking to relatives and friends and you’re comparing and contrasting. It may not be the same situation in your area of the country.
And even just for yourself. If you’re like, “Well, that’s what the law is,” it doesn’t mean the law is right. It just means that was the bargain that was made at the time when the law was enacted.
You have five essential elements that you talk about in your book Better Apart, and I want us to walk through these just briefly. I do want people to get the book because you dive deep on all five but would you mind going through those and tell us why those elements are so important in order to have an elegant divorce?
Absolutely. So, in Better Apart we explore five essential elements. I’ll talk about them in the order that I’ve presented them in the book and because I’m super impatient, I made Patience first. For somebody else, Forgiveness might be the most important. But forgiveness is super easy for me, so it’s less interesting in a way.
If you’re going through a divorce or any difficult transition, patience is absolutely essential because much of this is a marathon, it is not a sprint. You have very little control about the way things are going to unfold in terms of timing and maybe even in terms of outcome. You may feel very inflamed or enraged at certain points. So, patience is all about taking a step back and making room to breathe and to settle. I would say deep breaths is the number one key takeaway from patience. Literally taking deep breaths, getting your thinking brain engaged, calming your emotional brain, that’s when you’re going to make better choices.
The second element is Respect. Respect is primarily about self-respect, because when we don’t feel good, we’re not going to act respectful to anybody else. We’re not going to be able to be really routed and engaged in ourselves and life’s not going to be good. I quote my maternal grandpa all the time, he used to always say, “Never throw anyone away, just put them on a shelf,” and when you’re going through a divorce, there’s a lot of people and places and circumstances you might have to shelve. It doesn’t mean you can’t be friends with them again, maybe it’s a sister-in-law who you loved so much but right now it’s not a good time. You might even say, “It’s not a good time right now but I hope we can re-establish our relationship at some point.” It might be different but still re-establish it.
Creating boundaries is a great way to elevate your self-respect. When you’re going through the book, I encourage everyone to get a journal to do certain exercises and one thing that I suggest people do is to make a list, almost like a mantra on a daily basis, of things that make you feel good; things, people, places. Let’s say you have a crappy day and you end your day by making that darn list that you don’t feel like making, of as many things that make you feel good, when you go to bed at night, you might just feel a little bit better.
The third is Clarity and that’s really about stepping back from the blame game and moving into the place where you can be the best active visionary that you can be. How granular can you get on what you want to create for yourself, for your children, for your future? What I tell people to do is to pick something that’s irritating you or something that you want to achieve or somewhere you want to be and then start making a list. If you’re not a word person, make a vision board. Start creating your new future and again, do it as a mantra. In order to really effectuate change, it needs to be an automatic part of you. The only way it’s going to be automatic is if you do it like brushing your teeth. I would say pick one of these themes and one of the activities and do it every day. Do it in the morning and at night every single day like a mantra.
Number four is Peace.
Yeah, and we started to talk about peace and that’s about noticing the neutral.
What do you mean by “noticing the neutral”? What does that mean to you?
What’s the goal here? The goal here is to get to positive, right? Or if not positive, to get out of the negative cycle. So, what we know is that humans need to hear between five to eight positives in order to listen and process one negative. Noticing the neutral is literally either verbalizing or at least internally noticing something so you’re either giving yourself a positive signal or you’re giving the other person a positive signal about something that just happened.
I’ll give you an example from my own life with my kids. I read this book called Raising Your Difficult Child, which they re-named The Nurtured Heart Approach, because I don’t think anybody wants to think of their kid as difficult. The book was better when it was called Raising Your Difficult Child, it was really very direct which I appreciated. I had two little boys at the time and they were very active. I remember it said you had to notice maybe fifteen neutral things every five minutes. I don’t know, I don’t remember but it was a lot of things. I remember saying, “Hey, I noticed you haven’t thrown sand at each other. Good job.” So, that’s a non-thing.
If your ex is always showing up late and they show up on time, don’t say, “Oh, you’re on time for once.” Say, “Hey, thanks for being on time.” Because then that other person you’re talking to feels the gratitude. Then if you could find a way to do that four or five more times before you say, “Hey buddy, you just did this or that wrong,” then you’re going to have a better likelihood of getting the outcome that you’re looking for when things aren’t going well.
What about cultivating peace within myself? If I’m in the midst of a divorce and speaking from my own experience as someone who was in the midst of a divorce but somehow was able to reconcile, it is just the most non-peaceful experience ever. It’s absolutely debilitating. How does somebody help cultivate that peace within themselves?
There are a lot of different exercises you can do. One thing that is very easy to do, is to give yourself an affirmation or a mantra that you say throughout the day. It could be, “I feel at peace,” or “I’m radiantly calm,” or “I am magically peaceful.” Whatever speaks to you. Those are my words, so they might not resonate for you, but find what works for you. Find peaceful words and literally give yourself a message. When you’re giving yourself a message either through the visualization exercises that we talked about a moment ago in clarity or for this, be as specific and positive and present in everything that you say. Because it’s more likely to be integrated in you and to manifest. By giving yourself an affirmation, if you just say it from time to time, it’s not really going to do anything. You have to say it to yourself throughout the day all the time. Do you know why?
Go for it. Tell me.
Because then when you’re activated, it’s right there. It’s available to you. What’s going to happen is, you are going to access it, maybe without even meaning to. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to feel angry or sad or frustrated or any of those things, it just means that your brain is going to have a tiny little pause which is going to give you space to calm your central nervous system and be more thoughtful in how you treat yourself and how you treat your spouse or your ex-spouse.
Number five is Forgiveness. Hello, we’ve got challenges here.
I know, right?
How is this even possible? I mean, the divorced couples that I connect with and coach, it’s a lifetime of work in order to forgive.
Yeah, my mom had a really great divorce in terms of how they raised us. My mom held a lot of anger towards my dad though and I remember saying to her a few years ago, “Why don’t you just get over it?” She was like, “I’m going to be angry if I damn well want to.” Then my book came out and I don’t like to say my book changed anything because it’s just a book but when she read it, she asked me, “Are you trying to tell me something?” I was like, “Maybe.” But now, I don’t know, it’s not like she said, “Oh, your book has helped me so much,” but she’s always been good to my dad but been mad. I actually feel like she’s really let go because I feel like somehow my points were communicated.
Let me just give you my little spiel and you can dismiss it or take whatever of it might speak to you but the first thing you have to ask yourself is, “What purpose is this anger serving me?” You may be in an activated time or feel really sad or hurt and it might be protective in nature. Anger does serve a purpose and I do not ever advocate people to not feel anger, just like I would never say, “Don’t feel grief.” In fact, all these happy things that I’m saying, you need to let them inch into your life. If you commit to three minutes a day and then five minutes and then you make it a practice, it builds over time so that they are there when you need them and when you’re ready for it.
If you just need to stew in your sadness or anger, go for it. If you want that to be your whole life, that is your prerogative. But what I’m going to say, which is not my original quote but tell me if you can find who said it because it’s attributed to lots of people, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” So, why would we do that? That doesn’t make any sense, right? Except if you’re feeling really hurt, in times it can help us function and get through the day.
I have a little story which might sound like, “Oh, that’s nothing compared to what I’ve gone through,” and I get that but I’m just going to tell you my story in terms of the process. I have a friend in a bigger group of girlfriends who I’ve been friends with a long time and she did something that I felt was really unkind to me. I was really doing my best to try to let it go but I just couldn’t. I kept thinking, “Why do I need to forgive her?” Or, “Maybe I could forgive her.” Eventually after several years, I had this little flash of clarity which was probably around when I was writing the book, but it was going through my loop and I was thinking, “You know what? I can forgive myself for remaining angry at her. I can forgive myself for being human and for all that has happened and for all that she is and all that she was and for not being able to just let it go. I can also forgive her for not apologizing and maybe not even realizing what she did or for doing what she did in the first place. I can just let it all go because I’m going to decide to let it go.” Again, remember that the things that happen to you, they don’t really have anything to do with us. That might make you think, “Well, then why do I even talk to people?” but that’s a whole other conversation for another day.
The weirdest thing that happened was, when I did that, maybe a few weeks later I saw her for the first time and she had no idea that I went through this process. We had a conversation and she said to me, “I don’t know why that happened back then. I don’t know what happened.” I remember thinking, “Well, I know what happened,” but I literally didn’t feel angry anymore. I still remembered what happened but I didn’t feel the emotion about it.
One great thing that works for people sometimes, beyond talk therapy or coaching, because I know you do coaching, I do coaching – there are somatic modalities of therapy like the emotional freedom technique, which is EFT. Or EMDR, which involves rapid eye movement, where you say certain mantras and you do certain things and you literally peel back the emotions like skins on an onion. Those can really works for a lot of people. It’s more for trauma therapy but divorce is a trauma, it is a death. It’s a time of reckoning and rumble. And as Brene Brown would say, “Embrace the suck,” and you can really get through and become better. You can become better together even when you’re apart. Even if you’re separating from an impossible narcissist, you can make really powerful choices about how you’re going to respond.
If I’m in a divorce situation and the other individual is not cooperating, they’re not about the five essential elements; they don’t care about patience, respect, clarity, peace, forgiveness. How do I respond?
They’re like, “Screw you. I’m going to take as much money as I can.” “I’m going to take the kids as long as I can.” “I hate you. I hate your mom and dad. I hate everything about you,” and you’re trying to do all these things. How do you deal with that?
That’s really why I wrote the book. I had so many clients who were in that exact position. Now I mostly just mediate in person and online but what I found is there’s so many really nice, calm, centered people who are married to hot-headed impossible people. We find each other like magnets. The only thing you can do is work on your ability to respond and your ability to stay strong. It does not mean let yourself get trailblazed over. Sometimes you have to go to court. Court is there for a reason and is there for a purpose. Sometimes you may be surprised that your spouse just needs to be spoken to firmly by a judge and then they get in gear. Sometimes a bully just needs to be bullied back.
For the person who’s always one down, this might sound funny for me to say as the author of Better Apart, but because I am a divorce attorney for twenty-five years, remember sometimes the best defense is a strong offense. Don’t think that your bully isn’t going to come on really, really strong. You need to do deep work and get yourself with a therapist or a coach. Honestly, I wouldn’t say one or the other because if you have the time and the insurance, I would do both. I would get a therapist, get a coach and read self-help books. Do everything. Surround yourself with people who build up your self-respect. Get really clear about what you need. Step away from the story of your relationship because it doesn’t even matter. You just need to manage how your life is going to unravel and be extricated as you move gracefully forward into the beautiful rest of your life.
Oh, Gabrielle, that is just beautiful. Yes!
Oh, thank you. That means a lot coming from you.
Yeah, that is just beautiful because sometimes unraveling from the story of your relationship, there’s something about that inside of us that tells us we’re less than and there’s not an ability to be fully who you are for whatever reason. I see that in a lot of the women that I connect with. There’s a re-emerging of their identity and a reacquaintance of it and a discovery of it to say, “Wow, this is who I am.”
I want to raise one point based on what you were just saying. There’s actually a tiny little section between my intro and my chapter one called Pause, Maybe You Don’t Need a Divorce. I just recently counselled someone who came in for a divorce and as we spoke it sounded like there was some stuff going on and this person decided, “I can’t deal with this, so I guess I have to get a divorce.” I was like, “Well, you really still love your spouse. If you’re going to get a divorce, maybe you need to get in there and rough it up a little. Have those difficult conversations and see if your relationship can grow from this. I’m not saying you’re going to change the person, but rather than just leave, sometimes we can go deeper.”
You’d be surprised how many times outside the courtroom I see the couple embracing after. There was one circumstance back when I worked for Judge Sunshine, who’s now the chief administrative judge for all the matrimonial cases for whole New York state. We had an order of protection hearing. A woman had thrown a glass of wine at the guy and he was excluded from the marital home because of this one fight that they had had. Things got a little out of hand and I felt like we were at the end of Law and Order because the judge and I went down the side stairs and we came out and we looked down and we saw this couple who just been going at it in court, giving each other the biggest, most heartfelt hug. We looked at each other, I felt like the credits were going to roll.
So, ironically, if both parties actually worked on these five elements that you’re talking about, they could stay together.
Absolutely. It doesn’t mean by the way, that they’re going to all stay together. But I do think it means that if they decide to separate, it’s going to be a much better, more elegant path forward. If they could truly each work on where they’re struggling and find the patience or the forgiveness, those two are really big, the blame game is also big, but people really want to talk about forgiveness. In fact, Elena, who is the yoga and meditation person who co-authored with me, she did a whole episode on Goop with Gwyneth Paltrow just about forgiveness. So, forgiveness is a really, really big piece of it. But even if it turns out that you find you’re just better apart, the book is going to give you the tools to actually be better apart. Now that the book’s out my husband is always joking and saying to me, “Maybe we should just be better apart.” Anyway, that’s a separate podcast.
The beautiful thing is, that if you cultivate these five elements in your life if you are apart, no matter who you’re with in the future, whether if you choose not to have a partner or you choose to have one, your life and your relationships are going to be so much better because of these five elements.
That’s right and the exercises are really clear and simple and easily accessible. Again, just like anything else, you need to do them every day, several times a day. You need to make that list. You need to draw that picture and say that mantra. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I was a bridesmaid about fifteen times. I decided at a certain point, “I’ve got to meet somebody and get married if I’m going to have kids.” So, I started almost like a mantra, to make a list of the qualities of my husband. If you saw them, it looks like I’m a crazy person but within six months, my husband appeared and he literally had every single quality. I have permission from him to say this but in full disclosure, there’s some things I didn’t think to put on the list. And there’s some things that were on there that turned out to be less important than I thought. But whatever, the point is, when you get clear, you are much more likely to get the outcome that you’re looking for.
Absolutely, and you work with couples to mediate, not only locally where you are in Massachusetts, but around the globe you connect with people?
Absolutely, because today with the Zoom platform, I do really wonderful online mediations with people all over and they just consult with their attorney and we create a memorandum of understanding that they can bring back to their attorneys.
Perfect and if they want to work with you, they can go to www.gabriellehartley.com.
We’ll of course put that in the show notes. If you’re on an Apple podcast you can swipe up on your phone and the show notes are right there and you can click through. They’re also on our website at www.insporising.com. We want to make sure that people go and get your book. Do you give your book to clients when they show up in your office?
I actually do. I do. When they’re in my office I do give them a book, otherwise I just have them order the book online. We really work a lot with the content of the book. I also am very shortly launching the Better Apart: Optimized Living Masterclass. Which is a very neat and tidy program that is affordably priced. It’s a nice compliment to whatever coach you’re already working with. You join my list by doing an opt-in at gabriellehartley.com and when it’s launched, probably in the middle of August, you’ll get notice for it.
Okay, so you should go to www.gabriellehartly.com and purchase her book, which is Better Apart: The Radically Positive Way to Separate. Gabrielle, you are fiery. I’m going to guess; I’ve never met your husband but I’m going to guess he’s the mellow one. He’s a little more reserved.
He’s a lot more reserved. He’s not actually as mellow.
I knew it.
That’s what I should have written on the list. He’s not as mellow as he appears. We’re both pretty intense but he’s much more reserved. I’m very embarrassing. He’s from rural Maine, I’m from Brooklyn, New York.
I love it and you’re making it work.
Yeah, that’s right. Relationships are, for most people, not seamless and easy. They’re just not. So, that’s another thing your listeners should remember. You might have that one best friend like my closest girlfriend who is in the easiest relationship. They’re just really, really naturally great together. You might be thinking, “Oh, she doesn’t really tell you everything, it’s not really true.” But it really is just a great dynamic. But I know a lot of women, and I’m sure you all have a lot of friends who struggle. It’s hard to be with another person all the time and to have the business called life with each other. So, just knowing that and knowing that if it’s hard, you’re not living on an island. I personally find that very helpful.
It is a challenge. There are challenges for each one of us. In different ways for sure. Gabrielle, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. It’s been so good to be with you.
Likewise, thank you so much.