This Blog is a wrap-up of our Series on skill building that can help you avoid or escape ongoing co-parenting conflict. As a reminder, about 20% of divorces are basically amicable, where the parents get along with one another, are flexible with each other and continue to enjoy raising children together. About 60% have a good deal of conflict at the time of a separation, but in about one year, are functioning at least reasonably well as separated parents. They learn to protect their children from the pain of witnessing destructive conflict between their parents, and establish rules and procedures, make important decisions together, have some flexibility, and although often distant emotionally from one another, respect each other as parents. About 20% of divorces never seem to end! Those parents were engaged in destructive conflict when they were married, and kept it up during the divorce where the level of conflict remained high, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Their children grow up in a “culture of conflict,” and many of those children have increased difficulties in life with mental health problems, delinquency and a much higher rate of considering suicide in their teen years, and more. Some of these children are resilient and continue to do well on the outside, but experience pain on the inside.
What is the difference between these groups? All three groups go through the same process: a divorce with children. Some in the last group have been diagnosed with mental health problems, such as personality disorders, but your authors maintain those are poor explanations- not because they are “wrong,” but because they do not solve the problem.
Most people in high conflict co-parenting relationships would prefer to escape from the conflict, and most people who are vulnerable to developing a high conflict co-parenting relationship would like to avoid it.
A good explanation that provides solutions to this problem is lagging skills, where people vulnerable to and involved in a high conflict relationship with the co-parenting partner lag in one or more skills needed to escape from the conflict.
Part of the solution to the problem of co-parenting conflict is to identify and learn these lagging skills.
Our Skill Building Series is intended to identify these needed skills and give some direction to learning the skills. Like any other skill, understanding what is needed, practicing and developing the skills takes discipline and commitment. Many of the skills are emotionally challenging, but most of them are easily learned. Let’s briefly review these Ten Skills:
Skill #1. Have healthy reactions to criticism. Rather than react destructively, never take criticism personally. However, in order to be a better parent, always listen for useful information.
Skill #2. Bridge the gap between two different worlds. Because people live in different worlds, with different information, experiences and even what they tend to focus on, people in relationships must find a way to bridge the gap. It is generally better to start by establishing rules and procedures rather than starting with improving communication. It is best for both parents to have rules and procedures, but even if one parent sets rules for themselves (e.g., “I will always make polite requests rather than demands”), the situation is likely to improve.
Skill #3. Define problems in a way that leads to solutions, rather than an escalation of conflict.
Skill #4. Have a procedure for making joint decisions.
Skill #5. Overcome human tendencies to give your opinions and thoughts more credit than they are really worth. Think of yourself as parenting with the other parent, not being in a war. Judge yourself by your actions, not your intentions. Listen to the other parent with understanding, that is, practice perspective taking and think of yourself as a team, who must work together if you want your children to reach adulthood in good shape.
Skill #6. Practice being vulnerable in relationships, rather than being defensive, by admitting to mistakes, apologizing, making polite requests, taking responsibility for your actions and recognizing the positives in the other parent. By practicing being vulnerable, you build confidence and reduce insecurities.
Skill #7. Have a procedure for when parents disagree, but are both “right.” Admit to being wrong, when you are, but when both parents still believe that they are right, recognize that there can be two “rights,” and shift to looking for solutions that accomplish as much as possible for both parents.
Skill #8. Develop good perspective taking – practice by looking at a situation from another person’s point of view; especially the other parent’s point of view. If you do not understand the other parent’s point of view about some situation – ask.
Skill #9. Focus on and resolve the primary emotions of sadness, fear and insecurity, rather than stick with anger, blame and hate. Sadness comes with loss. Loss of each other at the time of a divorce might bring relief, but loss of the other person who you once liked and even loved, and the loss of the dream you had for your marriage and your family, is just plain sad. Recognize that a divorce makes the future uncertain for a while. Uncertainty makes us afraid and insecure. Focusing on anger and blaming the other spouse, even hatred, never resolves the sadness, anger and insecurity.
Skill #10. Recover quickly from a conflict. Forgive and forget, including yourself when you make mistakes. Be vulnerable and apologize for your part in the conflict. Be compassionate for the other parent: they are suffering from unresolved sadness, fear and insecurity, no matter how they appear on the surface.
By developing these Ten Skills, you can avoid or at least escape the emotionally and often financially bankrupting experience of a high conflict co-parenting relationship. This can be done with or without the cooperation of the other parent. First of all, if you alone take action, it will likely have a positive effect on the other parent because it is weirdly uncomfortable to be the only one in fight mode. Even if it has no effect on the other parent, you will find yourself out of the drama and the toxic dance. Finally, at least your children will have one healthy parent.
Think of it this way: two parents are feeding the children unhealthy food. One decides to feed the children healthy food, regardless of whether or not the other parent does. More than likely, the children will be much healthier. Be that parent!