This Blog is the tenth in a Series focusing on the skills needed to avoid or escape from destructive divorce conflict. These skills are directed to separated parents who must continue to have a co-parenting relationship after the separation and divorce. Most people caught in divorce conflict would like to escape and move on with their lives, but all too often blame the other parent for the conflict. As a result, they make themselves helpless- or at least feel helpless. However, there are steps a person can take to escape divorce conflict, even when the other person continues to engage in conflict-causing behavior. In this Series, we identify Ten Skills needed to escape divorce conflict and provide information on how to learn these skills.
The first Skill we presented is the ability to have healthy reactions to criticism: never take criticism personally, but always listen for useful information. The second Skill involved bridging the gap between two different worlds. We explained 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. People do this in one of two ways: effective communication and/or establishing rules. The third Skill was defining a problem in a way that leads to solutions, rather than an escalation of conflict. The fourth Skill was a procedure for making joint decisions. The fifth skill was overcoming personal bias: three assumptions that cause blame and conflict – overconfidence bias; us-them tribal warfare; and judging bias.
The sixth skill was an emotionally challenging one: being vulnerable in relationships. We develop defenses against being vulnerable because of powerful insecurities. The irony is that this increases our insecurities and we become increasingly defensive, especially with our ex because of the pain we have experienced in that relationship. Ironically, the cure for our insecurities is to be vulnerable, even with people who have hurt us. The seventh skill was about what to do when people disagree but are both right. The eighth skill was technically called perspective taking but involves another way to bridge the different worlds that separated parents live in. It involved practicing looking at a situation from another person’s point of view. The ninth skill was to process primary emotions – usually sadness, fear and insecurities – in order to diminish anger, blame and hate. For more on this and the other skills above, see the prior blogs.
The skill being addressed in this Blog is recovering quickly from a conflict. While simple in theory, in practice this skill requires all of the other nine skills – especially looking at the other person’s point of view and having healthy reactions to criticism and blame by the other person of you.
The first point is to recognize that all substantial relationships have conflict, whether that is with a friend, an extended family member, an ex-spouse or even our children. Conflict is unavoidable. Studies comparing successful marriages with unsuccessful ones discovered that successful relationships have as many and often as intense of conflicts with each other. The difference is how the conflict is handled. In successful relationships, the spouses keep it mostly clean and stay on topic. In unsuccessful relationships, people get way off topic, get personal and fight dirty. When a successful relationship gets personal and dirty, they stop and repair the damage with apologies and taking responsibility.
However, successful relationships take one more step that is extremely important: they keep the conflict contained in time by having a way to recover quickly. The reason this is so important is very practical. If a relationship spends about 10% of their time in conflict, this frees them up to spend 90% of their time conflict free with one another. If they spend 90% of their time in conflict, there is far too little good time to absorb the pain.
For a co-parenting relationship with separated parents, limiting conflict time by recovering quickly when there is a conflict opens the door to enjoy raising children together, both being at activities and happy to see one another. Whether or not the other parent is cooperative, one parent – keeping disagreements clean, taking responsibility and apologizing when it is called for, asking questions to try to understand the other parent’s point of view, taking blame and criticism from the other parent in a healthy manner and always looking for definitions of a problem that have solutions – can make a big difference.
When you have a conflict with your co-parenting partner, make a pledge to yourself to recover quickly (e.g., within three days). Cool down, look at the situation from the other person’s point of view, be honest with yourself about your part in it, pledge to work on improving your part in the co-parenting relationship, and acknowledge this to your co-parenting partner, including with an apology. Your co-parenting partner might or might not respond well, but your other skills make that irrelevant. You can be proud of yourself and leave the bad feelings behind.