This Blog is the second 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 parenting relationship after the separation. 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. If it is the other person’s fault, then there is nothing a person can do to stop it. 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 will identify ten Skills and provide information on how to learn these skills. These skills are likely to have other positive effects, because they apply to all human relationships.
The first skill that we presented involves the ability to have healthy reactions to criticism: never take criticism personally, but always listen for useful information. The second skill involves bridging the gap between two different worlds. In a prior Blog, we explained that people live in their own world, which differs dramatically from the world where others live. This is because we all have experiences not shared by others, ways of interpreting our experiences that are different than others with the same experiences and even have unique differences in to what we pay attention. When we see that another person is living in a different world, we sometimes judge them as misperceiving what is going on or even lying. We have a hard time accepting that what is going on in their world can be true, even when it differs from what is going on in our world (which can also be true).
People are able to bridge the gap between two different worlds in only one of two ways: effective communication or with rules.
Effective Communication. In a good marriage or close friendship, there is usually a little of both- effective communication and rules. Good communication involves listening and asking questions, so that two people can understand each other’s world and have a whole picture that includes both worlds. However, sometimes it takes a rule. For example, one spouse might have come from a family in which teasing includes some swearing, but the other spouse might react very negatively and feel denigrated as a person. These spouses might never understand each other’s world in this regard and might simply need to make a rule that there is no swearing when communicating with each other. Simple!
Rules. Why are rules so effective? If everyone knows the rules, people can have high functioning relationships, even with people that they do not know or even like. If you play chess, you can sit down with a complete stranger or a disliked person and have a very nice chess game. If you play bridge or poker, you can sit with complete strangers and have a lovely evening playing cards together, because you all know the rules of the game. You do not have to be close or even want to do other things together and still have a functioning relationship.
Some divorces include some effective communication, and some have rules, but many parties going through the process, if not most, do not have the ability or desire to communicate effectively.
Effective communication, with or without rules, takes a good deal of patience and a genuine interest, both of which might be in short supply in a divorce.
Skill building therefore requires making effective rules.
Rules can in in be negative rules or in the affirmative, the affirmative being much more efficient. For example, the rule: “don’t play a card out of turn” is a good rule, but the rule: “play a card after the person to your right has played a card” is clearer. However, both can be useful,
For example, you might have a negative rule with an ex spouse that there is no yelling at one another, but you might also have an affirmative rule that when you are in each other’s presence, you will greet one another pleasantly and ask a polite question or two. You can have a rule that when either of you wants something, you will make a polite request. You can have a rule that if one parent takes a child to the doctor, there will be a phone call that day/evening to the other parent to inform them. The key is to identify a gap between worlds and then design a rule to bridge that gap.
“What if the other parent doesn’t follow the rules?” This question suggests that you are powerless if you cannot get the other parent to do what you want him or her to do. Not so! While you have no control over the other parent, you have 100% control of yourself. Therefore, you can make rules for yourself. Regardless of how the other parent acts, you can smile and greet him or her when you are at someplace together. You can make a rule that you will always try to be on time and will apologize if you are late. You can bridge the gap between your worlds by living in a world in which at least you are not in conflict by making rules for yourself. Combined with never taking criticisms personally, you can live in a more peaceful world and bridge the gap between the two different worlds, at least for yourself. This might prompt the other parent to do the same.