This Blog is the third 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 their 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 that 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 involved bridging the gap between two different worlds. We explained because people live in different worlds, with different information, experiences and even what we tend to focus on, people in relationships must find a way to bridge the gap. People do this in one of two ways: (1) effective communication or (2) establishing rules of conduct. We acknowledged that in most divorces, effective communication, which relies on patience and a genuine interest, might be rare. The solution we suggested is to use rules.
In this Blog, we suggest that it helps to define a problem in a way that leads to solutions. While this sounds simple, it took until the Enlightenment Period in human history to figure this out. Before the Enlightenment, for example, disease was believed to be God’s will or possibly even punishment for sin. After the Enlightenment, scientists focused on the physical causes of disease and found solutions.
In human relationships, we can identify a problem and define it in a way that leads to conflict orto solutions. Assuming that solutions are better than conflict, being skilled in defining problems makes a good deal of sense, especially when there is a gravitational pull towards conflict, such as post-divorce relationships between parents.
For example, compare the following:
Example One: “You fought so hard to get your precious daily calls, but your telephone call last night really upset Sally. I told you it was a bad idea.” OR
Example Two: “Sally was very upset by your call last night. She cried and kept saying that she missed you. We should try to come up with a way that she does not miss us so much when she is at my house.”
In the first example, the problem is identified, but not in a way that leads to a solution for the actual problem. Sally is not going to miss her mother less just because her mother does not call. In the second example, there is likely a solution because the problem is identified in a way that it can be solved. The first example leads to more conflict, while the second example promotes cooperation on a problem that both parents likely care about.
Let’s try another example.
Example One: “You kept the good jeans that I bought and sent them back with your crappy old clothes. I expect Jimmy to come back with the clothes that I send.” OR
Example Two: “I can see that the logistics of clothing going back and forth is complicated. We need a system for getting the right clothes at the right house at the right time. We will probably need such a system sporting equipment, school work and who knows what else. Can we come up with something?”
In the first example, the person is demanding his or her solution, which is unlikely to work and puts the burden on the child to wear the exact same clothes back and forth. Anger and blame are trumping common sense. In the second example, the person took time to identify the underlying problem and defined it is a way that will likely lead to a solution.
The Skill is to step back from impulsive emotional reactions and think about what the underlying problem is. Then, the problem can be defined in a way that leads to solutions.
Let’s take one more example but follow it through the process of applying this Skill.
One parent is thirty minutes late and has a habit of being late. The other parent had plans and was scrambling to change his plans. That parent gets upset. Rather than saying anything when the other parent arrives, he decides to think about the problem and come up with a Plan.
A couple of days later, that parent sends an email to the other parent: “When you are late bringing the children, any plans that I have can get disrupted, as happened a couple of days ago. No one can be on time all of the time, and some people have more difficulty with that than others, but we need to come up with a way that plans are not disrupted by the other parent being late. Can you put some thought into what you could do to avoid disrupting plans? I will also put some thought into what I could do and then maybe we could talk.” What has been done is change the definition of the problem from a parent who is late to the fact that transitions from one parent to the other should not disrupt plans. That definition leads to solutions.
An important feature of defining a problem in a way that leads to solutions is that while cooperation is promoted, it is not required. If defined as the other parent is late, you have no control of the solution: the problem is only solved if the other parent is on time.
If defined as transitions should not disrupt plans, a cooperative solution will be superior, but even you can solve the problem without any cooperation from the other parent. You could propose picking the children up instead of the other parent transporting them, or you could always leave extra time, in case the other parent is late.
Best of all, you are not consumed by anger and blame and likely avoided, escaped or at least reduced destructive divorce conflict.