This Blog is the fourth 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 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: effective communication; or, establishing rules. The third skill was defining a problem in a way that leads to solutions, rather than an escalation of conflict.
The focus of the fourth skill is on making joint decisions. Beginning in the 1960’s, in the business community, researchers began to study collaborative decision making, that is, how decisions are made when more than one person is involved. Much of that research discovered flaws in the way that people made decisions but some of that research uncovered the secret to successful decision making. Separated parents must make many collaborative decisions, well beyond what is dictated by law. If separated parents have difficulty collaborating on decisions, they often put the burden on the shoulders of their children by each making unilateral decisions in their separate homes. For example, part of why schooling leads to success is because schooling done right teaches good work habits. Children do well if they do all of their homework, study for tests and pay attention in class. Teaching good work habits involves establishing good routines with rules, so that the child just does it out of habit. For example, parents might have a rule that homework is completed immediately after school and then the child is free to play. Or the rule might be homework is done right after dinner and then the child can have some screen time. The child learns the habit of getting stuff done before pleasure and takes that into adult life. This leads to success.
What happens if the routines are different in the two homes? Instead of learning good work habits, the child tries to learn how to adapt to the two settings. This can get even crazier when one parent works hard to establish a routine and the other parent leaves it up to the child to get the work done. This child grows up knowing he or she should be getting some things done but cannot seem to force themselves to do it.
The solution of course is that parents should coordinate their routines but this involves making a decision together. And this is just one of hundreds of decisions that work best if collaborative. Deciding how much say-so to give the child in the selection of extracurricular activities and how much time each week can be spent in those activities are just two more practical examples. Another might be coordinating chores in the two households so that the child learns to be responsible and eventually to be a good roommate.
The obstacle for separated parents is having difficulty collaborating on a decision. Sadly, it rarely has to do with who is right – it mostly has to do with doing it similarly in both homes. For example, the habit of doing homework immediately after school is not superior to doing it immediately after dinner. What matters is doing it the same way in both homes. The goal is to teach good work habits. Making collaborative decisions, as we said earlier, has been studied and to do so involves six steps.
- Make an appointment to make a decision;
- At the appointment, share information and decide what additional information is needed and how to get it. set up another appointment after all the information is in;
- Meet again and share the information. List the options and the pros and cons of each option;
- Choose an option. If unclear which option is the best, just choose one and do the same in both homes;
- If disagreement persists on the options, discuss each parent’s goals and what they are trying to accomplish and come up with another option that accomplishes as much of what both parents want to accomplish;
- Develop an action play – how the option will be put into effect.
Perhaps an example might illustrate this process. A father wants the child to play a musical instrument, whether the child wants to or not. He also wants the child to have extracurricular activities that teach teamwork and self-discipline. He suggests soccer because children with all levels of skill can play. The mother wants the child to choose activities so that there is some enthusiasm and interest and does not want to force the child. The father makes an appointment with the mother. They share the above and decide to get more information by each of them separately talking to a soccer coach, the music teacher at school and even a friend who is a child counselor. They meet again and share this information. They discuss options but still are stuck on how much say the child should have. They develop an option that includes input from the child but also leaves the final decision to the parents. They plan to meet together with the child, discuss musical instruments and the advantages of learning one, allow the child’s input on which instruments he would like to try, discuss options if he ends up not liking that instrument, and then have a private meeting between the parents and develop the action plan.
Some parents might read the above and say, “I wish” or “If we could talk like that, we’d still be married.” It might be true that if you had this skill, you might still be married, but intimacy is much more complicated than a business-like relationship with a co-parent. However, it is also true that the above scenario would break down if parents engage in poor behavior with one another. The solution is to agree on rules for this process and the meetings together. One rule might be to only discuss one decision at a time; another might be to stay on topic and to have a way to get back on topic if you get off; another might be to be courteous and respectful by listening to each other, not interrupting, not making denigrating comments and so on. Always have the goal of accomplishing as much for both parents as possible, rather than trying to be “right” about something.
Like any other skill, this takes practice and there will be lots of flubs in the early stages, but it is well worth sticking to it. The first few times will be anxious, but in a year, you will look forward to this collaborative process because of the improvements in your lives and the child’s family experience. A side benefit is that you will teach your child this skill by modeling it, so that your child can take the skill into adulthood.