This Blog is the fifth 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 helpful. 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 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 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 skill being addressed in this Blog sounds a little complicated but it is not. Humans developed natural tendencies that were important to survival at one point in our histories but also can interfere in relationships. We lump these into “moral thinking.” Those tendencies are:
- Overconfidence bias
- Us-Them tribal warfare
- Judging bias
Overconfidence bias is just what it sounds like. We tend to think of ourselves as better than we objectively are. We have a very difficult time seeing ourselves objectively. When we hear a recording of our voice, it does not seem to sound like us. We have a colleague who video-tapes his patients while they describe difficulties that they have in their marriage and then shows the recording to the patient. Most patients are very surprised at what they look like. When we disagree with another person, we tend to think that we are right and they are wrong and can usually “reason” to prove so. Because we are overconfident, if we have a problem in a relationship, we tend to think that it is the other person causing it, and so he/she blames. In addition, because the other person is also likely overconfident, he/she does the same thing and blames us. Both people think that they are the one trying to cooperate and the problem is the other person. Round and round they go. Over-confidence bias takes over.
Us-Them tribal warfare was key to surviving when resources, like food, were scarce. Early humans were not only competing with other species for those resources, they were competing with other groups of humans. Usually organized into tribes based of families, one group would attempt to get the resources, sometimes entering into warring with other tribes in the same area. Whole versions of our species went extinct as a result of this thinking, when homo sapiens had the upper hand and resources were scarce. For example, one hypothesis is that homo sapiens killed off Neanderthals, or at least crowded them out of areas with resources. In parts of the modern world where resources are not scarce, we channel Us-Them tribal warfare into less destructive activities, such as sports, lawsuits and divorce. Most divorces start out with a competition for resources: property, future income and time with children. Our once loved spouse becomes “them,” along with those on “the other side,” such as his or her attorney and any friends or extended family members who took our ex’s side. We of course are the “us.” At the same time, our ex’s perspective is that they are “us” and we are “them.” The gravitational pull leads to litigation that feels like warfare, sometimes which can last well beyond the divorce itself. Sound familiar?
Judging bias is a little subtler. Social researchers, such as Robert Sopolsky, point out that we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions. Because of this, we might judge our ex for an action negatively, but judge ourselves positively for the same action. For example, a mother swears at a father, and a father swears at the mother. He judges the mother negatively for swearing, but because his intent was to show her what she sounds like to get her attention, so he judges himself positively. One parent is badmouthing the other, but when the other does the same thing, the intent is for the children to know the truth, so it is okay.
Overcoming Personal Bias
Overcoming personal bias is accomplished by seeing through these natural tendencies and being objective about ourselves and our ex. Most people are ordinary and not superior to others. When we have problems in our relationships, we are usually part of the cause. When we blame, even if we are at least partially right, it does not solve the problem. Respectful cooperation solves problems. Even though we are tempted to take an “Us-Them” perspective, we can step back and remember that we probably share similar long term goals with our ex that can only be reached through cooperation. Destructive actions are destructive, no matter what our intention is. We should judge ourselves by our actions, not our intentions.
Overcoming bias in our moral thinking is no easy task, but doing so simply means learning and practicing the skills involved and mentioned in the above paragraph. Even when our ex fails to develop these skills, we can learn and use them to prevent or escape destructive conflict. If our ex angrily tells us that she or he is helping with homework and we had better do the same, we can respond that we both want our child to do well in school and should talk about how we can accomplish that. The skills for overcoming personal bias overlap with another skill (namely, the ability to be vulnerable in relationships), which will be the subject of our next Blog.