This Blog is the sixth 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. If it is truly 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 fifth skill was overcoming personal bias, recognizing three assumptions that cause blame and conflict – overconfidence bias, Us-Them tribal warfare and judging bias.
The skill being addressed in this Blog is quite simple, and yet is probably the most emotionally difficult skill to practice: the ability to be vulnerable in relationships. In order to understand this skill, we take a look at insecurity versus confidence. Insecurity in relationships comes when we fear losing control of a situation because we do not know what will happen. For example, imagine that you are at the end of a first date with someone you like and to whom you are attracted. Do you ask for a kiss? Do you ask for a second date? When you do ask, you are out of control and do not know what will happen. If you get a “yes,” you are happy and relieved, but what if you get a “no?”
Most people grow up with insecurities but develop ways to avoid experiencing the fear undergirding those insecurities. We develop ways of creating a social image that we think will get people to like us or take us seriously or be attracted to us. We rehearse conversations with potential employers or memorize a speech. We might learn to make excuses for our behavior or failures and give “spin” to our stories to try to convince other people that we did not really make a mistake or do something wrong. If we age in a healthy way, we learn that being rigorously honest with others, being who we are, saying what we actually are thinking, being open about our mistakes, admitting to wrong-doing and apologizing and taking responsibility for ourselves, reduces our insecurities and develops confidence. As we slowly move into adulthood, we feel more confidence and less insecure. When our mistakes are pointed out, we can admit to them and laugh at ourselves. We do not blame other people or make excuses for our wrong-doing or failures.
However, not everyone learns that taking responsibility and being rigorously honest resolves insecurities. Many people maintain defense mechanisms to avoid being vulnerable in relationships. As they do, they continue to be insecure, afraid of losing control because of what might happen. Often, these people have good reason to feel afraid, usually based on experiences in their family, neighborhood or social setting while growing up. These insecurities often lead to marital and then later divorce conflict because both spouses are wrestling with control problems in order to avoid being vulnerable.
The solution to those insecurities is to practice being vulnerable in relationships. The practice involves being rigorously honest, in a respectful manner, taking responsibility for yourself, and being humble. Being humble simply means acknowledging that you are a flawed person who makes mistakes, being selfish when you shouldn’t be, saying and doing things you shouldn’t, not looking perfect, and so on. The reason this resolves insecurity is two-fold: First, you find out that bad things do not happen often when you are forthright. In fact, people will generally find your attitude refreshing and attractive. Second, you find out it is not so bad when bad things do happen. In other words, you become confident.
In cases of divorce conflict, one inevitably finds that both parties generally have difficulty being vulnerable with one another. This is because during the marriage, both have experienced real pain with each other and fear more pain. Yet, the path out of this quagmire is by practicing being vulnerable. For example, what is likely to happen if you were to say to your ex, “I have been thinking about it, and realize I have been a complete jerk to you. I could say you had some of that coming, but that is no excuse, and I am really sorry?” You might hear, “You’re right, you have been a complete jerk, and I did not have it coming.” Or you might hear, “I guess I could say the same. I’m sorry.” No matter what you hear, you will feel and be a little less insecure. Or imagine saying, “The reason I got so angry at you and accused you of having affairs was because deep down, I don’t feel very lovable, and I would panic if I thought you might like someone else better than me.” Or imagine laughing at yourself when you are being mocked by the other parent for completely forgetting to take the children to their event.
All forms of dishonesty, whether that is outright lying or simply spinning things, reflect insecurity. Mark Twain said: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” All failures to take responsibility for ourselves reflects insecurity. The way to overcome fear is to do the very thing that you are afraid to do. Practice this skill. Be honest and take responsibility for yourself and become confident.