This Blog is the seventh 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, 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 taking criticism personally, but always listening 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 sixth skill was an emotionally challenging one: being vulnerable in relationships. We develop defenses against being vulnerable because of powerful insecurities. The irony is that this defense increases our insecurities, making us more defensive, especially with our ex, because of the pain we experienced in that relationship. Ironically, the cure for these insecurities is to practice being vulnerable, even with people who have hurt us. For more on this and the other Skills above, see our prior Blogs.
The Skill being addressed in this Blog is also challenging, but not for emotional reasons. The challenge is to our assumptions about life. We assume that there is only one “right.” Thus, if we disagree with someone, and believe that we are “right,” we try to prove that the other person “wrong.” If the other person believes that he or she is “right,” that person (of course) tries to prove us “wrong.” This recognition is an important and healthy first step, because sometimes, we are “right” and can prove the other person is “wrong.” In this situation, if the other person is healthy, he or she can (and will) admit it. Likewise, the other person might prove us “wrong,” and, if we are healthy, we can be vulnerable and admit it.
However, often in relationships, after our attempts to prove who is “right” fail, we are tempted to escalate the argument. This can lead to very destructive conflict. Instead of discussing a topic, we start personal attacks on each other, develop increasing hostility and create emotional distance.
The problem here is with our assumption that there is only one “right.” This ties into Blog #2 on how people actually live in different worlds, where in one person’s world, she is is “right,” but in the other person’s world, he is “right.” The challenge is to resolve a disagreement when both people are “right.” If we fail to prove who is wrong, we take Step Two, based on the assumption that both people are right, but for differing reasons. There might be different goals, or different ways to reach mutual goals.
This is not the bogus, “let’s agree to disagree,” where we secretly still think we are “right” and the other person is “wrong.” That is a stand-off, not resolution. We must really accept that both people are “right.” The difference is the result of different values, what we focus on, our differing histories, new but different information (e.g. listening to different radio stations) and just plain old human nature.
To resolve disagreements in a healthy manner, we need to accept that there is more than one “right”.
To resolve these disagreements, we first stop trying to prove that we are “right” and that the other person is “wrong.” The next Step is to discuss the differences that led to our opinions: those include the values that affect the topic about which we disagree, our histories, what we consider important and unimportant and the differences in the information that we have. We come to an understanding of the larger picture and the differences undergirding our disagreement. If we need to make a decision and our disagreement is about what we will decide, we have to step back and consider options that accomplish as much as possible of what both people feel is important and what best fits both people’s values. This can feel morally “wrong” because we are compromising on what might feel is a matter of principle, but a few maxims might help.
- There is more than one way to skin a cat! As gross as that saying is, it also is true. There are usually many more options to consider when we get stuck on just the two options about which we are arguing. We can step back from the argument and brainstorm other options that accomplish more of what is important to both of us. If that does not work, we can invite someone to help us. We can explain the disagreement and differences undergirding the disagreement to a trusted friend or even an expert and ask for ideas. Real “winning” an argument is when both people feel that what is important to them was included in the solution, even if we do not get everything that we want. For example, Debbie wants their son to attend the school near her house, and John wants him to attend a school near his house. When they discuss the differences undergirding the disagreement, they both have very good practical reasons. Most important, John’s fear surfaces that if their son attends school near Debbie’s house, all of his friends and activities will be in that area, and over time, he will not want to keep coming to his father’s home one-half of the time. Sally realizes that the same would be true if their son went to school near his father’s home. They ultimately decide that he will go to Sally’s school, but John will be in charge of signing him up for activities, so that their son will have important parts of his life and friends near both parents.
- Different levels of importance matter. It can be helpful to measure these differences. Some arguments do not have a third option. For example, Judy wants to abort a pregnancy, and Bob disagrees. They first argue about who is “right,” but after a while, they realize that both are “right.” They then discuss the values, points of focus, histories and information that they each have. This is an intense discussion but does not resolve the question. They decide to measure the level of importance on a scale of 0 to 10. Judy says that she is an 8, because of the disruptions to her life having a child will bring. It is very important. Bob says he is a 10 and could not live with himself, which would likely have a good deal of damage to his relationship with Judy. They do not abort the baby.
- Pace is important. If two people want to run together, they have to run at the pace of the slower runner. For example, Jim wants their 2-year-old to start daycare and Sally does not. She wants to stay home with the child for at least one more year before starting daycare and going back to work. They stop arguing about who is right, share information, histories, values etc., but it comes down to Sally just not being ready leave the baby and return to work. They hold off on daycare. Jim has to accept that if they are going to remain together; he has to operate at Sally’s pace. Incidentally, this disagreement could be one where the parents are separated. The same Maxim applies.
Summary: The Skill here involves what to do next when both people continue to believe that they are “right.” If we assume that there is only one “right,” arguments escalate and become increasingly destructive. If we assume that there can be more than one “right,” the disagreement can change directions and generate a resolution, but it means accepting that people live in different worlds, that we can learn from each other and understand differing opinions (without thinking our opinion is superior), and if a decision must be made, that we can find one that works for both people.
Next we ask and answer the most important question: what can one person do when the other person is not cooperative? The most important part of the answer to that question is having the right mindset. Ultimately, a person only has complete control of him or herself. A person has no control over the other person, whether or not he or she is willing to cooperate. If I ask my son not to yell, the only “control” I have is if he agrees not to yell. I can influence him with incentives and negative consequences, but I cannot control him. Therefore, because we can only control ourselves, if we are dealing with someone who does not cooperate, we can only decide what we will do, no matter what the other person does.
With regard to the skill of resolving situations in which both people think they are “right,” we only have control over how we act toward the other person: what we ask and what we say to the other person. For example, assume that your ex wants to sign your son up for football and you object, because of the potential of serious injuries. Your ex poo-poos your concern and still wants to sign him up for football. You could escalate this into a power struggle and even take it to court, but that assumes that one person is right and the other person is wrong. What can you do if you assume that your ex is right and that you are right? You know that your goal is safety, but what are your ex’s goals? You can ask. You can say something like, “This sounds really important to you- important enough to accept some risk. Can you explain what you want to accomplish for our son?”
Assume that your ex says that he played football and his dad was his coach and that was a very special connection. He also wants his son to “toughen up” and not be afraid of some physical contact. He adds that he learned how important it was to learn teamwork and thinks that would be good for their son. You probably share those goals but simply are less willing to accept the risk of serious injury. Now you can propose other activities that accomplish the same thing that you both want, but with less risk. Your willingness to give your ex what is important to him, because you share his goals but in a different activity, is the very best that you can do. He might or might not cooperate, but then you can get into a power-struggle. At least you took the high road at first. Ironically, because you made the effort to meet his goals, you have a better chance of winning a power struggle.
Being “Wrong” is not The Opposite of Being “Right.” The Skill here is really is one mindset (that there are two “rights”) and a little technique (asking questions about what the other person is trying to accomplish and coming up with ways to accomplish what both parties think is important).