This Blog is the ninth 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. 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 needed to escape divorce conflict and provide information on how to learn these skills.
The first Skill we presented is 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: 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 increases our insecurities and we become increasingly defensive, especially with our ex because of the pain we have experienced in that relationship. Ironically, the cure for our insecurities is to be vulnerable, even with people who have hurt us. The seventh skill was about what to do when people disagree but are both right. The eighth skill was technically called perspective taking but involves another way to bridge the different worlds that separated parents live in. It involved practicing looking at a situation from another person’s point of view. For more on this and the other skills above, see the prior blogs.
The skill being addressed in this Blog might be the most emotionally challenging. It is so simple to blame another person for our suffering, to be angry at them and even hate them. This is because anger, blame and hate are secondary emotions; that is, they are emotions we would rather feel than and cover up the primary emotions that undergird them. The dominant primary emotions involved in a divorce are sadness, fear and insecurity.
When a meaningful relationship ends, it is sad. The longer we had that relationship, the sadder it is. We might feel some relief from the pain, but a divorce means giving up each other and even giving up the hopes and dreams you had of a life together. We lose the family experience that we wanted for our children. We lose some friends and often we lose loved extended family members of our spouse.
A divorce also ignites our fears. We are unsure how money will work out; we are unsure how raising children as separated parents will work out and whether or not our children will be “scarred for life.” We wonder if we will want another relationship and if we do, will we find one that works. Going on the “dating market” raises fears. If we do meet someone that we like, will that include his or her ex-spouse and other children. We are leaving a perhaps painful but predictable life for an unpredictable one.
Finally, going on the dating market raises once again our insecurities. Am I attractive; will people like me; what will I say about my divorce? Although we might expertly blame our ex-spouse, most people know that they played a part in what feels like a failure. We might be ashamed and this prompts us to blame the other spouse, but we are insecure about this because most people will assume that we had something to do with the problems. This is especially true for the spouse who did not want a divorce, at least not yet.
People caught in a culture of conflict with their ex-spouse often fail to process and resolve these primary emotions. Instead, they stay hyper-alert and are sensitive to and quick to blame for problems with the ex-spouse. The truth is that both spouses did their best but could not resolve control problems or lagged other skills needed to make a relationship work well, or at least well enough. The key to “moving on” in a healthy way is to work on the sadness and losses, on the fears and insecurities, and not stay in a culture of conflict, blame and hate.
This means going back to painful experiences. Asking questions, such as, “How did we meet;” “what did we like about each other;” “what were our hopes when we decided to have children;” “what am I afraid of;” what have I lost;” “what are my insecurities about my future;” and so on. It might be important to talk to a counselor, but not about your anger and blame, but about your sadness, fears and insecurities. The goal is to resolve those feelings and leave behind the anger and the blame. When you can say that you have mixed feelings about your co-parenting partner, that you got stuck on sticky problems with control and that you both did the best you could do at the time, you can let go of the shackles of a nasty divorce. You might have some leftover and justified reasons for anger, but that kind of anger goes away by itself, if you don’t hang onto it. Forgive yourself for your mistakes and wrong-doings and forgive your co-parenting partner.