This blog is one of a series that focus on the nut we would all like to crack: divorce conflict. Books on divorce, Collaborative Divorce; Cooperative Divorce; and other models in family law have been attempts to move the needle from divorce conflict to amicable divorces. This is because most professionals involved with divorcing parties, especially attorneys and judges, see how destructive conflict in divorce is to the parties, and when they have children, to the children of divorce and to the parenting relationship. To understand divorce conflict fully would fill a book, but your authors plan to address the topic in bitesize pieces. This is a piece.
To understand divorce conflict, we must first understand marital conflict or conflict in any relationship between two people. To do that, we must understand an important part of human nature. Let us start with a story. Ken and his wife have two Toyota cars, and thus have two Toyota keys on our key rings. The keys are identical except, because Ken has a car with a trunk an additional button to open the trunk. His wife has a Rav4, so there is a door at the rear rather than a trunk. Ken was amazed that whenever he picked a key by feel on his ring, it was almost always his wife’s car key, not his. The odds should be 50/50 that he would pick the key to his car. Did he just have bad luck?
It is also important to understand distorted beliefs. This contradiction raised his curiosity, and he actually began to count the times that he picked each key. After a period of time, he discovered that the result was about 50/50. His belief that he was picking the wrong key most times was a fiction. He had developed a belief that was wrong. Why was that?
This is not the only example of this human trait. Many people feel that they are always choosing the slowest line to stand in, when statistics tell us that over time, that should average out. Tennis players are more likely to remember their missed shots than their good ones. Gambling research tells us that people feel the loss of a hundred dollars much more intensely than winning a hundred dollars. John Gottman, who has been researching marriages for many years, tells us that it takes about five positive experiences in the marriage to even out one bad experience. Why is this?
The most common complaint of divorcing or divorced spouses is that the other spouse is “controlling.” We hear such phrases as, “It was always his way or the highway,” and “If I said the sky was blue, she would say it was green.” Of course, control is an integral part of all relationships, because all relationships involve choices, and marriage simply has many more choices than other relationships. Some choices are minor, like whether to put the toilet seat up or down, and some choices are major, like how to spend money. However, is the perception that the other spouse is “controlling” accurate?
When the human species parted ways with the other great apes in the Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa, humans lived in an inhospitable environment, in which dangers were imminent and food was hard to find. Most humans did not survive or live very long. Those who did learned what works, like how to use a club, but even more importantly, how to detect dangers and scarcity. Evolutionary selection pressure was on us to pay much more attention and remember (more vividly) the things that can go wrong. While finding food gave us pleasure, not finding food was a matter of life and death. Seeing a banana tree gave us pleasure; seeing a snake scared the daylights out of us.
For Ken, seeing the wrong key in his hand was experienced more intensely than seeing the right key, and so his memory became distorted. More importantly, he developed a belief that was a fiction. Only by performing his little experiment and counting was he able to correct this distorted belief.
We know from the research of John Gottman that something similar happens in marriage. We feel negative experiences about five times as intensely as we feel positive experiences.
We are much more likely to remember the times when our spouse disagrees with us than when he or she agrees with us, simply because we feel disagreement with much more intensity than we feel agreement.
We might not even notice when there is agreement. Likewise, we feel our spouse controlling a situation much more intensely than when our spouse lets us control the situation. We feel giving-in with more intensity than when our spouse gives-in. We can develop distorted beliefs in our marriage because of this human trait. We simply pay more attention to, feel more intensely and remember more vividly when things go wrong than we do when things go well.
There is a good deal of literature focused on what is called “intractable conflict.” Intractable conflict refers to those situations in which people develop very negative beliefs about other people, whether that be two people in a divorce or two groups of people with different religious beliefs. Nothing seems to change the conflict and hostility between the two. People involved in intractable conflict often behave in destructive ways towards each other, and often this is done in self-defeating ways. Being destructive to the other person is often harmful to both people.
Not everyone who divorces ends up in intractable conflict, but many do. In most cases like this, ex-spouses behave destructively towards one another, but often in self-destructive and self-defeating ways. They rewrite history to rationalize this behavior, and they almost always have distorted memories of the marriage and the other spouse.
One wonders. Had they counted and done the math, perhaps they only had three positive experiences for every one bad experience, but that would have been enough to convince them that the whole marriage was bad. Perhaps had they counted, they might have discovered that their spouse gave-in about the same number of times that he or she did not. Had they counted, perhaps their child reported positive experiences with the other parent more often than negative experiences.
In other words, had they done the math, perhaps they would have discovered that their beliefs about one another were a fiction and that intractable conflict is foolish and counter-productive.
Remember Ken and his keys? In the true sense of the word, Ken had developed a delusion. A delusion is a belief about reality that is a complete fiction, based on inferences about the world around us that are wrong. Only by counting the number of times that the right and wrong keys were chosen was Ken able to cure his delusion and get back to reality. One result was that after his counting experiment, he noticed that he was choosing the right key as often as the wrong key. Even his perception of reality had changed to what was true.
Spouses can learn that their inflated negative views of one another are incorrect; that they had been noticing the negative behaviors and not the positive, or at least neutral, behaviors.
Perhaps a different and better outcome would result if spouses and ex-spouses counted the behaviors of each other and did the math.
Perhaps if they did this, and discovered that they had delusions about one another, they would cure the delusions. Understanding divorce conflict, and doing the math can lead to a more realistic and amicable relationship.
Kenneth H. Waldron, Ph.D. and Allan R. Koritzinsky, J.D. are also the authors of two books: Game Theory and the Transformation of Family Law and Winning Strategies in Negotiation and Mediation. Both books are available at www.unhookedbooks.com, where your authors define in great detail a non-competitive approach to negotiations and mediation processes aimed at optimizing long-term outcomes for bothparties, and when children are involved, for the children.