Monday, December 22, 2014

Should divorced parents respond to criticism?

Receiving a “bad review” from an ex or an observer to their divorce is not a unique experience for most divorced parents.    At some point, deserved or not, divorced parents are likely to be upbraided or censored in an email or text or social post somewhere.  But should parents respond to their critics?

In almost all instances, I would counsel no, no, no...decisively no.   Divorced parents should remain resolutely above tit-for-tat displays of vituperation.  The risk of responding is to reveal oneself to be exactly what the critic observed.  Sam Rayburn, the famed Texas congressman, remarked “No one has a finer command of language than the person who keeps his mouth shut.”  And Sally Berger reminds those who have trouble following his sage advice:  “You never saw a fish on a wall with its mouth shut.”

When responding to criticism, parents are invariably angry and defensive.   And while the resulting exchange can make good theater for observers on social media or desirable fodder for divorce lawyers’ testimony questions, it rarely puts the writer in a good light.  Indeed, the angry retort likely reinforces what the critic observed: the writer as small minded, petty, more concerned about ego than substance.  Further, the angry retort keeps the issue alive and gives the critic yet another opportunity to overwork the finer points of their argument. Better to remain silent and let it die indignantly.

A strong incentive to restraint is that parents, when reacting to criticism, rarely get the tone right. It’s like road-rage; angry retorts are often wrecks in the making.  As rewarding as it is to write and send a rejoinder seemingly filled with astute observations about the critic’s flaws and delusional reasoning, upon rereading, such missives often seem more self-righteous and self-congratulatory than insightful.  They make the writer look, frankly, stupid.

Compelled to respond but understanding the risk of sounding shrill and whiny, some parents attempt humor to puncture the critic’s puffed up charges.  But being truly and disarmingly funny is very difficult when feeling unfairly maligned.  Instead of witty, the angry parent is more likely to sound childish (“get a life”) or unpersuasively sarcastic (“I have given considerable thought to your well-reasoned and extensive remarks about my parenting and concluded, however reluctantly, that you are full of s….”).   When asked to review and comment on such communication threads, I am reminded of Pogo’s observation: “Yep son, we have met the enemy, and he is us.” 

Parents should also remember that having third parties respond to unfair accusations, including their lawyers, does not necessarily solve the problem. They, too, are human and likely identify with the recipient’s outrage.  Unrestrained by social considerations (“I have to get along with this person through school graduations, marriages, grandchildren, whatever”), they may come across as even more vindictive and self-righteous than the parent.  If you need a reminder about what happens when people do not feel compelled to observe standard courtesies, take a look at readers’ comments following important news articles.  It will make you wonder if schools are teaching anything at all about critical thinking.

At some point, of course, we all lose it.  Tired of the attacks, having concluded that patience is for wimps, we rant and rave, giving our critics more reason to laugh and point out our sensitivities and failings.  But all is not lost.  Parenting is a lifetime endeavor. There will be many opportunities to redeem oneself and recover a measure of dignity by responding, to the next critic or the next criticism, with silence.

It’s so simple to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and then don’t say it.
                                                                                                                                                Sam Levenson

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


One of the hallmarks of divorce conflict is insufficient civility.  Everyday, angry ex’ send contentious, nasty emails and texts that they later regret or that come back to haunt them.  Even worse, divorcing spouses post diatribes on social media platforms for their ex and everyone to see.  The intent is clearly mean spirited: to cause hurt and embarrassment.  But who is really hurt?  The target of the diatribe?  Or the writer, now perceived as vindictive and immature? And if spouses are trying to negotiate a divorce through an online service, such as Negotiated Divorce, how do such communications help them reach their goal?

Some learn not to send or post such angry commentary in the heat of the moment; better to delete it and try again or sleep on it before hitting the send button.  In fact, the next day you might have calmed down enough that the email you didn’t send will embarrass you for having written it. 

But many people haven’t learned this rule of thumb or, if they know it, are too angry in the moment to follow it.  Their reflective system is overwhelmed by the impulse to lash out.

Here are some tips to help you self-monitor  your communications:

Internet and text communications being what they are, consider anything you send as public information.

·         It’s probably never a good idea to fire off an angry email in the middle of the night when you are tired and cranky. Sending it may help you sleep with a feeling of satisfaction,  but the results could lead to many sleepless nights thereafter.

·         Is it ever a good idea to draft and send an email written under the influence of alcohol or drugs? Of course not.  In such a condition,  one’s reflective state is impaired.

·         Use civil language and keep emails brief.  The more you write, the more likely it is that you will add something snippety and unnecessary.  With some editing, you can usually say what is important in 75 words or less.

·         Ask yourself:  “How would I feel if I was asked to read this out loud in a public setting:  Confident?  Embarrassed?”

·         Think of someone whom you admire for their maturity and wisdom. Ask yourself: “What would this person think about what I have written?” Or, “How would this person convey the same concerns?”

·         Don’t use offensive language or phrasing and don’t type words in caps or bold face; no one likes to be yelled at, it’s unseemly to be a yeller.

·         If you are reacting to another party’s communication, consider the NR response: the Not Responding response.  Sometimes not responding is the most powerful communication of all.

·         Bring in a third party:  Send your email to a trusted friend or family member for editing before you send it to the intended recipient.  

You should also consider a technical solution.  ToneCheck is an email filter that monitors the emotional tone of a message, much like spell-check, and gives you a chance to edit your words before you hit send.  The program is based upon the ratings of thousands of testers who judged the emotional charge of different words and phrases.  If the content of an email has too many negative emotions, such as anger or sadness, the program presents a warning and gives you a chance to revise.  ToneCheck was released by Lymbix for Microsoft Outlook and is working on versions for gmail and Lotus notes.     

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


I recently reviewed a number of columns and articles written for divorcing parents about helping their children adjust to their family’s new structure.  I was looking for new ideas but, without exception, the writers emphasized the same two well-worn points: 1. Get along with your ex (or at least don’t fight), and 2. Keep the children out of your disagreements.     That’s it, two common sense ideas – and I doubt either suggestion comes as a surprise, although maybe the reminder is helpful.

So why do so many divorcing parents have difficulty following these two principles?  The same ones they hear from family members, friends, Oprah, Dr. Phil, family lawyers, Dear Abby, and psychologists?   

There are many answers to this question in the professional  literature.  Some authors attribute these conflicts to one or both parents having a personality disorder. Others fault a family law system that created a “divorce industry” that thrives on conflict and litigation.  Social scientists suggest it is rooted in a culture that values demonstrations of strength by fighting over wisdom by negotiating.  Collaborative practitioners speculate that it is based in ignorance: many divorcing parents are unfamiliar with the skills of interest-based negotiation to manage their disagreements.  
But another intriguing explanation is that, as humans, we don’t do the “future” well, particularly when feeling threatened.   The natural impulse to defend ourselves when confronted with concrete dangers is stronger than our inclination to plan for abstract and uncertain consequences that won’t appear until long in the future.

Fear can be a powerful motivator, if the threat is immediate and it seems clear what one should do.  When a divorcing spouse refuses to turn over financial records or hides financial resources, for example, the opposing counsel can fire off a contempt motion to the court. But when a possible danger is far in the future and there is no clear means to prevent it, we often find it easier to set it aside and deal with pressing concerns.  Social scientists concerned about global warming, for example, struggle with how to encourage people to change their behavior now when the worst negative outcomes won’t occur until decades in the future.  In the divorce arena, conflict over financial records might spill over onto the children, creating fertile ground for parent-child alienation to emerge.  But it is hard to hold such a long term concern in the forefront when faced with the prospect of being cheated out of significant sums right now. 

This brings me back to the advice columns I read earlier. Most of the columnists emphasized the long term dangers to children exposed to their parents’ arguments—exactly the type of fears that are least likely to motivate behavior change. Additionally, their comments were not balanced with the positive:  the great majority of divorcing parents settle peaceably into their new roles and their children adjust admirably. From another perspective, writers often do a better job of identifying the problem than describing solutions.  It’s one thing to tell divorcing parents what not to do but an entirely different thing to tell them what they should do, particularly when the risks are abstract, uncertain, and relatively far in the future.

Consider one parent’s comment: “My ex is playing financial games and my kids ask why we can’t get along. I tell them it is an adult issue and for them not to worry, but that only gets them more worried. I can’t tell them the ex is a no-good jerk, although I would like to. What should I tell them?”

This parent’s dilemma is obvious: without a concrete way to respond, the immediate feelings of betrayal, fear and resentment can over-ride the long term risks of speaking out impulsively and punitively.  But the immediate rush of satisfaction at speaking one’s mind overlooks the heightened risk that the children’s relationship with one or both parents will be harmed in the long run.  This parent’s self-control will improve with specific skills and strategies, not general bromides about keeping the children out of the middle.

For example, while not every parent agrees that a child’s relationship with both parents should be valued highly, there is a lot of agreement that children benefit from participation in extracurricular activities—a factor that helps buffer children from being over-affected by divorced parents’ conflicts. The parent in the above example might be encouraged to say: “Your other parent and I disagree about some of the terms of our divorce, specifically some of the money issues.  This is a common problem when people get divorced and we have good people helping us figure it out. But our disagreement has nothing to do with how much each of us loves you and cares for you and both of us are committed to making sure you get what you need.”    

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Moral outrage: Seeking payback

Legal and mental health professionals have long identified high conflict divorces as the most problematic and difficult of cases. Such cases absorb an outsize proportion of time and resources and present the greatest risk factor for mental health problems in the children as well as the divorcing couple.  Their dramas play out in family courts throughout the states on a daily basis.

Why does this keep happening?   After all, the personal damage and financial cost of heightened divorce conflict is well known and many alternate dispute resolution methodologies, educational programs, and therapeutic strategies have been proposed and implemented, specifically to address the needs of these families.

The immediate causes lie in strategic mistakes: positional bargaining when the couple needs interest-based negotiation, preoccupation with minimizing tangible loss when the real risk is exacerbating emotional damage, regarding a concession as a sign of weakness when compromise is, in fact, a time honored way to reach agreements, pursuing revenge as the end goal when what is needed are legally sound, fair resolutions. So why do divorcing couples and their professional teams keep making these mistakes?     

I think one answer is an overabundance of righteousness: “It’s the principle of the thing: I’m right and you’re wrong and you should pay for your mistakes.”

 A simplified picture of the problem goes something like this:  One or both spouses feels betrayed, taken advantage of, mistreated, or terribly misunderstood. In many instances, they have been—although they often overlook or minimize the fact that their spouse feels similarly for equally good reason.  Once working out the difficulties is set aside in favor of divorce, the spouses’ respective interest in the outcome turns from “repairing and protecting us” to “repairing and protecting me.”  This makes sense, each spouse is planning to go a separate direction. But as we try to negotiate an agreement, my concessions are your gain and your concessions are my gain, so when both of us act to maximize our gains and minimize our concessions at the same time, we have a problem. Indeed, when one or both feel that their concessions have been one-sided, a condition I refer to as “concession debt,” it can be exceptionally difficult to break an impasse.

In theory, such an impasse can be solved by agreeing to wipe the slate clean and start anew – seeking fair tradeoffs going forward rather than righting past imbalances. Banks and credit card companies understand this concept, called debt relief, accepting pennies on the dollar to clear credit card debt, refinancing home owners in arrears with less expensive mortgages, and offering no interest grace periods to repay past due debts. Even the Internal Revenue Service will negotiate past due taxes, writing off what cannot be realistically recovered. 

What’s notable about high conflict couples, however, is how little relief they offer to one another.  And their situation is aggravated by the high cost, financially and emotionally, of litigating the conflict—a further source of resented indebtedness.

Why are these couples so resistant to providing each other relief? Couples tell me it is about righteousness—that to “forgive and forget” would be to tolerate, even reward bad behavior, and perhaps set a precedent for such behavior to continue.  I often find that third parties drive these  attitudes, such as extended family members, friends, sometimes legal professionals – who impose their values, and moral outrage, on a vulnerable spouse: “They should pay the full consequence for their actions, after what they’ve done to you, it’s just not forgivable.”  But such reactions overlook what a sober analysis might reveal: pursuing payback for perceived past injustices is likely to cost more than what can be reasonably gained. 

I find it hard to persuade divorcing spouses driven by the righteousness of their positions that sometimes “letting it go” is in every family member’s interest. Instead, they feel impelled to hold the other accountable, achieve payback, and “fight the good fight.”   

Unfortunately, such crusades can leave everyone a casualty.




Monday, August 18, 2014

The antidote to high conflict: Self-control

The most notable characteristic of high conflict divorce is heightened drama:  emotional outbursts, nasty email exchanges, verbal confrontations, destruction of property, personal and legal attacks. Such impulsive, angry behaviors often pull in others, including extended family members, police officers, and judiciary.  And it’s not just the adults, the children too contribute to the drama: running away, melting down emotionally, making false allegations, or displaying public tantrums and defiant behavior intended to humiliate one or both parents.

But the amount of time and energy that such high conflict cases demand of divorce professionals is far disproportionate to their actual number; in the great majority of divorces, family members evidence much better self-control. This is not to say such families don’t experience strong emotions, but they keep expressions of affect within reasonable bounds and inhibit impulsive behaviors. 

The importance of self-control cannot be over-emphasized.  Children (and adults) with higher self-control are better adjusted in all areas of life.  They report higher GPAs, more rewarding relationships and better interpersonal skills, and they organize their behavior around long-term goals rather than temptations of the moment.  In contrast, people with low self-control report a broad range of unhappy and undesirable outcomes in school, work, and social life.   It’s not surprising, then, that the children of high conflict divorces, who witness and imitate their parents’ negative behaviors, exhibit far more post-divorce adjustment difficulty than children whose parents exhibit self-control.      

Experts define self-control (also called emotional self-regulation) in several different ways. Quite simply, however, self-control can be thought of as doing what is best in the long run despite more immediately rewarding temptations.   A person who wants to minimize the long-term risk of developing atherosclerosis, for example, demonstrates self-control by resisting the immediate temptation to eat ice cream and making food choices that may be less gratifying, but healthier in the long run. Similarly, an angry teen who recognizes the long-term value of developing compassion and understanding even in the face of conflict, resists the temptation to berate or reject their divorcing parent, a gratifying prospect, despite that parent’s disappointing behavior. In contrast, consider the angry, divorced parent who is gratified by badmouthing the other parent – only to experience blowback when the children decide such behavior is despicable and unfair.   This parent’s long-term interest in having close, rewarding relationships with the children is undermined by indulging in the momentary emotional pleasure of hurting the other parent.

Self-control is not a talent or a given.  It’s like a muscle; practice and exercise make it stronger. One way to improve self-control is to avoid exposure to situations that trigger impulsive behavior.  Some dieters, for example, avoid the freezer isle in grocery stores to reduce the likelihood of buying pizzas and ice cream.  Divorced parents who confront one another when exchanging the children are encouraged to schedule the children’s transitions at the start and end of school in order to avoid one another entirely.  In extreme cases, courts will impose protective orders to minimize the chance of angry confrontations.

Another way to improve self-control is to shift one’s attention from immediate temptations to longer term goals.  In its simplest form, this means distracting oneself by focusing on something else.  Many runners, for example, listen to favorite music on their iPods to focus on something other than their labored breathing and aching muscles.  One can also shift attention to make long-term goals more real and present – such as one divorcing spouse who didn’t react to their ex’ provocative behavior by remembering: “I want to look back with pride on how I handled myself, not with regret that I got drawn into the mud.” 

Other cognitive methods include distancing oneself psychologically from the situation at hand (“going to the balcony”), reframing the situation (“this is a test of my maturity and patience”), and imagining an observing audience (or individual) whose respect is needed or valued.

One final tip:  The worst time to try to regain self-control is in the heat of the moment.  It is more effective to anticipate difficult situations ahead of time when a cool head still prevails.  Plan work-arounds (“let’s meet in public at the coffee shop where neither of us wants to embarrass ourselves”), devise distraction techniques (“I’m going to focus on my homework rather than my step-parent’s lame jokes”), or create new ways of framing a situation (“If I don’t react to her provocations, I will demonstrate to everyone how cool-headed and reliable I am”).


Monday, June 30, 2014

Be water on that fire, not gasoline.

In  a recent Op-Ed article, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times used the metaphor of arsonists and firefighters to characterize different leaders in the Middle East.  He suggested that arsonists deliberately inflame sectarian and religious differences to further their interests in power. Firefighters, in contrast, attempt to quell regional tensions and find peaceful resolutions.    Friedman worries that the firefighters are increasingly at a disadvantage as the region and the world conclude that the conflicts and the passions that have been ignited there can’t be quenched.  

One doesn’t have to read the New York Times, however, to meet people with a similar perspective.  When energy prices were rising rapidly in the mid-2000s, Mike, the big friendly man who delivers propane throughout our mountain community, told me his office staff received worried calls every day from seniors on fixed income, fretting whether they could afford that month’s delivery after listening to hyper-excited television commentators (arsonists) predicting inadequate supplies and unheated homes.   Mike, a volunteer firefighter as it turns out, said he counseled his staff “to be water on that fire, not gasoline,”  by reassuring his customers that he had adequate supplies to meet everyone’s needs and  that no one, under any circumstances, would go without heat that winter.

In family law matters, unfortunately, media portrayals and informal reports make it seem like the arsonists outnumber the firefighters.  One young lawyer is an arsonist. She deliberately “forgot” a hearing after an adverse ruling against her client, yelled over the phone when contacted by the Court that her clients’ constitutional rights were being violated, and demanded the opportunity to appeal the decision—despite  having missed the filing deadline.  She hoped that her tirade would intimidate the Court and fuel further animosity between the parties. And it worked, allowing her to portray herself  as a defender of her client’s constitutional and parental rights in the face of a bullying ex-spouse and a misguided legal system.

A stepfather is an arsonist.  He coached his stepchildren to lie about their father’s behavior, to portray him as physically abusive.  It, too, worked. The girls did as he directed, leading to protracted investigations and legal battles in which he and the girls’ mother portrayed themselves as the children’s protectors and the father’s parenting time was suspended.

Despite stories like these, however, the majority of family law matters settle outside of court, often pro se, but frequently with the help of lawyers in settlement conferences, collaborative law arrangements, and mediations.  In other words, divorce conflicts are not inevitable. In fact, peaceful resolutions are the norm, not the exception. 

The keys to settling matters and co-existing peacefully in the midst of divorce are not respect for or trust in one another. Those can help, of course, but they are not necessary and often as not are missing entirely. What is required is respect for and trust in the traditions of common courtesy and the rule of law, accepting the importance of reliably fulfilling commitments made in the course of negotiations, and relying upon the professionals and institutions designed to help families settle their differences efficiently and effectively. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Quest for significance

We want our lives to count for something; we want to feel our lives have personal significance.  But it is well understood that divorce can evoke profound personal, relational and practical losses.  For some it is a loss of personal meaning and self-regard, a loss of identity.  When feeling humiliated by the circumstances of the divorce, one’s hurt and resentment are compounded.   When feeling embarrassed or ashamed, self-regard and worry about the loss of others’ regard may predominate. In both instances, parents may experience a need to reacquire purposefulness in their lives, what some psychologists studying motivation label a quest for significance (Kruglanski et al, 2013).

A sense of personal significance is generally acquired through achievement, mastery of skills, and control over one’s environment and choices.  But most important, what is viewed as significant is defined by one’s society or reference group.    The scientific research community defines professional publication as worthy of admiration when it is attained.  A religious culture may value commitment to personal enlightenment, social involvement, and service – promoting those who achieve success in each area.  The athletic culture admires participants who achieve personal athletic success and contribute to other athletes’ success.  In other words, personal significance is defined by the achievements that society or one’s reference group says is significant.

How does this help an understanding of parents’ reactions to divorce?  Consider two examples.  In the first, a divorcing mother spoke harshly about her husband to the others in her therapy group, saying she planned to tell her children about their father’s bad behavior: “They need to know the truth.”   But she reversed course after several group members spoke about their parents’ divorces and how devastating it had been when they lost one parent due to the negative influence of the other.  In this group, taking the high road and exhibiting self-restraint occasioned admiration and self-regard.  Many years later, she was still proud that she had set aside her resentments and enabled her children to maintain good relationships with both parents.  In the second case, a divorcing mother joined a group in which several members had been victims of domestic violence – although she had not been a victim herself.    The members of this group admired self-protection and advocacy for those at risk.  Taking her cues from this group’s culture, she attempted legally to block the father from seeing their children in the name of protection, bad-mouthed him to others in the name of self-assertion, and harassed him publically in an effort to drive him from the community: "We have to get this out of the closet."  Despite the court repeatedly finding no credibility to her allegations and eventually placing the children with the father to minimize her negative influence, she continued to receive her group’s admiration for “fighting the good fight” against an allegedly abusive ex-husband and an uncomprehending legal system. 

Both mothers achieved a sense of significance:  the first by seeing herself as a moral, thoughtful parent who put her children’s needs ahead of her own; the second by adopting the identity of a victim who would not be persuaded to give up.  Each felt their lives had regained significance and purpose, but, through the influence of their respective reference groups, they took dramatically different paths and achieved widely varying results. The first mother, a school administrator, extended what she learned to the divorcing parents and students she encountered for many years thereafter. She was dedicated to giving others the insight that her group gave to her.  The second mother, in contrast, became a speaker and advocate for family members caught in the cycle of domestic violence, achieving her groups’ admiration, but never regaining a relationship with her children. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Unwinding and rebuilding

After 10 years, she felt so beat down by her husband’s criticisms that she decided to unwind her marriage and start over.  She might have done so many years earlier, but her passive nature and desire not to break up the family blocked her from acting. She had supported the family for years in a job she disliked; her husband, a college graduate, worked as a teacher’s aide.  Although he made just a bit more than minimum wage, his work hours allowed him to care for their two preteen daughters after school and on breaks. It  worked—but no one was happy.

Her daughters spent time at her apartment for the first few months after the separation but then came less frequently, saying they wanted to stay close to their friends.  She expressed disappointment but, in keeping with her passive temperament, did not insist.

Things got worse once they started to negotiate the divorce.  Her husband opposed joint custody, demanded more than guideline child support, wanted an uneven distribution of their assets, and asked that she pay the mortgage on the house—which he would continue to live in with the girls.  Disinclined to argue, feeling guilty about the divorce, and not having the funds to litigate, she conceded to everything but paying the mortgage. During this period, her daughters began blaming her for the divorce, accusing her of being selfish and abandoning the family.   Unable to find better work in the midst of the great recession, her ex kept his position at the school and moved to a more modest home; he complained bitterly to the children that their mother had screwed him in the divorce.

Leaving an unrewarding marriage, however, was not her only goal.  She also wanted to attend law school – a dream her ex had opposed – and to be more socially active.  She enrolled in law school and renewed her religious involvement.  Both changes worked out. She found rewarding work as a lawyer and through her new religious involvement she met her second husband, with whom she had two more children, and became deeply committed to religious education and leadership.

In contrast to these positive developments in her personal, professional, and spiritual life, she and her daughters remained estranged.  Her oldest occasionally accompanied her to dinner but her youngest would stand at the back of the house when she went to pick them up, calling her vulgar names and refusing to come to the door. Her ex stood by, not intervening. For years, he only communicated to demand money for camps, birthdays, and religious events – and then told her the girls did not welcome her attendance.  She persisted, albeit passively, keeping up with their school progress  and acknowledging holidays with cards and small gifts.  Her daughters refused to meet her new husband and her new children.

She knew her ex would be bitter about the divorce, but she didn’t expect his anger to last so long or to so damage her relationship to the girls.  She had renewed her life—but her daughters had not; they were bound to their father’s resentment, much as she had been when still married, and could not risk his disapproval by moving towards her.  The children performed only fairly in school, did not have any extracurricular activities, and had few friends.  They were, in sum, not doing well.  Mental health professionals, religious leaders, and extended family members tried to help break the impasse, but to no avail.

The divorce had removed the structures that enabled this family to work in the beginning: a division of financial and child care responsibility between the parents, the shared commitment to education, and the support of their extended families. But when these structures came undone, the family lost the norms that had previously directed its energies for the children.  Rather than focusing the children on a positive expectation of the future, the father focused the children on an angry view of the past. Rather than providing counsel and wisdom and the benefit of all that she was learning, the mother was reduced to being a peripheral—and unwelcome—figure in the children’s lives.  The children functioned—but without direction or interest.

Eventually, the void was filled by one of the most powerful forces in Western life, financial resources. The father’s financial straits worsened as the girls started high school.  His extended family could offer help if he joined them out of state, but the divorce decree had a residence restriction.  The older daughter was pressuring him about college—he couldn’t afford to send her—and pushing back when he blamed the mother for their financial problems.  After one blow up, the daughter came to the mother’s home late at night, asking for a place to stay.  The father reacted by cutting her off entirely, even calling the police when she came to the house to retrieve her clothing.  With his child support cut in half, the father saw moving as his only financial option. In subsequent mediation, the mother agreed for the younger daughter to move with him out of state – but only after the daughter spent a summer living agreeably in the mother’s home.     
By this time, the older daughter was integrating into the mother’s new family: helping out with the younger children, attending community college, and working a part time job.  There were still tensions, particularly because the daughter did not share her mother’s religious beliefs, but she got along with her stepfather and was grateful for the feeling of practical and emotional security that her mother’s home provided.  The younger daughter adjusted reasonably well the first summer, getting along with her stepfather and younger siblings. She enjoyed summer theater camps that the mother arranged for her—activities that the father had previously discouraged or said he could not afford—and returned as planned on holidays.

The girls were at an age when they were feeling normal interests in separating, but the father’s financial distress and the mother’s resources were the catalysts for the girls finally repairing their relationship to their mother.  It might have gone much differently if the mother had not been prepared practically or willing emotionally when the girls presented the opportunity to reconnect. The unwinding and rebuilding took seven years – the entirety of the older daughter’s adolescence.  


Monday, March 3, 2014

Inattentional blindess: Where's Emily?

The other day there was a knock at the door.  Our door’s textured window prevented me from seeing clearly who it was, but I could tell it was a young woman.  I impulsively concluded, without reason, that she was one of the environmental advocates that come by our house every few months—asking for a signature on their most recent petition and a financial contribution.  They’ve been here before and their pitch, honed I suspect by a careful reading of Cialdini, is effective—and annoying.  I support environmental initiatives—but I’m not a fan of uninvited front door solicitations.   Yet I’m on their list.  Already annoyed, I prepared myself to listen politely, to sign the petition if I was in agreement, to say no to the financial request, and then firmly ask for my name to be taken off the door-to-door contact list. 

When I opened the door, there was indeed a young college age woman – exactly what I expected.  But she didn’t have a clipboard and she didn’t say anything.  She just stood there, looking at me and smiling. I was caught off guard, at a loss for words.  Where was her clipboard?  Where was the greeting and the explanation of why she was there?  How could I deflect her pitch when she wasn’t saying anything?  I must have looked a bit silly for a moment, staring blankly and stuttering.  This was not what I expected.  Then it hit me: this wasn’t an environmental advocate, this was Emily, my niece.  She lives down the street and dropped by to visit. I’ve known her all her life.  I see her several times a week. She usually comes in the back door, but today she is knocking at the front door.   Emily laughed aloud: “Mark, it’s me, what’s wrong? You don’t recognize your own niece?”  

In fact, I hadn’t at first – because I was sure the person at the door was someone else. 

This was an example of inattentional blindness--the failure to notice something unexpected.  I was looking for someone else, the environmental advocate, and couldn’t see who was actually there, my niece.  

Emily and I had a laugh but in other situations this phenomenon can have dangerous consequences. Consider the recent incident of a man who mistook a cell phone for what he expected to see in the hands of a young black male—a gun—and shot him.

The same phenomenon also plays out when conflicted family members see one another through fixed mindsets.   Two alienated brothers are convinced that their mother is too stupid to tie her shoelaces—and quickly relate the evidence.  But when asked about her insightful comments and clever remarks during family therapy sessions, they don’t remember her making these statements.  Indeed, they deny that she did—they are blind and deaf to what they don’t expect. 

In another instance, one parent was convinced by a psychologist’s evaluation that the other parent is a narcissist.  This parent can “see” the other parent’s self-focused behaviors readily enough, but is blind to the other parent’s genuine efforts to attend to their children’s needs and feelings. 

It’s hard not to be blindsided by inattentional blindness.  But to learn more, click here.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The available explanation may not be the most reliable explanation

  In the midst of a busy or challenging time in our lives, we can’t analyze and reason out every issue that confronts us.  When time is short, information is lacking, or anxiety is building, we often use mental shortcuts, familiarly known as rules of thumb and more formally as heuristics, to quickly reach conclusions and make decisions. 

  Although using such shortcuts can be quite helpful, their use can also lead to judgment errors and biases –such as when we rely upon “gut instincts” or “educated guesses” instead of careful reasoning.  Psychologists, beginning with Tversky andKahneman in 1973, have identified numerous heuristics and their associated biases.

  One mental shortcut is the availability heuristic—relying upon examples that come easily to mind to make a decision or form an opinion.  When events are readily remembered, particularly recent ones, we tend to give greater credibility to this information and overestimate the likelihood that similar events will happen again. When I hear a media report of a shark attack, for example,  I might conclude that such events are relatively common—and subsequently be surprised to learn that horses kill far more people than sharks do.  

  A related concept is the availability cascade.  In the face of uncertainty, an idea or perspective that seemingly explains a complicated situation in an efficient, straight-forward way, may gain rapid acceptance by a few and then by others who follow their lead.  A self-reinforcing cycle occurs: using the idea binds anxiety, explains what was unexplainable, creates an illusion of insight, and achieves acceptance by others.  Thus, the needs for social acceptance and certainty overwhelm critical thinking.

  This cycle helps explain the onset of some instances of high conflict and parent-child alienation following separation and divorce.  At its best, divorce is fraught with doubts, unanswered questions and uncertain futures.   For spurned spouses and anxious children, the dominant question is “Why? Why is this happening to us?”  Although the reasons for divorce are usually multifaceted, readily remembered events, such as a spouse’s temper outburst, alleged instances of drunkenness, or empathic failures may be given outsize importance, washing out recollection of instances of patience, sobriety, and compassion.  The explanation: “You want to know why we are getting divorced? Because she has a prescription drug problem, that’s why” may seem to explain everything—but may overlook more than it reveals.  But once such an explanation is out there and it’s acceptance a requirement of the speaker’s approval, the idea can cascade, explaining the past, the present, the future and drawing more people into the loop.   Indeed, the attractiveness of a simple answer is oftentimes quite frustrating for thoughtful parents.  One father, for example, was taken aback when, after providing a balanced, nuanced picture of why he and the mother were divorcing, his teenage daughter retorted: “Cut the crap, who had the affair?” 

  Rather than relying upon automatic conclusions, the antidote in these instances is thoughtful reasoning—considering facts, challenging assumptions, asking questions, tolerating ambiguity, accepting complexity.    Although the rule of thumb, "less is more," is appealing and useful in many situations, disrupting an availability cascade requires more thinking and less assuming.