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.