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.