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.”