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.”