Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Write a little, speak a little, leave it alone, repeat

Divorce is highly stressful for most spouses – but recent studies provide some clues about what helps foster resilience and recovery from a bad breakup.  Research conducted by David Sbarra and Grace Larson and published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science suggests that repeatedly reflecting upon a breakup can speed recovery.  But a word of caution: reflecting too much, particularly by those prone to ruminate, can make matters worse. 

In their study, the authors divided a group of 210 young people who had recently split from their partners into two groups.  One group filled out a questionnaire about how they were feeling and then spoke for four minutes into a recording device, freely associating to questions such as, “When did you first realize you were headed towards a breakup?”   This group repeated the speaking exercise three, six and nine weeks later, then completed the questionnaire again. 

The second group filled out the questionnaire at the beginning and end of the nine-week study period but did not do the speaking exercise. 

Sbarra and Larson found that the participants in the first group experienced greater improvement in “self-concept clarity” than those in the second group.  By self-concept clarity, the researchers meant the degree to which a participant reorganized a coherent (and compassionate) understanding of himself or herself as a person apart from their former partner – a quality of wisdom associated with psychological health.   The result: members of the first group reported feeling less lonely at follow up and less bothered by intrusive feelings and associations about the breakup.

Much of our understanding of ourselves is tied to our relationships.  I am an uncle, a son, a husband, a father, a brother – my relationships help me describe and know who I am.  But after a break up, it can be hard at first to answer questions such as “Who am I?” or “How should I spend my time alone?”  or “Who and what am I responsible for?”   The authors concluded that the speaking exercise helped the participants reaffirm their sense of self apart from their former partners.  The authors speculated that two processes were at work.  First, the speaking exercise (like expressive writing), repeated four times, helped the participants increasingly experience their feelings as familiar, and thus less surprising and disturbing: “Oh yeah, that again.”  The exercise may also have prompted the participants to craft a new identity, using words to freely sculpt a new organization of self. 

But in another study, Sbarra found that divorced people asked to complete an expressive writing exercise about their divorce-associated feelings, showed no greater improvement in well-being than divorced persons asked to write unemotionally about what they did that day. In fact, participants who tended to ruminate about their divorce did better when they were assigned to the emotion-free writing group.  Sbarra concluded that for some people, repeatedly revisiting their feelings about the divorce could make things worse.

The key, apparently, is to find a balance between attending to the feelings associated with the breakup while avoiding unproductive, obsessive rumination about those feelings: Write a little, speak a little, leave it alone, repeat.

Monday, November 9, 2015

If I'm not my story, who am I?

November 9, 2015
This last week, Dr. Ben Carson, a presidential candidate, has been defending himself from allegations that he has not been entirely truthful about his self-described untoward behavior as a youth.  Asserting that he was violent and wayward until he affirmed his faith, his life’s narrative is one of redemption.  He has castigated reporters who have not been able to confirm his most dramatic stories as sick and stupid, saying he is being victimized by a biased media.

Regardless as to whether Dr. Carson’s stories of his youthful behavior are accurate, embellished, or imagined, the situation raises an interesting issue – one mental health professionals and rejected parents may face in cases of severe parent-child alienation: When the facts don’t support a family member’s assertions, what is the best way to manage the situation?    

It’s not just angry, vengeful parents who make false allegations. In some instances, alienated children and teens occasionally invent stories in which they depict themselves as victims of the rejected parent’s bad behavior.   And unlike borrowed scenarios whereby alienated children repeat what they’ve heard from others, these stories can come from their own imaginations:  “He held me by the throat, pinning me against a wall, my feet were off the ground.”   “She touched me in the shower.”  “He hit me with a 2 X 4 studded with nails.”  After repeated questioning and retelling, during which they may embellish and add details, I suspect that some of these children come to believe their stories.  Or if not the story itself, the theme: “This parent mistreats me.” 

Rejected parents who have been confronted with false reports feel hurt and enraged.  In the worst instances, false reports trigger referrals to child protective services and criminal charges—frightening and embarrassing consequences.  Naturally, these parents want to set the record straight – both for themselves and out of concern that the children will grow up with a distorted picture.

But they face a dilemma.  On the one hand, rejected parents realize that their children are victims rather than perpetrators of emotional abuse.  Their children are caught up in a situation they didn’t ask for and don’t know how to manage.   These parents understand, therefore, that they have to tread carefully so as not to damage the children further or to react in ways that inadvertently confirm the false portrayal.  But on the other hand, these teens are agents of hurtful and damaging stories – they are no longer passive actors in the family’s drama.   And when kids misbehave, particularly in deliberately hurtful ways, parents feel a natural responsibility to address and correct their children’s behavior. But should they do so when the parent-child relationship is already so damaged? 

Rejected parents and mental health professionals quickly learn that confronting the false reports head on rarely works.  Like a presidential candidate who has been challenged about the truthfulness of his or her statements, alienated children are likely to respond angrily and defensively – now claiming that they are being further abused by people’s disbelief.  Why?  Because the false stories have become part of their narrative, woven now into their identity.  Without the story, these alienated children confront a frightening question: If I’m not my story, who am I?   

The key is to help these children adopt truthfulness as a source of identity without forcing them to lose face.  Rather than “setting the record straight,” it may help for a parent falsely accused to convey an attitude of letting “bygones be bygones” once the child making the false allegations begins to turn back towards the rejected parent.  A similar approach, now used by some mental health professionals, is to declare a moratorium on past statements and actions: “We are going to start with today looking forward, no more rehashing the past.”  And if perspectives are wildly different and can't be resolved, as hard as it is, some parents and their children “agree to disagree” – recognizing that being in relationship is much more important than being right.  


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Peaceful Co-existence

Following the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 and the loss of numerous sailors, relations between North and South Korea were at a low ebb, even by their standards. Tensions then ratcheted up further this past summer when landmine explosions in the DMZ injured two South Korean soldiers.

But in August, North and South Korea agreed to end the latest period of heightened military tensions marked by artillery fire and increased military readiness.  They did not reach an accord, however, by “making nice” or agreeing to let “bygones be bygones.”    After extensive discussions, each side made subtle but significant concessions.

From the South’s perspective, the North’s most significant action was to express regret about the wounding of South Korean soldiers in landmine blasts. Although the North denied laying the mines and did not take responsibility for the blasts, the South did not insist that it do so—a demand that would have forced North Korea to lose face and likely maintain heightened tensions rather than lead to a peaceful resolution.  South Korea was free to see North Korea’s statement as an apology, even as North Korea did not have to admit to offering one.

South Korea, in turn, agreed to cease broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda it was blasting by loudspeakers across the demilitarized zone—a source of intense annoyance and humiliation to North Korean leadership.

Additionally, talks yielded an agreement to arrange reunions of families separated by the border during upcoming holidays – a low risk gesture by the respective governments but a highly meaningful one to their citizens.

I think there are some lessons here for conflicted divorced parents.

It’s natural to want an apology when feeling wronged, particularly when it concerns one’s children or matters of trust and betrayal.  But demanding the other parent humiliate himself or herself and thereby lose face accomplishes little and risks a lot. Accepting the statement, “I’m sorry the kids have developed a bad impression of you, that’s not right, let’s work towards repairing things quickly,” rather than insisting the other parent own up to badmouthing, demonstrates maturity, self-control, and a commitment to moving forward.   From a negotiator’s perspective, this transaction involves mutual concessions: one parent concedes regret and accepts joint responsibility to solve the problem, the other parent concedes the necessity to receive a full bore apology in the spirit of moving on. 

As international diplomats understand, it is also important for parents to back up such statements with specific actions; and oftentimes it is sufficient to make gestures that entail relatively minimal risk.   Forwarding school notices, for example, takes little effort but can have a big impact on the one receiving them.  Speaking courteously, even if just a matter of small talk, sets a positive, appreciative tone that can carry over to the next substantive discussion.  Volunteering to transport the children’s athletic equipment and bulky musical instruments is really no big deal for parents – but a really big deal for their kids. 

The key here?  Don’t get caught up in the “principle of the thing.”  A self-righteous approach may feel justified, even gratifying, but it is unlikely to accomplish the goal of peaceful co-parenting.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Iceberg beliefs

  One of the most significant obstacles faced by conflicted divorced parents is their fixed perceptions of the other parent – what cognitive psychologists call “iceberg beliefs” to symbolize deeply held but often unrecognized biases. These parents attribute negative motivations to explain the other parent’s behavior when alternate explanations are just as likely, selectively attend to information that supports their beliefs, and ignore information that disconfirms their beliefs.  When I suggest that there may be alternate perspectives, a frequent response is: “You’ve been fooled, just like all the other professionals. You don’t know them like I do.”

   In one instance, for example, the mother viewed the father wholly as a bully.  On an occasion when he arrived early to pick up their son, she complained: “He does that to put me in the awkward position of not seeming to be ready, not having everything together so my son can leave with him.” On an occasion when he arrived late, she complained: “He’s just showing me that he can do whatever he wants, that I can’t control him.”  What was the more likely explanation for the father’s varying arrival times? He drove through unpredictable Friday afternoon rush hour traffic between his work and her home.

   The father, too, had fixed beliefs about his ex. He perceived her to be spoiled and entitled, someone who expected to get her way. He complained that she wouldn’t set the Friday afternoon pick up time back an hour to ease his commute because: “Her Friday night date is more important than our son getting a relaxed start to my weekends.” If his son wasn’t ready to go when he arrived to pick him up, he waited in his car and thought: “She’s letting me know that our son is really her son, forget you.”     

   Fixed beliefs are self-reinforcing: “I look for what I expect to see, I see it, I believe more strongly in what I expected.”  When caught in such a cycle, couples typically argue the same things over and over, resist obvious compromises, see one another increasingly as caricatures (“she’s a narcissist”), and feel hostile and worn down. John Gottman calls this cycle gridlock.

   Such beliefs are not without value. Holding onto these beliefs, for example, might protect the couple from feeling further let down or taken advantage: “If I expected anything different, I would only be disappointed.”  The tradeoff, however, is intractable conflict, mistrust, and inefficient problem solving.

   So what can one do when confronted by such biases? Here is one tip if you believe the other parent has fixed negative perceptions of you: Take every opportunity to give them an alternate experience of who you are.  Rather than acting in ways that reinforce the caricature, look for opportunities to demonstrate something different. Your individual efforts may not be recognized right away, but over time, their accumulated weight may just begin to melt that iceberg. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Failing at repairing: Family Members' Perspective

When divorced families are asked what blocked prior therapeutic attempts to repair damaged parent-child relationships, they offer valuable insights for divorce professionals working with these tragic situations. Here are some of their observations:

Lack of structure to the sessions.  From these families’ perspective, open-ended questions to begin a session (Where would you like to start today?) were, in practice, open invitations to chaos. Without direction and not knowing where best to start, family members brought up multiple grievances, often ones rehashed in prior sessions: the same thing all over again. Indeed, without an agreed upon agenda and a carefully sequenced, structured dialogue, family members recalled discussions shifting abruptly and unproductively from one complaint to another (usually by the one who spoke the loudest).

Lack of direction.  In the midst of their conflicts, family members were so used to blaming and being blamed that they didn’t have a clear picture of how to do things differently.  When sessions became exclusively a setting to prescribe what other family members must change, rather than a setting for mutual self-assessment, progress didn’t occur.   It was not enough to be told to listen or to apologize; family members said they needed to be taught and given examples about how to listen, how to apologize, how to talk, how to save face, how to say no, and how to negotiate acceptable resolutions.   
Ongoing litigation.  When court issues were still pending, family members reported that family sessions oftentimes became a forum for each family member to plead their case: everyone talked, no one listened.  Motivated to protect their position in court, each tried to persuade the therapist to align with his or her perspective and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of any other point-of-view. Attitudes hardened rather than softened.

Proxy interests. Another contextual factor frequently cited was the influence of persons outside the sessions, such as a favored parent, who opposed the children repairing a damaged relationship with a rejected parent. The list also included grandparents, stepparents, older siblings, therapists, lawyers, and family friends.

Lack of hope.  By the time these families became involved in family sessions, they had usually tried and failed to solve the problems on their own.   Now pessimistic that anything would change, family members felt hopeless and motivated only to avoid further risks.  Despite their pessimism, however, most of these family members said they were open to rebuilding hope, if only someone would show them how.     

Older teens. Some older teens simply marked time in sessions until they turned 18, at which point they refused further involvement.   

Refusal to participate: Refusing to participate took several forms: Parents who didn’t pay their portion of fees, parents and children who defied other family members’ requests or a court’s order to come to sessions, and children and teens who came to sessions (to comply with a court order) but refused to speak or would arrive and then walk out. In these instances, family members said the problem was their own and the therapist’s inability to persuade or leverage resistant family members to participate.

In future posts, I will report what these family members said did help. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Tell us: What do you want?

Suppose one reason a divorcing couple wants to use an online divorce service is that it values freedom of choice.   Rather than feeling hemmed in by lawyers’ procedures and obligated to pay legal fees, this couple wants to determine what their divorce agreement will look like, use their marital estate to start their new lives (not fund lawyers),  and drive the process themselves (rather than being lead to an agreement by third parties).   If this is your situation, it may be important to ask yourself: Are we  interested primarily in the opportunity to choose, or is it important that we actually exercise that opportunity?  Knowing we have the opportunity to choose makes us feel good—we have options, we are exercising our freedom. But exercising that opportunity can require effort and risk—we must  research our options, assess their relative advantages and disadvantages, and commit.   

Although this question may seem too abstract, it’s important to answer before choosing an online divorce service.  Here’s an example.  In Texas, all divorcing parents must include a parenting plan in their divorce decree. Parents can’t opt in or opt out, a plan has to be included in the decree or it will not be accepted by the court.  Unlike most states, Texas goes even further. The Texas Family Code also presumes that all divorcing parents (with a few exceptions) will share joint custody of their children.  The code identifies exactly which rights are decided jointly and which ones individually and lays out a parenting time plan, often referred to as the “standard parenting plan,” that specifies when the children will be with each parent throughout the year.  Although a great deal of thought went into this plan, it is a one-size fits-all approach to parenting post-divorce.  It is, in effect, a default plan. If parents don’t want the standard plan, they can opt out and write a different one into their divorce decree that is better suited to their family’s circumstances.  Many divorcing parents find, however, that this requires a lawyer’s help.

Most online divorce services, however, don’t offer parents the opportunity to opt out of the standard plan.  Apart from designating with whom the children will spend more time, these services offer the parents no options at all—the standard plan is what every parent using the service will see in their divorce decree. In these instances, the opportunity to choose is really no opportunity at all—it’s an illusion of choice when no real choices are given.   For many divorcing parents, this will be enough.  The process is efficient, does not require active thought or research, and provides a veneer of assurance that it is a plan researched and recommended by the state. 

In contrast, other online services in Texas, such as Negotiated Divorce, use a different approach.  These services require divorcing parents to make active choices about what type of parenting plan they want to use by offering alternatives to the standard plan.  These are real choices, not illusions; they require parents to decide and say what they actually want.

Although it may seem like the stakes are small, the consequences can be significant. The opportunity to choose is not all that matters, because many parents simply won’t exercise that opportunity.  Inertia and procrastination and a desire to wrap things up quickly with minimal effort will lead many parents to accept the standard plan without further thought.  But is this what is best for all the parents and children who will be forced into a one-size fits-all standard plan? 

In contrast, when given alternatives to decide among parents must engage in a process of active choosing. Rather than simply providing a default standard plan, such services ask a question that many parents welcome: What exactly does your family need? 

Active choosing has two important advantages. First, parents’ judgment about what their children need to thrive developmentally isn’t over-ruled by a legislature defined parenting plan.  After all, who knows children better than their parents?  The legislature can’t possibly define a standard plan that accounts for every family’s unique circumstances.  Second, requiring an active choice promotes learning, self-assertion, and independent-thinking.  If parents are required to make choices about their parenting plan, many will become educated about the topic—knowledge that will serve them in the future as well.

The key point is this: Much of the time, particularly when we are busy, it is reasonable to choose not to choose.  If I’m pressed for time, I order the lunch special without inspecting the menu.  But if the issue involves something important, such as what parenting plan I will impose upon myself and my children, then active choosing may be a better way to exercise my freedom of choice.   

Thursday, April 16, 2015


In a prior post, I discussed the finding that blaming is socially contagious.  After observing others protect their self-image by blaming external factors for failures, people are more likely to attribute blame to others for their own failures rather than take personal responsibility.  Within a divorced family, for example, children who observe their parents blame one another for the end of the marriage rather than acknowledging their contribution to its undoing are more likely to blame their coach or team members when they play poorly in a game rather than acknowledging that they need more practice.

But when people observe others experiencing an injustice, who do they blame then?    In the case of the scenario above, for instance, how does a child cope with the perception that one parent is being treated unfairly, that the other parent’s blame is misplaced and the consequences unfair?  To answer these questions, we can turn to the research findings of the social psychologist, Melvin Lerner.

Using creative laboratory experiments, Lerner demonstrated that people crave justice and will work hard to eliminate injustice.  That’s why we have a criminal justice system and rights’ movements. He also found, however, a troubling outcome when ending someone else’s suffering is difficult or beyond our means.  In these latter instances, people tend to reframe the victim as deserving the mistreatment (e.g., by denigrating their character or judgment).

Let’s illustrate.  In a series of Lerner’s studies, observers watched a ‘volunteer’ in a learning experiment appear to undergo painful shocks in response to incorrect answers.  One group of observers had the option of ending the shocks by assigning the learner to a positive reinforcement condition. A second group was not given that option; they could only watch helplessly while the learner was supposedly shocked.

As expected, most of the observers in the first group chose to end the learner’s discomfort by reassigning the learner to a different condition.  The observers achieved justice by ending the injustice. When debriefed, the observers in this first group described the learners positively as  likeable, innocent victims. In contrast, the second group of observers, who could not stop the alleged shocks, disparaged the learners, suggesting that they deserved to be shocked. In other words, the second group achieved justice by devaluing the learner: “She got what she deserved.” 

The conclusion?   Apparently it is not justice we crave so much as the perception of justice.  And in some instances, the perception of justice can be more easily achieved by reframing the victim as deserving the injustice rather than meeting the unfairness head on.  This is what is meant by the phrase: Blaming the victim.

These findings may help explain some instances of children unreasonably rejecting a parent post-divorce.  If a child of divorced parents perceives that one parent is the focus of unreasonable attacks by the other parent, she will perceive an injustice: “My father (or mother) doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.”   In most instances, however, children are in the same position as the observers in the second group described above—there isn’t much they can do to stop the unfair treatment.  And to confront the vindictive parent runs the risk of being targeted for similar unfair treatment.  For some of these children, the easier and safer route to achieve a sense of justice is to adopt the mindset that the maligned parent deserves such: “It’s okay for them to be treated like a jerk, they are a jerk, I can treat them that way too.”

Lerner’s findings, therefore, may offer one explanation for blame contagion in these families: Family members adopt a mindset that the rejected parent deserves to be mistreated to satisfy their own need for a sense of justice and to avoid the unsettled feeling that a wrong is being done. 

Such a process is not inevitable or irreversible.  Empathy for the mistreated family member can be heightened by encouraging others to recognize how they felt when they were similarly singled out for mistreatment or ridicule, such as by peers.  It can be pointed out that as much as we don’t like to accept it, the fact is that “bad things sometimes happen to good people” – and that this does not reflect upon their character.   Children can also be “hardened” to the effects of these dynamics by providing cognitive coping strategies.  One teen, for example, benefitted from reminding herself that “Dad’s not a bad guy, Mom is just angry and lashing out because things didn’t turn out the way she hoped. It’s about her, not him.”    



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Alternatives to family court litigation

Legislators in Minnesota recently introduced a “cooperative private divorce” bill that creates an online path to divorce that skips the court system entirely.  Couples would file an “Intent to Divorce” form, consult with advisors (legal, financial, mental health) of their choice during a 90 day waiting period, and then file a “Declaration of Divorce” containing their agreements.  That’s it. No court, no judicial oversight.  And should either spouse feel dissatisfied or bullied, they could leave the private path and start traditional legal proceedings at any time.

The primary objection to this approach is that without judicial oversight couples will reach bad agreements.  But how do we know that?   Has that notion ever been tested? (Answer: No). We don’t require judicial approval of wills, real estate transactions, parenting practices or medical decisions. Why do divorcing couples need a legal system to sign off on what the couple deems to be fair?  And if a couple really wants to reach a complex agreement that takes into account all the nuances of family law, it can hire lawyers to do the work.

No state provides couples a cooperative pathway to divorce as envisioned by these creative Minnesota legislators – yet – but more and more  divorce professionals and online sites offer supportive services for couples who want to avoid litigation and the associated expense, recognizing a growing market of divorcing couples who want to seek fair, informed agreements by cooperating rather than competing.  
But couples who are considering completing an uncontested divorce on their own should beware; the most   important word  in the prior sentence is informed.   A slap dash divorce agreement reached hastily “just to have it over-with” can cause unanticipated problems and cost hefty legal fees to correct.   Getting counsel from trusted advisors – who are often far less expensive when litigation is not involved—is usually a step worth taking. Financial professionals can help couples understand the tax consequences of divorce, how to divide a retirement plan, what’s the best way to handle the family home. Mental health professionals can help parents understand the needs of their children and craft sensitive parenting plans.  Mediators can help couples brainstorm and evaluate different options.  And select online services, such as NegotiatedDivorce.comhttp://negotiateddivorce.com/ for couples in Texas, offer extensive educational material about the financial, parent-child, and legal aspects of divorce as well as instruction about how to negotiate efficiently and fairly – at a significantly reduced cost compared to professional fees.

The United States has gone through many social evolutions, including emancipation, suffrage, civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights.  The prevailing trend in our country is toward personal empowerment and respect for the individual.  Similarly, the divorce system, with innovations such as mediation and collaborative law, can be expected to gradually give up its paternalistic mindset (“we know what is best for you and your family”) and institute changes that let couples decide for themselves: “What is best for our family.”  With the right help, many couples can take that step now.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Blame: It's contagious

When divorcing parents testify about how their conflicts have damaged their children, they often try to outdo one another in their attempts to shift blame rather than accept responsibility.  Judges and professional observers are rarely impressed.

Blaming others rather than accepting responsibility for our own mistakes doesn’t work.  Studies find that people who blame others learn less from experience, lose credibility, and perform less well than those who take responsibility for their mistakes.  The same applies to organizations and families. Groups characterized by a culture of blame are less creative, less focused on learning, and less productive.

As research has shown, however, changing a culture of blame isn’t easy: blaming is like a virus, it is highly contagious.  Findings published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychologyby psychologists Nathanael Fast and Larissa Tiedens, demonstrated that simply being exposed to someone blaming others for a mistake was enough to trigger people to turn around and blame others for entirely unrelated failures.

The subjects in their experiments read about a special election in California in 2005 to fund several initiatives proposed by then governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  None of the initiatives passed. Some subjects read a version in which the governor blamed special interests for the defeat; others read a version in which the governor took responsibility for the defeat.

Subsequently, the subjects were asked to write a short essay about a personal failure.  Subjects who had read the version in which the governor blamed special interests were twice as likely to blame others for their personal failure compared to the group who read the version in which the governor accepted responsibility for the election defeat.  The researchers found the same pattern when they varied the stories the subjects read, such as who was to blame for someone not finding a job or an organization’s poor money management.

What drives the contagion of blame?  The felt need to protect one’s self-image.  When we observe others defend their egos, we reflexively defend our own.  Dr. Fast  speculates that the blame virus spreads like a chain reaction:  a father observes a Republican blame a Democrat for a failed legislative initiative; the father then turns around and blames his wife for the dog’s mess on the carpet.  Their son, having witnessed this interaction, subsequently blames his poor math grade on an incompetent teacher.   Interestingly, Fast and Tiedens found that they could inoculate subjects from being infected by another’s blame attributions when they directed the subjects to affirm their self-worth (by writing a paragraph about one of their important core values) before describing an experience of personal failure.

These findings provide clues about the practical steps you can take to interrupt the spread of blame:

·         Complain, don’t blame.  If someone else’s mistakes must be addressed, do so constructively, with an emphasis upon what can be learned, rather than who is at fault: “I’m not interested in listening to your threats.  Please find a different approach.” 

·         Take responsibility. Resist the temptation to blame others when you make a mistake.  This is particularly important if you are in a position of authority or have a great deal of influence within the family. By taking responsibility, you make it safe for others to take responsibility: “I got off on the wrong foot, I’d like to start again.” 

·         Maintain a focus on learning.  Foster a culture in which mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, not opportunities to be humiliated.  One way to do so is to reward others for demonstrating what they’ve learned from a mistake: “I can see a real change in how you’re approaching this problem, I appreciate that.” 



Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Beware of the Ultimatum Game

Although the situation between economically distressed Greece and its European lenders changes daily, in the runup to one deadline, European leaders gave Greece an ultimatum: Agree to an extension of the bailout program or lose the funding Greece needs to avoid default and exclusion from the Eurozone.   They made a vague promise to renegotiate the original terms of the austerity program at a later date, but it was essentially a take it or leave it offer.  

Rather than acquiesce, the Greek finance minister reacted angrily: “…nothing good has ever come out of ultimatums. I have no doubt that in the next few days any notion of an ultimatum will be withdrawn.”  The new Greek government maintains that the austerity demanded of its people in exchange for the original bailout devastated the Greek economy and imposed untold social damage. It argues that if the European Union wants a chance of recovering its loans to Greece, it must loosen the austerity terms so that the economy can grow again.

But why would Greece reject the European lenders’ commitment to distribute billions  of of dollars of desperately needed funds when the alternative is bank runs, bankruptcy, exclusion from the Euro zone, and possible social chaos? At first glance, the Greek response doesn’t seem rational: the proposal provides needed breathing room and a commitment by the European lenders to alter the austerity terms in future negotiations.  While the reasons for the Greek reaction are politically and economically complex, the simple explanation is that the Greek government views the European lenders’ proposal as too unfair. 

So what does this have to do with lawyers negotiating a divorce or couples pursuing an uncontested divorce onlinehttp://negotiateddivorce.com/?  It’s the issue of fairness, or at least what the parties perceive as fair, and how it can propel or stall a negotiation. 

Using an experimental procedure called the Ultimatum Game, social scientists have demonstrated that people’s perception of unfairness will lead them to turn down a sure gain.  Here’s how it works: the subject must decide whether to accept or reject an offer for a portion of a fixed amount, say $100, which is to be split between the subject and the offeror.  The offeror decides how the money is to be split, but if the subject rejects the offer, neither receives any money.  There is no second round, that’s the ultimatum: take it or leave it.  The offeror might propose a fair split (e.g., $50 each), or an unfair one (e.g. $95 for the offeror, $5 to the subject).  In either case, the subject receives more than he or she had at the beginning of the exercise. $5 is better than $0. Right? 

Actually, no.  The results of these experiments show that even though getting a small amount is better than getting nothing, the rejection rate for offers perceived as unfair (generally 30% or less of the total amount being distributed) is very high. 

Why?  Because humans value more than economic return.  Civil conduct, following social norms, and reaching social agreement are important to a society’s and an individual’s well-being.  From that perspective, turning down an unfair economic offer is not irrational at all; it is saying that there are other interests at work which the offeror must also take into account. 

The Ultimatum Game being played by European lenders and Greece on the international stage rather than in a social scientists’ laboratory provides a lesson for divorcing spouses:  In instances when there is no Plan B or rejection of a take-it or leave-it offer will lead to dire circumstances (e.g., litigation), an offer  that leaves your spouse better off but is perceived by him or her as unfair is likely to be rejected, even when considerable cost attends the resulting outcome.  If you plan to make an offer, anticipate what he or she is likely to perceive as fair and be prepared to explain why your offer is, indeed, fair.  And if it’s not, change it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Living in the public eye

No parent going through a divorce wants to experience what happened to Mel Gibson or Alec Baldwin, actors whose recorded telephone rants were released by the media and replayed all over the internet. I think it is safe to assume that when Gibson went off on his wife and Baldwin on his daughter, they didn’t consider how their words would play in the media.    But one hopes they do now.

The lesson for all divorcing and divorced parents is that they might end up in the same situation if they don't use tact and self-control. It’s the phenomenon of Schadenfreude—taking pleasure in someone else’s pain.  And it’s a powerful phenomenon indeed. Social media rants make great theater, the audience eagerly passing them along to others.   If you doubt that, search youtube for video clips of everyday marital arguments and parent meltdowns. You’ll cringe when you see how many visits each clip has logged. 

It isn’t always rants either that cause divorcing parents problems. Too frequently, parents remain “signed onto” their social media accounts, creating opportunity for their tech savvy children to check up on their search history and posts.  On more than one occasion, I’ve had parents to tell me ruefully that one spouse’s affair was revealed first by the children—who discovered the evidence in the parent’s email or texts.   In other instances, children have found a parent’s vacation pictures with their new girlfriend or boyfriend posted on social media, despite earlier explanations that they were traveling on business.  Oops.

Twitter posts and text messages by observers, reporting events as they happen, can also add an immediacy that heightens others’ interest—and a parent’s embarrassment.  Alienated teens are notorious for texting moment-by-moment accounts of the “awful” time they are having with a rejected parent, recounting every perceived transgression. One teen texted her group of friends a serial account of her mother’s tryst with a boyfriend upstairs.  As she fired off the texts, friends passed her texts along to others.  Everyone was amused, except her mother, of course, and now the father will never let the mother forget it.   

So how much privacy can be expected?  As it turns out, not much.   

Anything said or done in public is fair game for publication and, potentially, use in court:  a cell phone record of one parent berating the other, a video of a parent’s argument with a teen, angry emails and texts, revealing posts.  In the worst cases, such as Gibson’s and Baldwin’s, the material does more than complicate a parent’s divorce, it goes viral, entertaining millions and undermining the person’s credibility and reputation.  Maybe Gibson’s ex and Baldwin’s daughter behaved badly—but who pays attention to that in light of these celebrity fathers’ behavior?

The best antidote?  Assume everything you say and write could become public. Use discretion. Don’t  email, text, or publish anything you (or your children) would regret later. (If you doubt that lawyers have caught on, read this).

Alec Baldwin reportedly said he regretted disclosure of his words so deeply that he contemplated suicide. His access to his daughter was briefly suspended, but he subsequently apologized publically:  “I’m sorry, as everyone who knows me is aware, for losing my temper with my child.” "Obviously, calling your child a pig or anything else is improper and inappropriate, and I apologize to my daughter for that," he said.