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.