Monday, September 28, 2015
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.