Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Quest for significance

Parent child alienation is one risk following divorce.   Instances of unrealistic alienation, when one parent drives a wedge between the children and the other parent without good cause, are particularly troubling.  Psychologists have written many articles trying to answer the question: What drives certain parents to damage their child’s relationship to the other parent?    I suggest that the very same motivation that when positively directed can lead parents to thoughtful  post-divorce accommodations may, when misguided, drive parents toward revenge and payback. 

This motivational drive can be called a quest for significance (Kruglanski et al., 2013):  the desire to count, to be someone, to demonstrate value –particularly as defined by one’s culture or community.  This can be a powerful force, in some instances so strong that it overrides interests in personal safety and security. 

Obviously, a quest for significance doesn’t dominate all of our waking moments.  Today my time has been taken up cleaning, paying bills, and arranging my schedule. A quest for significance may be triggered, however, by actual or threatened loss of significance – such as when divorcing spouses must grapple with lost roles and identity but without clear direction about how they can be regained. In the face of such loss, people both seek out and are easily influenced by others’ advice about ways to regain  purpose in their lives – for better or worse. Consider the following example.

After years of emotional estrangement, a couple with two teenage boys divorced.  Both parents were highly distressed, the father feeling he had failed as a father, husband and financial provider, the mother afraid for her financial circumstances and ashamed to appear in their religious community.  In a word, both felt insignificant. But here their paths diverged, influenced largely by their respective communities. 

The mother’s lawyer and her sister encouraged feelings of outrage and victimization.  Her lawyer recommended an aggressive approach to the financial settlement by using access to the children as leverage: “You’re the real parent here, you deserve everything you can squeeze out of him.”  Her sister offered unqualified support of the mother and equally unqualified denigration of the father: “You’ve been wronged and abandoned, time to stand up for yourself.”   When the boys expressed worry about the father’s isolation from them, the lawyer and the sister encouraged her to tell the boys the “truth,”  specifically that their father had  failed as the head of the household and only she could handle the responsibility of parenting the boys.  The boys took the cue and refused to spend time with him, reinforcing the mother’s definition of herself as the  self-sacrificing parent unappreciated and abandoned by her ex.   

The father’s lawyer and Rabbi, in contrast, encouraged a conciliatory approach to the divorce and his therapist encouraged him to “take stock of his life.”   He subsequently left his unrewarding job and pursued long held dreams to enter law school and engage in religious studies. 

I encountered this family several  years after these events.  The father was now a practicing lawyer, deeply involved to his religious studies, remarried, and expecting another child.  Aside from his distress about being alienated from his two boys, he felt more valued professionally and personally than at any prior point in his life.  With his community’s encouragement, he had become a scholar of the law and his faith.  The mother, in contrast, continued to assert her position as wronged and abandoned.   She encouraged the boys to have the same mindset – the three a chorus of complaints about him to school faculty, religious leaders, therapists, and extended family – most of whom responded sympathetically and supportively, encouraging them to stand their ground.   They were proud of their anger, it defined them.

In sum, both parents’ sought renewed significance, but their respective communities encouraged them to find it in markedly different ways:  the father through love, the mother through bitternesss.