One Good Thing - Extending the Olive Branch
Reading Brendan’s recent post about Northern Ireland and the Good Friday peace agreement called to mind a court decision that I read recently. The case involved a contested custody matter. The Court began its opinion by admonishing the parties and pointing out an unfortunate aspect of child-related litigation – namely, that the parents each focused on the other’s deficiencies rather than on their strengths. The same is true about all factions in conflict, whether they are the parties involved in the Irish conflict or the parties in a divorce. People being people – we tend to pick at those things that we find “offensive,” the things that are “different,” and the things that we convince ourselves divide us. Sometimes, these are actually truly small and inconsequential things that we make into something very large.
In the midst of a divorce, with the flux of emotions that often rule the day, it can be easy to hyper focus on all of the things that your (soon to be ex-) partner does or did that are different from the way that you would do things. This laser focus on difference can become even more apparent post-divorce. Small things become huge things very easily and very quickly. The splinter in your finger suddenly becomes the log in your eye and it is unbearable.
I also recall a case from many years ago where a trial court judge asked the wife to name one good thing about her husband. She replied “nothing.” The judge, incredulous, replied “Nothing? In nearly 20 years of marriage and 3 kids later?” The wife stopped for a minute and then replied “Oh. Well, he’s good at organizing the garage.” That was it. The best that could come out of 20 years of marriage and 3 lovely children for this person was the garage? I was speechless.
In the same way that those involved in the Northern Ireland process are learning to heal and move forward for the sake of future generations, as a result of diplomacy and an agreement that provides a structural mechanism for containing that conflict, so too can divorcing couples move forward and heal for the sake of their children. How do they do this? By recognizing the commonalities and accepting the differences within a framework of power sharing centered on mutual goals – the children.
What do divorced parents have in common? Their beautiful children, of course! That is fundamental. But, what about the differences? Well, those might be many. For our family, we have more than our fair share of differences. For as much as Brendan and I share in common, we each have a unique set of interests, attitudes, dispositions and peculiarities.
Although a performer in court, Brendan is extremely intellectual and introverted at home. He voraciously reads non-fiction philosophy and psychology books and takes no less than a dozen different journals of varying political and philosophical views. He watches TCM like its going out of style and can easily hold forth on the plus, minus, and neutral aspects of everything from Plato’s Republic to the French poststructuralists and then pivot to discussing almost every film noir movie ever made. Brendan blasts Miles Davis, Johnny Hartman and Frank Sinatra in the car – and his preferred form of decompressing/relaxation typically involves something having to do with Zen or Jazz.
As for me, I love 90’s hip hop and classical music. I may not read as many periodicals, but I do my share of reading and one of those “journals” includes People magazine. I prefer poetry and fiction over long-winded tomes and I am a foreign film buff. I can be picky when it comes to the cleanliness and organization of my home (which cannot be said of Brendan) and I read and collect travel books like they are going out of style. A more natural extrovert, I enjoy going out to eat over ordering in, and while Brendan becomes anxious at the thought of travelling – it is an energizing and vital part of my life.
These may be seemingly superficial differences (and believe me there are many more!) but, in a divorce, those superficial differences that one partner tolerated or thought were “cute” during the happy times become like literal nails on a chalkboard. As the marriage or relationship slips further into decline, tolerance gives way to annoyance, which turns to hatred, and then you are left with bitterness and anger. So often in my practice I hear things like “I always hated when he….” Or “She always did (insert a thing) and I just put up with it, but not anymore!”
Differences become weapons of war and then, as it relates to the children, the warring factions feel compelled to “protect” the children from the quirks and perceived deficiencies of the other parent and the parents inevitably go down the litigation rabbit hole. The children themselves both become weaponized in this battle of the adults and also become the “collateral” damage.
So how do we avert this slippery slope of negativity as it relates to the children? It starts with accepting the fact that your co-parent is a human being and, by nature, will do things differently than you. Will he keep his place as clean as yours and diligently stain treat the ketchup out of the children’s clothes? Probably not. Will she make sure that the kids are put down for sleep at precisely 7:30 pm each and every night and will she always cover the kid’s ears when the bad words come on TV or the radio? Not likely. Are any of these things going to, objectively speaking, harm your child? No.
Next, focus on your co-parent’s strengths. It is my hope that you can think of something that is more meaningful than “he organizes the garage well.” Really think about the strengths that your co-parent brings to the table and how they benefit your child. For me, I see the differences between Brendan and I as a thing of beauty. Where I can be conventional and rigid in some areas, Brendan lends a more open-minded perspective. Where I can take a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude, Brendan brings a measured, logical, and thoroughly researched perspective. And there is so much more that you will hear about as we go along in this blog. Bottom line, Brendan is a great dad. What makes him so great is that he is not me and the result is a pretty well rounded child of whom we are both extremely proud.
I would be dishonest if I were to say that Brendan does not do things that get on my nerves sometimes. I am absolutely certain he could say the same about me. Ultimately, we each have had to internally assess whether the other parent’s quirk or idiosyncrasy actually presents a “danger” to our child or if it is really just something that is an annoyance to the parent rather than the child. If it is a matter of true concern, we discuss the issue, and meet somewhere in the middle. I can tell you, if I have learned anything in my post-divorce process, there are very few things that have absolute answers. There is always room for negotiation so long as each parent is willing to participate. Once you have reached a middle ground, you present a united front to the children. In the same way that the general public is not privy to all of the backroom haggling that leads up to the unveiling of a peace treaty, children need not be exposed to how you reached the middle ground. The children should only know that the terms of the peace, no matter how it was reached, is for their benefit and that Mom and Dad are committed to the same.
Divorcing and/or divorced parents, like the parties to the Northern Ireland conflict, can choose to defuse the conflict (or at least reach a relative level of peace and restraint) by recognizing differences, focusing on strengths, and commit to working toward an ongoing dialogue that promotes peace, stability, and mutual respect.
Today, I challenge you to think of one good thing about your ex-spouse/partner or co-parent and then communicate that to them (in whichever way you feel comfortable) and just say “thanks.” So often the road to peace begins with a single olive branch.