Don't Let Divorce Fail Too
Guest Author, Anne Kass, - a retired District Judge of Albuquerque, New Mexico
A favorite fantasy of many divorced parents is that their former spouse will disappear. They imagine that they will never again need to bother with or be bothered by their "ex". It comes as a great surprise to many to learn that for two people who have a child together, "till death do us part," was not just a marriage vow. It is reality.
People who have an unavoidable, life-long connection need to learn how to communicate in a constructive way. Divorced parents who don't learn civil communication skills will have a failed-divorce that will harm their children even more than their failed-marriage did.
One communication skill we should all learn is how to manage triangle interactions. A triangle interaction is one in which person-A talks to person-B about person-C. Another name for this pattern is gossip. It is seldom helpful and almost always harmful, particularly when relationships are strained. Unfortunately, triangle communication is a pattern at which most of us are highly skilled.
Triangle communication is especially common in divorce situations. Each spouse is likely to try to secure the support of friends and family by talking about the absent spouse's flaws. Each spouse also talks about the other spouse to his or her lawyer, therapist, new spouse, and on and on. Of course, the most common and damaging divorce triangle is children talking in negative terms to one parent about the other.
As these conversations continue, with no opportunity for corrective rebuttal, the absent spouse or parent is recreated in entirely negative terms and blamed for the break-up or the current problems. The person who has the problem with the absent parent or spouse is spared having to deal directly with the absent person so nothing gets fixed. Those who listen can unwittingly become part of the post-divorce problems as they are enlisted to keep secrets and help justify the anger.
It is not possible to stop triangle conversations, so a wiser goal is to "manage" them. Some management tools are as follow:
All of us, but especially divorcing parents should try to be guided by the principle: Speak well of the absent. When that is too hard, a good back-up principle is: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.
For those of us who are called upon to listen to one person criticize an absent other, we need first to learn to empathize not sympathize.
Sympathy sounds like this: "You poor thing; your ex is such a jerk." A listener who sympathizes expresses the same feelings as the speaker and often adds in some of their own. That's not helpful if solving a problem is the goal. Sympathy perpetuates and sometimes further inflames angry feelings.
Empathy sounds like this: "What you are describing to me sounds frustrating (or humiliating or frightening). Is there some way I can help you so you can talk with your ex-spouse about this, or, at least help you feel less upset?" A parent who is hearing their children complain about the other parent might say," "I don't have much influence with your dad/mom right now, but I can help you practice telling him/her about these problems." Be concerned but don't blame or take sides.
Managing triangle conversations effectively won't be easy because we're all so good at gossip. Still it's worth the efforts.
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