For Co-Parents: The Rewards of Climbing Mount Conflict
Have you ever been surprised to learn that you were in a completely different conversation than your partnering parent? Same place, same, language, similar words but the recall of the conversation is completely different- and the outcome is unresolvable. This can be baffling, disconcerting and even angering, especially when there are issues that need to be resolved in planning or making decisions for your shared child.
This may be because when we are in stressful conversations, our memory systems operate differently. We are less able to “hear” cognitively, use our prefrontal cortex which helps us be clear, take in new information and make thoughtful decisions. Please review a previous post on how the brain responds under stress. In short, emotions precede and influence thinking. Emotions are communication subtly on a neural level and often without any words at all. The right brain ascertains the emotional “climate” and safety faster than we can perceive so the information is already there and used by your brain before you start processing stated information. So does your partnering parent’s brain complete this task. On top of this, we all have filters, or internal working models based on past experience that inform the current moment. These take a long time to relearn even when we are really trying, we are fighting our own brains prior learning. Finally, in stressful situations, the part of the brain that takes short term information and finds real estate elsewhere for longer term memory storage is not efficient- recollection is often challenging. Therefore two people under stress may well recall the same event very differently.
You know how this plays out. Conflict. Not only are we arguing about past offenses, but current problems that need solving and again the child is affected.
Not every event needs to have the conflict driving. What gets in the way? Do you know that conflict often looks like misunderstanding or failure to trust the words or intentions of the partnering parent? Is it helpful to think about it as “needs” not being met? You have heard of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs (1943). If not, look it up and see that survival needs, a sense of belonging in community, and regard for self are all needs that require our focus. Erikson (1964) stated that until the need at each stage is mastered, one cannot focus on the tasks needed in the next stage. When a child completely falls into an emotional state or misbehavior, it is often because their core needs are not being met. We are adults but this may still ring true. In conflict ask yourself; what is his/her need? Perhaps, if yu have enough relationship- ask them directly what their need is. Maybe we can meet it, maybe not but it helps to understand it so we can be compassionate either way.
What if two parties needs are polar opposite or change? This certainly keep us on our toes as we have to be flexible not only to reduce conflict on behalf of our child, but also flexible in allowing new information into our internal working model. Maybe we can’t both get our needs met this time, but we can give and take when we are both working with the goal of our child’s experience being comfortable.
Needs pose an irresolvable dilemma when conflict itself is the need. This is the case in some people who are ore about the struggle, the relationship of conflict, than any other goal in truth. This may be shrouded in appearances of cooperation, or the child’s perspective but in truth are facades for keeping the relationship with an ex-partner through conflict. These conflicts are often irresolvable by cooperation and sometimes even out of the parent who is doing it awareness. I don’t means to be discouraging but a few of you may be in this later case. The good new- most of you are not. If you are, please keep your eyes on my other upcoming posts for ideas how to cope.
Thinking about conflict as a mountain to climb. Conflict is not bad- mountains are lovely. Conflict is an opportunity to grow, learn more about ourselves and the other and how to navigate differences. Climbing a mountain is often hard and it should be, because the reward is the beauty at the top.
Tips for the levels in our mountain of conflict:
Uneasiness with one another- Remember, both brains in the room know there is discomfort. Work to simply promote calm, safety, watch body language, share supportive humor and show regard. Look for positives to build on.
Simple circumstances needing to resolve- These are usually circumstantial- events, activities, vacations plans. Ask for brainstorming the issue, list all ideas, promote both parents needs being met if possible.
Misconstructions- When we fail to take the other’s perspective, misunderstandings in intentions and goals can cloud resolving the issue. This is where memory can really differ between two parties. Remember that fact and perhaps educate (gently) your partnering parent on this fact. Hold judgement away from you- you can question without judging or calling up past offenses.
Pervasive tension- Is there any way to be flexible and take in new information? How can you create safety for yourself so your brain can be in its best decision-making state.
Ongoing emergency-Gain an outside neutral party to help work through the issue. Make certain the help is not against your partnering parent but has the sole focus on your child’s needs.
As we approach our co-parent in good faith, truly with regard to our child’s and their need in addition to our needs, we can reduce conflict and improve our child’s experience. Isn’t that what it is all about?