To ultimately solve the joint custody puzzle of conflict and resolution, we must first examine our own actions, reactions and motivations to determine how we may be adding to a problem. When an issue comes up with your ex, ask yourself if you are behaving or communicating in a way that contributes to the conflict. Perhaps you're making an assumption rather than responding to the facts or reacting with an old pattern of communication or behavior. Or maybe you're avoiding the issue all together. If this is the case, it's within your power to change the outcome of the conflict.
Sometimes your contribution to the problem is obvious. For example, one mother admitted to chugging a beer before she called her ex so that she could "get angry" and "be more forceful" with him. Other contributions take a little detective work. For example, one father couldn't figure out why his wife couldn't manage her money and had a hard time recognizing that he was enabling her by constantly bailing her out of financial holes, which allowed her to remain financially irresponsible. Your contribution to the problem can also involve engaging in avoidance techniques, which allow the problem to continue or become worse.
Recognizing these behaviors in yourself takes you one step closer to having a more successful joint custody relationship. Here are some things to watch out for:
1. Justifying Your Actions: When we make excuses for our actions, we give power over to our ex. "I couldn't help it..." or "My ex just made me so mad..." serves to keep us helpless in the conflict.
2. Making Assumptions: These contribute to the complexity rather than the simplicity of a problem, making it more difficult to solve. Ask yourself: "Is this a fact?" If it's not, label it as an assumption to give it less weight in the equation.
3. Engaging in Deliberate Manipulation: Being manipulative is dishonest and immature. In addition to it setting a terrible example for our children, we often end up having to make up more lies to cover up for our inconsistencies.
4. Projecting the Worst: When we pretend to look into imaginary crystal balls, we usually only see the negative. Projecting into the future about what "might" or "could" happen causes us to creatively suffer in the present. A problem isn't a problem until it actually happens.
5. Placing Blame: Looking at a problem from only one point of view keeps us from examining the different possibilities that may underlie the issue. Pointing a finger tells us that we may need to turn that finger around so we can see the problem from a different perspective. We're not suggesting that exes are blame-free; we're suggesting that you honestly look at the ways you might be contributing to the problem instead of to the solution. Once you've taken this step, you'll find that the problem becomes much simpler and therefore easier to handle.
6. Feeling Guilty: The "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" in our lives can bring us to a standstill. Maybe we believe that if we feel guilty enough, it will absolve us from doing anything about it. A simple grammatical shift, however, can move us forward by changing us from a guilty victim to an effective and assertive problem solver. To make this shift, simply substitute the word "could" for "should" and see the difference it makes in clarifying the choices you have as well as the consequences of those choices. Instead of saying, "I should do this about it," feel the empowerment in saying, "I could do this about it."
7. Taking Too Much Responsibility: Because taking responsibility gives us control, there can be a temptation to take on too much responsibility. Many people believe that they have to fix everything and everyone, because if they don't, no one else will. These people often take on responsibilities that don't belong to them, such as responsibility for someone else's feelings or problems. The person who takes too much responsibility often feels overwhelmed and unappreciated, while the person who takes too little responsibility feels controlled and suffocated. When this happens, it complicates situations so vastly that it's difficult even to begin working out a solution to the joint custody problem.
Once we understand that taking appropriate responsibility for our choices gives us control, and we accept that the choices we've made have consequences, we are able to make better choices. In addition, learning to phrase communication without blaming, avoiding or denying responsibility allows us to begin to identify situations in which we are responsible and distinguish them from the situations in which we aren't.
Julie A. Ross, M.A. and Judy Corcoran are the co-authors of Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex.