I once was told that children should be read lots of fairy tales. The idea is not to teach children that the Good Guys always win, but rather to teach them that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
After much consideration, I’ve decided I have a problem with this. The older I get, the less I believe in The Good Guys vs. The Bad Guys. It’s not always that simple. And, did you ever realize that *your side* is always the *good* side? I wonder if most of us understand that our opponents are just as certain that they’re the ones who are *right* (Religion is the easiest example. Divorce is another good one).
“If you’re not my friend, you’re my enemy.” –spoken by someone I regard as neither my “friend” nor my “enemy”.
Why do we so often simplify our conflicts to say it’s Us vs. Them And We’re Correct? I suppose it has something to do with our needs for certainty and significance. Nobody wants to be wrong and everyone craves validation from others. When faced with a conflict we automatically assume that one side is right/good and the other is wrong/bad. We pick a side and scream, strategize, draw swords or go silent. Fairy tales have further encouraged this recipe for response. Too bad such behavior is horribly unproductive and promotes further stress.
In the case of evolving families, the War Mentality leads to all those things that everybody says they never want (at least, not in the beginning):
- Impossible communications
- Excessive lawyer involvement
- Higher costs
- Longer processes
- Alienating behaviors
- Children’s loyalty conflicts
- Conflicted friends
- Petty arguments
- Severed family ties
- And more
When faced with a conflict, the last thing most people want to do is listen. And yet, it’s the easiest and most important tactic for resolving the problem.
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” (I first saw this on a bulletin board in the classroom of my seventh grade English teacher)
Why don’t we want to solve the problem? Because conflict is empowering! It gives us something to fight for. When our sense of certainty is shaken (as is the natural state during divorce), we seize the opportunity to get angry and feel justified. Why? Because we don’t want to appear weak and we don’t want to be wrong (wow, I’m really lovin’ the italics in this paragraph!). If you haven’t already seen Brene Brown’s first TED Talk about Vulnerability, I highly recommend it. Her second speech is pretty good too.
The fact is that not everyone who disagrees with us is an evil, ignorant idiot. And the truth is that you probably didn’t marry an evil, ignorant idiot because that would make you at least an ignorant idiot, right? So let’s remember that. When conflict arises with your ex (or your children, boss, friends, etc)…
- Remind yourself, “His/her ideas aren’t wrong. They’re just different.”
- Stop talking and listen.
- Find some common ground and build from there.
- Communicate with compassion and clarity.
War is ugly, stressful and results in tremendous loss. Fairy tales are full of outlandish atrocities. Is that what you want for yourself? For your family? It doesn’t have to be that way. And even if you’re dealing with someone “on the warpath”, you don’t have to meet them there. Our internal programming may have come from biology and freaky fiction. However, our brains have evolved beyond the us/them-fight/flight mentality… it just takes a little extra time to access that logic and reasoning.