People often remark on the cooperative relationship I have with ex-husband. While I’m grateful for the inner peace and acceptance I feel toward him now, at the beginning of our divorce, we were far from happy collaborators.
Back then we were mired in the kind of blame, judgment and mistrust that too often characterize the end of a marriage. Unable to come to agreeable terms, we were poised to sit on either side of a conference table flanked by “take-no-prisoners” divorce attorneys when suddenly I had a moment of clarity.
I realized the objective for both parties was to prevail–a narrowly focused short-term goal. Recognizing that, yes, I wanted a fair agreement in the short term, I thought, “What’s my real goal?” I began to realize that in the long term I wanted to have a positive, friendly and peaceful relationship with the father of my children, with whom I had many years of parenting left.
I decided right then and there that something had to change and, since I had no control over him, it had to be me. Below is my three-step formula:
Step 1: Dismantle the Blame Block
This process can work for any type of conflict between any two people. However, it requires you to step away from the seductive siren call of blaming the situation on the behavior, attitudes or unreasonable demands of the other person. In other words, if you’ve got a firm foothold on the moral high ground, you are standing on sands that shift with perspective.
The reality is that as soon as you recognize that each person has contributed in some way to the conflict at hand, you can begin to clear what I call the “Blame Block.” As long as you are both locked in your positions and are judging each other as wrong or unreasonable, you effectively block the flow of progress towards a resolution by continuing to look for evidence to build and justify your case against the other person. Guess what? You’ll keep finding it.
You may find yourself resistant to taking any responsibility for the conflict. Yet, even if you feel you didn’t “do” anything, passively letting someone “do unto you” without standing up for yourself is an active part of the dynamic. If all you can do is open yourself to the concept that you played a role in creating the current reality, you begin to weaken the Blame Block and make space for reconciliation and compromise.
As soon as I stopped laying all of the blame at the feet of my Ex and started owning my part in our issues, he could feel the difference and he let his guard down. As he dropped his defenses, I was much freer to continue to drop mine–it was a positive spiral upward that ultimately led toward trust and cooperation. We cleared the first hurdle and began to build from there.
Step 2: Shift Your Vantage Point
Often when we are on the ground floor of a struggle, we tend to focus on winning the next battle and forget about the big picture. Once we elevate our view to the 100,000 ft. level, it can help shift us out of that negative swirl of thoughts and feelings about the immediate situation. Here are some questions you can use to shift yourself into a higher view of what’s happening. You don’t need to answer all of them, simply pick one that resonates with you and let it sink in until clarity arises.
What is the long-term relationship I want with this person and is what I’m doing now moving me closer or taking me farther away from that?
- What’s at stake? Who else is impacted by this conflict?
- Is the outcome of the conflict or being “right” important enough to continue damaging this relationship?
- When I’m at the end of my life looking back at this conflict, what will I wish I would have done?
- How would the highest and best part of me respond to this?
- What do I want my legacy to be? Is what I’m doing now aligned with how I want to impact the people in my life? Is it what I want to be remembered for?
- Is what I’m upset about going to matter a year from now? How about 10 years from now?
Step 3: Find the Gifts and Lessons
Once we get out of the fog of righteous anger or the “automatic pilot” of wanting to be right, we open up space for the higher possibilities of learning and growth that conflict presents to us. Even in the most contentious disagreement or dysfunctional relationship, there is opportunity to examine our own actions and attitudes for “unconscious patterns” that are influencing our reactions.
My client Carmen (not her real name) worked on this idea as she entered yet another feud with her cousin Maura, with whom she’d had a life-long, love-hate relationship. Maura could be abrasive and critical. However, after some thoughtful introspection, Carmen realized that she had a pattern of taking everything anyone said very personally and internalizing it.
Carmen saw that the relationship with Maura was an extreme example of how she reacted to anyone she felt had slighted her. After realizing this about herself, she started noticing how many times in a typical week she got her feelings hurt over something someone said or did (or didn’t do). Once armed with that awareness, she was able to work on healing that pattern of inside herself and on changing her dynamic with Maura.
For Carmen, by getting past the initial “story” of the latest clash with Maura and looking for the what she could learn, she was able to move toward changing a pattern that had a tremendous impact on her life. Taken from this perspective, Maura did Carmen a big favor by reflecting her pattern to her so she could see it and heal it. We all have the opportunity at any time to find the gifts and lessons in every situation. Here are a few questions to reflect on that may help tease them out:
- Are there any parallels with this situation and any other tension in my life?
- How often and when do I feel the way that this situation makes me feel?
- How often have I told the “story” of the situation? Am I starting to identify with being the victim in this story? How many other stories do I have where I’m in that role?
- What inner and/or outer choices am I making to perpetuate this situation?
You are Freeing Yourself
You may have noticed that all of the “to-dos” are focused on you. Believe it or not, this entire process really has little to do with the other person. It’s all about you managing YOU. If you truly do the three-step internal housecleaning, there is a very strong chance that the other person, feeling your shifts, will also shift. But even if they don’t, even if they continue to blame and judge you and do the things that drive you crazy, the situation will lose its power over you—you will be free.
It also helps to remember that the other person, as unreasonable as they may be, is operating from their own unresolved patterns and unhealed wounds. The goal here is not to change the other person. It’s to get dominion over your own responses, find the lessons and learn to dwell in peace and compassion.
Deb Purdy is the author of Something Gained: 7 Shifts to Be Stronger, Smarter & Happier After Divorce. To learn more, visit www.debpurdy.com.