Now, more than ever in our history, there is a great need for everyone to view circumstances through a complex lens and provide grace to one another by giving the benefit of the doubt, rather than rush to judgment. Unfortunately, our social context and media culture is not promoting this attitude. As a result, I have seen that spill over into the divorce community (both with clients and professionals!). The tendency for co-parents to engage in cognitive distortions are running rampant as they are in society. Here are a few I am noticing more than ever during the COVID crisis:
Catastrophic Thinking: Assuming something very bad will happen as a result of a negative behavior. “She is sending our child to school, which I think is dangerous. She obviously doesn’t care if our child dies from this.”
Emotional Reasoning: Trusting only one’s feelings (with no regard to facts or circumstances) to determine another person’s motives. “When we were married, he never washed his hands, so he’s not going to care about that with the kids.”
Rejecting Positives: Even when positive things happen, it gets twisted into something negative. “He says he wants to help with the kids’ distance learning, but he is only wanting more time with them so he can tell the court I don’t care about their education.”
Overgeneralizing: Making blanket assumptions based on gender or other stereotypes. “Women, like my ex, are too emotional – my kids are better off with me in this time of crisis.”
Dichotomous Thinking: Extreme, all or nothing thinking, in an attempt to paint the other parent (or self) as all bad or never good. “How can she possibly care about his kids when she had an affair on us?”
Theorizing: Believing you understand the motivations behind someone’s words or behaviors (assumption-making). “His niece is going to his house to help the kids with schoolwork while he works from home. He knows I can’t stand her, so he’s just doing that to make me angry.”
These kinds of distortions are common in the initial months directly following divorce or separation and tend to dissipate over time as the family moves through the grief. However, people with personality disorders are likely to see the world through these kinds of distortions for the rest of their lives, which is problematic for their co-parents. What co-parents can do is refrain from responding or reacting to these kinds of comments, and to trust in their own ability to take care of their children in appropriate and loving ways. Holding to personal values are key here.
For the co-parent who engages regularly in this kind of distorted thinking, they must find ways to have the minimal level of trust and see their co-parent through the lens and belief that parents unconditionally love their children even if they sometimes fail to show it. Also, reality checking is important. Even if you think your co-parent is exposing your children to a dangerous person or virus, what can be done about it? For good reason, DFCS does not get involved until something negative has happened. They don’t exist to engage in proactive prevention. By the same token, there is not enough known about the COVID virus to prove that a parent is engaging in neglectful behavior unless it is quite blatant, but even then, it is likely to be difficult to prove.
Acquire some co-parent grace during these unsettling days. Your kids need that from you so this will be a time they remember as challenging, but interesting — not scary and traumatic.