The Tit for Tat Trap

For some reason, I have had many parents express lately that they are frustrated with how much their co-parent refuses to be civil, or flexible, or the least bit compassionate. That frustration is usually followed by a statement like, “I do everything I can to show [him/her] that I want to work together. I even offer to give extra time, but it doesn’t seem to matter.” My response is usually the same. “What makes you think it will matter?” Good parents, or for that matter, good people, find it very perplexing why other people (with a proven lack of integrity) can’t just follow their example and do the “right” thing. If you do something good for someone, wouldn’t it make sense they would return the favor? Yes, in a world of mutual care it would. But divorce turns people upside down for a time, and sometimes forever. It is proven to be one of the most significantly negative events anyone can endure and causes our deepest insecurities to surface – coupled with the deepest kind of threat to our most precious relationship – that of our children. It’s not about right and wrong or good and bad with those who act out. It’s about not being able to manage and regulate the feelings of inner-conflict that accompany rejection, abandonment, and fear. The end result is the mounting of a monumental defense against those feelings or anyone who threatens to cause them to surface. Therefore, blame becomes the great defender and allows those who can’t manage their feelings to say and do things they perceive will be self-protective, but unfortunately at the expense of their own children’s emotional welfare. Ironically, it risks threatening the very relationship they are so desperately trying to hold on to. It sounds sick and twisted, but it makes perfect sense from a psychological point of view. 

It doesn’t help to try to make sense of why the other parent won’t reciprocate your goodwill or follow your example of how to protect the kids from the co-parent conflict. Those things are antithetical to the real goal, which is to avoid the resurfacing of all those self-illuminating demons of rejection, abandonment and fear. They may not be able to consciously see it, but they feel they must choose to deny those demons in order to blame. I told a client recently that his attempts to do the “right” things actually cause his co-parent a lot of anxiety because it makes it difficult to play the blame-game. So, she mounts a huge campaign to trigger his negative emotions, create anger, tell lies, and even recruit the children so she doesn’t have to retract her original justification for the divorce (that he was a horrible person). It’s sad because if they could just be vulnerable and honest with most people, they would find a lot of grace and acceptance from those of us who aren’t afraid to face the demons. It could be so outwardly simple if it wasn’t so internally complex.

Stop thinking that if you do good, someone else will return the good deed. Sometimes they are not able, no matter who does what. Instead, live your values because it’s who you are, and because you need your children to learn how to face their own demons someday. 

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