This is the article from the “Trapped together when you want to separate” section of the book. Thanks to Mary-Anne Popescu from Canada for the contribution.
In uncertain times, I find myself drawn to the simple wisdom that fridge magnets promote. Magnet “philosophies” like “Keep Calm and Carry On” are exactly what we need right now, but how do families do that when the stress of separation creates additional burden?
Magnet 1: “To Build a Bridge, You Have to Start on Both Shores”
What do you know for sure about the conflict? Can you see your partner’s shore? Does your partner intend to irritate you as, for example, you notice them only selectively listening to you? What impact does that have on you? Feeling unheard could be the first response; what else is going on for you? What if you were able to ask a curious question about their behaviour? What if the assumption you tied to their behaviour is incorrect, and the explanation less antagonistic than you thought?
Insight Mediation is a model used very successfully in family mediation; it takes us past the “certainty-of-knowing” and helps us listen for new information.
Imagine meeting an old friend at the grocery store, without it being a strategic operation with gloves, masks, and steady supplies of disinfectant. What would you hope to tell them about your relationship with your ex-partner? Is it possible that in these challenging times spent together sheltering-in-place you have come to understand each other better, to have built a bridge that you walked across together, to celebrate your co-parenting relationship?
Magnet 2: “Conflict is Inevitable, Combat is Optional”
Many families have the added stress of sheltering-in-place after a decision to separate has been made. The option to be outside the house and give each other room has been erased. You already know what irritates you about your partner’s behaviour, you’ve thought about that a lot along the way, and it is part of the reason for separation. You are an expert in predicting what will cause tense situations, and what you can now become is an expert in deciding how you will handle it. The conflict is inevitable, the combat is optional.
What if you didn’t react in the way you normally would when faced with a behaviour that bothered you? What if you could identify the “attack” as a threat to something you care about, and instead of using your usual “defend” strategies, you were able to work on protecting what you value. So far, nothing about your past conflicts has made any impact toward changing the patterns of interaction, so why not try something else? What about the situation you can control? The answer is that you can only manage your own response. It can be jarring for your partner to see you disengage from a conflict. Our patterns of behaviour, even when dysfunctional, are familiar to us, and we tend to like the familiar. Watch out for your partner trying to bring you back to the combat. This change in patterns need not be a “sneak attack,” let them in on your experiment, maybe they would be open of the change of “rules of engagement” too.