When COVID hit, I was overcome with anxiety. I realized quickly that it wasn’t just the pandemic that was upsetting me. It was also the state of our country. So much division and so much conflict. So much hatred and demonizing of other. In my work with co-parents in conflict I was seeing the same thing, and it was heartbreaking. Seeing the country divided against itself is heartbreaking. All of it was making me sick.
In searching for answers, I came to the realization that fear is at the the heart of all of this. Life is just a ridiculously fearful adventure. I mean really. We come here, we fall in love with people and life itself, but everything is so fragile. Things can be taken away from us unexpectedly at any moment. COVID certainly smacked us in the face with the truth of that.
Looking for solid ground
We hate the truth of how fragile life is and the fear that it evokes. Fear is painful and uncomfortable; we don’t like discomfort and pain. So we look for answers to help us feel like we’re on solid ground. When it comes to the country, we are afraid that we will be left out, left behind, not cared for. We are afraid things will change in a way that we are scared of. To fight off our fear, we cling to our beliefs about how we think things should be, and believe that those who have different beliefs are the cause of everything that is wrong.
As co-parents in conflict we are afraid that we will lose control and influence over our children, and that we will lose our connection with them. We can get terrified that our children are going to be scarred emotionally. To fight off our fear, we cling to beliefs about how things should be, and believe our exes are the cause of everything that is wrong.
When we get scared, we retreat to our safe place.
We hang out with people who share our opinions. As co-parents in conflict, we talk to friends and family who agree with us when we tell them how awful our ex is. We reinforce each other’s stories. The more we reinforce them, the more we believe them. We don’t interact with the people who hold different opinions or views, except for maybe a little. When we do interact, we look for proof that the stories we hold are true. When we are looking for something, we can usually find it.
The problem is, even though we are trying to find security and freedom from fear, the strategy does not work. It actually makes things worse. The more we cling to how we think things should be, the more we get scared of other people having different ideas. The more we make them wrong, the more we demonize or dehumanize them.
I’ve spent a lot if time thinking about the divide in our country, and seeing the similarities with co-parents in conflict. In both cases, each side are in a bunker. They have a story about the other. They belief they are the good guys. They take snippets of info and turn it into full blown stories and characterizations. Co-parents in conflict call each jerks, idiots, assholes, narcissists. People call those on the other side of the political divide jerks, idiots, assholes and worse. The other side becomes inhuman in our minds and when that happens, we don’t think we have to treat them with care or respect. We think they don’t deserve it. We can’t see that they are fearful, suffering beings, just like we are.
We look to others to fix our problem
Because we are afraid, and often feel powerless to fix it, we cling to people who seem to understand our fear and promise they can fix it. Political leaders and court systems hold the promise for us that they can make things right, and we believe them and buy into them. Co-parents in conflict cling to the courts for help and citizens cling to leaders who make grandiose promises. But if we’re honest with ourselves, often divorce courts stoke conflict and often political leaders stoke division. In a lot of ways, their existence and power depend on it.
I’m not saying I’m immune from this. I am on one side of the political divide too. I do believe I’m right and the other side is wrong. When I was a co-parent in conflict I was strongly on a side.
Figuring out who’s right and who’s wrong cannot be the goal.
I’ve realized though that figuring out who’s right and who’s wrong cannot be the goal. The goal must be to stay connected; to stay connected through our humanity. To listen with an open heart even if the other seems so incredibly misguided to us. We have to have the courage to not buy into systems and people that divide us.
In order to really listen, we have to put aside our desire to be right. We have to listen with what Buddhists call beginner mind; just being open as if we have no preconceived ideas about who this person is. Just listening with the desire to learn something we didn’t know. Listening from your heart, where you know that everyone deserves to be loved, even if you don’t understand them.
When we stay disconnected our children suffer and our country suffers. It is uncomfortable to open our hearts and listen. But our comfort is not the point. Our desire to be comfortable, to get out of the fear, is what got us into this mess to begin with. If we disconnect from each other, we’re screwed. We have to come out of our bunkers and connect.
The truth of this became poignant recently when my husband and I were traveling with our little trailer. One day we stopped at a winery in a small town where you can stay the night with your trailer if you give them a little bit of business. It was a Friday night and the winery was hopping. I was watching a couple from a distance. I heard a few snippets of what was being said as they chatted with another couple. I categorized them in my mind as being “on the other side” politically. I could feel myself hunkering down in my bunker, and I was creating a story about them that I was sure was true, based on pretty much nothing, or at least very little. The couple they were talking to left and the husband struck up a conversation with my husband. Before you know it, his wife and I joined the conversation, and before long we knew all about each other. They were really interesting, kind, innovative, hardworking people. I knew that they were on the other side of the political divide, but saw that they were people, just like me, trying to get through life the best way they could. I couldn’t dehumanize them anymore.
As we started to say our goodbyes, the husband said “I like to come to the winery on Friday nights because people like you come from all over with their trailers to stay. I like to meet people that are different than me.” It surprised and impressed me that he sought out opportunities to get to know people that were different from him. I felt like I was taking a risk, but said “If we did more of this in our country, things would be so much better.” He thought for a moment and replied: “Yes. We’re not Republicans, we’re not Democrats, we’re just WE.”
We’re just WE.
We’re just WE
Those words shot an arrow into my heart.
You and your co-parent are the WE that are raising your precious children, like it or not. You and your co-parent are the WE that live in your children’s hearts and who your children love more than anything in the world.
WE all live in this gosh-darned amazing country. Getting in bunkers and being opposed to each other won’t solve any problems. Pretending or wishing that we can exile people to make things better for ourselves is ridiculous.
We need to stop running from fear, and learn listen to each other as uncomfortable as it might be. We need to stop looking to people that reinforce our beliefs and and keep us mired in conflict with others. We need to stop looking to systems and leaders to save us that keep us mired in conflict for their own benefit.
Take baby steps. Stop talking and just try listening to your co-parent and people that are different than you. Let yourself be uncomfortable. Try to understand that they have fears, just like you do, and are doing the best they can to make sense of the world. Entertain the idea that maybe you don’t see them as clearly as you think you do. Entertain the idea that the stories you have in your mind about the other may not be completely accurate.
I’m not naive, and I know this isn’t simple, but I feel sure this is a good place to start. We need to trust ourselves, trust our own hearts and minds, and believe that if listen and stay connected, WE can find a way forward with love, not fear, WE together.
Difficult co-parent? Things CAN be better.
Seven Life-Changing Co-Parenting Skills