Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Custody Case

Dear Authors,

My husband left me for someone else nine months ago.

We have two children, both in middle school. We have worked out a child custody schedule where he has the kids every other weekend and we have traded off vacation times during the school year. He now is asserting he wants to have them for a week at a time instead of for weekends.

I want to have a productive discussion about this. I, of course, never imagined at this stage of the kids’ lives that they would be away from me regularly, so it is painful for me to contemplate even longer visits.

When my husband has them, he spends a great deal of the time doing work (reading documents, having conference calls) or leaving them home to go work out. Both kids have expressed feeling lonely and bored when they visit him. They also feel negative emotions (grief over the end of their family or anger) that they feel they cannot express to him, because he acts as though everything is fine. They will not say anything to their dad about this, telling me they are afraid if they do, he will pull away from them.

The current situation doesn’t seem very positive for the kids. I guess it’s such an emotional situation for me I’m finding it difficult to think it through.

Thank you for any help you might offer,
Splitting Up

Dear Splitting Up,

I am so sorry for the pain this is obviously causing you and your children. I hope I can offer something that will help both you and them.

I believe that the most profound challenge of life is to make moral choices in the fog of pain. More to the present, I believe that this is never harder than when dealing with those we believe have wronged us.

When others cause us pain, the fog gets particularly thick because the natural human tendency is to see the worst in those we associate with our pain. Literally, we want to think bad thoughts about them and so we seek, select, and spin observations that help us attribute our pain to things that suit our psychological agenda.

This becomes particularly problematic in divorce situations because both parties are usually in pain. Now please hear me correctly here. I am not attempting to rationalize away wrongs. I am not suggesting that in your situation there may not have been egregious violations of your trust. It sounds as though there were. What I am suggesting, though, is that now that the marriage is ending, the pain you are feeling is going to cause you to experience emotions and tell stories that will corrupt every decision you make and every crucial conversation you hold unless you work hard to avoid that.

For example, in describing your custody situation, you point out that your husband spends “a great deal of time doing work” when your kids are with him. You point out they “expressed feeling lonely and bored when they visit with him.” The danger you face is that you may find yourself taking satisfaction from these expressions. You add that they “feel negative emotions they can’t express to him” and that he “acts as though everything is just fine.”

Again, it is vital that you not only listen to what they are saying, but ensure you don’t fall into the trap of using this to support an established “villain story” about your husband. Now, I am not suggesting he has not misbehaved—perhaps terribly. I am suggesting that the pain you are feeling may cause you to miss other parts of the story. For example:

  • Could it be that your children also have some happy times with him?
  • Could it be that the children feel negative emotions around you, too?
  • Could it be that they only tell you negative things about him because at some level they know you want to hear them?
  • Could it be that they are similarly reluctant to complain to you about ways you are not supporting them just as they don’t tell your husband about his shortcomings in caring for them?

Now, I don’t ask these questions because I have any reason to know that you are falling short in any of these respects. I ask them only to illustrate that when we’re in significant psychological pain, it can corrupt our stories and, therefore, our ability to hold crucial conversations in a way that leads to less pain in the future. We don’t see the world clearly because our vision is distorted by our unmet needs.

My advice to you is to recognize when you are in a fog and see neither him nor the decisions you need to make clearly. At times like these you need to depend on more objective sources of information. If you were flying a plane through the fog, you would depend on your instruments. In the near term, I advise you to find some objective sources of guidance you can rely on as well. Find a friend or professional who is committed to seeing your husband as a human being and not as a villain. Find someone who will help you stake out positions that are rational and fair. Understand that you may have eliminated some of your closest friends from consideration for this role because you may have gotten them invested in your story of what is happening.

In the near term, this person may be a mediator—someone who can structure and facilitate these conversations between you. Over time the person can just help you prepare for the conversations on your own. You will find that these people will simply help you apply all the Crucial Conversations skills you’ve learned to use in other circumstances—but this will be someone whose head is not in the emotional fog that limits your ability to apply them at present.

In addition to getting help with your crucial conversations, be sure to get help for yourself. Find someone—perhaps a professional counselor—who will help you talk through the pain you’re feeling. Separating this conversation from the problem-solving conversations you need to hold with your husband will enable you to succeed at both. Failing to separate them will guarantee that they’ll be merged and that you’ll fail at both.

The hope you should hang onto is that if you get the emotional support you need personally right now, in addition to getting guidance to help you through these crucial conversations, you can and will get to a new feeling of normalcy. It won’t be the life you had planned—but it can be a good life. It will present you with new challenges, opportunities and joys—different from what you anticipated.

Best wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

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