As information concerning COVID-19 continues to come out erratically, it seems nobody is in full agreement on how to handle things. On a macro level, we see each US state implementing varying degrees of responsiveness and caution. On a micro level, our family units must make similar calls. It’s challenging for any parent to know where to draw the line.
For those of us that are separated or divorced, this line can be especially fraught, with COVID-19 highlighting pre-existing tensions regarding how much or little parental control to exert in the lives of our children. We may butt heads regarding where it is safe to let them play or with whom it is okay for them to interact. Most importantly, how do we handle disagreements, especially when we feel we have little influence on our former partner? The stakes are high – the rules of the game not yet known. We will likely each think the other wrongheaded.
Here’s the truth: while it may feel like you’re suddenly negotiating the ultimate high stakes matter, the “how” of negotiating is something you can master. And it begins with you.
The Story I’m Making Up
Brene Brown, an expert on vulnerability and shame resilience, states, “If I could give men and women in relationship one hack, I would give them, ‘the story I’m making up.” The story I’m making up can be a game-changer. It’s an invitation to reflect on our narrative and be open to the possibility that we may be missing something. That as flawed and vulnerable humans, we can’t entirely see the whole picture. Sure, our ex did not communicate the details of how they’re handling playdates, but maybe it’s not intentional; perhaps they’re not trying to provoke us. There is something inherently liberating about giving others the benefit of the doubt. It frees up air space for our psyche to focus less on what others should be doing and more on what we can do.
This perspective shift need not come at a cost. It’s possible to give your ex the benefit of the doubt and to take a stand. For example, if you say, “you haven’t gotten back to me about how we’re going to handle playdates, and the story I’m making up is you won’t collaborate with me,” it will likely land better. Calling them a control freak and assuming worst intentions, on the other hand, pretty much guarantees a no-win situation.
Get Ready: Reg-YOU-late
Next, let’s talk about physiology. Did you know that the first three minutes of a conversation predict the outcome? That if you go into a discussion firsts swinging and blood pressure high, there is a 96% chance the conversation will devolve into an argument or stalemate? That just as gridlock and conflict have the potential to spike your (and your ex’s) heart rate, collaboration and attunement have the potential to lower it?
Our brains don’t like uncertainty, and as a result, we’re prone to spinning stories that can worsen an already stressful situation. Once you catch yourself, aim to get centered by taking some slow deep breaths. Doing this will help lower your heart rate, and in turn, improve your judgment while increasing the likelihood that you will communicate constructively. Mindfulness can be a fantastic tool for cultivating the ability to shift gears.
Ultimately, you are responsible for staying present and keeping on top of your emotions. In clinical terms, we call this self-regulating, and for many of us, this means we must discharge energy. Only you know whether your body and mind respond best to meditation, exercise, journaling, or punching a pillow. Before you engage, get it out – this will help you clear the deck for the next step, and is a route to staying steady.
The field of psychology places a high emphasis on behavior and physiology, but what about values? Getting clear on core principles that we aspire to embody can have a profound impact on our actions. Are you a person who orients themself by faith, integrity, compassion, or generosity? Brené Brown offers a list of commonly-held values in her Dare-To-Lead™ free online resources, and it’s worth the effort to identify the three core values you aim to lead with. Write them on a sticky, put them on your bathroom mirror. Ask yourself before you hit the “send” button if your email exemplifies the principles you hold most dearly.
Values are never “wrong,” although they may be in opposition. You may know that your ex-partner values status, or patriotism, or a sense of self-determination. Meanwhile, your values might center around health, stability, or limiting risk. Understanding this can help you understand how you and your ex each arrive at your own beliefs around COVID-19.
If you can allow values to steer you, rather than a sense of right versus wrong, you’ll likely increase the quality of your interactions with your ex, which will benefit your children during the crisis of COVID-19 and in the years to come.
In summary, the goal is to practice staying out of what John Gottman calls self-righteous indignation, keep your cool, and aspire to embody the qualities you value most. These behaviors are a recipe for success for all relationships, not just separated or divorced couples navigating co-parenting during COVID-19. They’re a bar to aim for while simultaneously permitting ourselves to have bad days. From a place of humility, grace, and self-compassion, much is possible, even during the toughest of times.