Some time ago I wrote about The Four Agreements from a book by the same name by Don Miguel Ruiz. Ruiz believes we can stay out of conflict if each person makes the following agreements with him or herself:
1. I will be impeccable with my word.
2. I will not personalize anything the other person says, does, thinks, feels or believes.
3. I will make no assumptions.
4. I will do my best each day with the energy I have been given.
The Second Agreement frequently needs to be reinforced in my work with families. To successfully make the transition from married couple to co-parents, parents must learn not to reflexively react to each others’ negative emotional states and behaviors. This is a complicated task.
Establishing close human relationships requires us to be sensitive to the feelings of others, and to form attachments. Early childhood development experts often refer to the creation of healthy attachment between an infant and caregiver as the “dance of empathy.” Though attachment begins in infancy with attuned parenting , it continues throughout a lifetime. Empathy is a building block of positive relationships.
However, empathy without clear boundaries can morph into co-dependence. When relationships become co-dependent, a person’s emotional state becomes enmeshed with the emotional state of the other. If the other expresses anger, his or her partner feels attacked and defensive. If the other expresses sadness, his or her partner feels blame and shame. The partner personalizes and thus assumes responsibility for the thoughts, feelings and actions of the other, and organizes his or her own thoughts, feelings and actions around the impossible task of changing the other.
Ruiz reminds us that each person has a choice about how he or she will think, feel and act in response to a given situation. The only power to change comes from within. Recognizing this reality allows one to detach from personalizing and reflexively reacting to the behavior of the other, and by doing so, staying out of conflict with the other. It can be hard work, but setting the goal of establishing new and healthy emotional boundaries during and after a divorce sets the stage for effective co-parenting in the future.
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