I heard a journalist say recently that “there’s a vicious and respectless way of communicating that’s reserved exclusively for the ‘divorced with children.’” Ouch, that hurt! Probably because it rings so true. It doesn’t have to be like that. And for the sake of bridge-building with our children’s other parent, here are some ground rules for practicing how to play fair. (For the sake of ease here, I’m going to assume that we’re talking about divorce or separation and that the children have residence with their mum; their dad having moved to a separate home.)
1. Focus on the Present and the Future
Conversations between separated Mums and Dads about the past often get heated, stressed, and even dangerous. If this is the case, they are not going to benefit the present and the future. If you have unresolved issues relating to your past relationship, you must find a way to process these independently to your conversations with you ex. Find a good counselor, a qualified friend or family member (i.e., they know how to keep you moving forward and are not going to spend time just agreeing with you), or an anger-management therapist—whoever it is, work through your feelings about your ex-partner in a constructive and forward-focused way in your own time.
2. Focus on the Children’s Well-Being
Remember that regardless of what you think about your child’s other parent, your child loves you both and is not a pawn. Try to encourage a good relationship with their dad after he’s moved away and build up the time your children spend with him to a level where everyone’s happy. Initially it may be that the children just want to be in familiar surroundings for the majority of the time. Encourage and equip them to talk about how they feel and be aware not to manipulate or color their thinking. Asking what they want is a good start. However, sometimes they will have to be stretched out of their comfort zone (like they may just have to go and spend the weekend at Dad’s flat) for the long-term benefit of all their relationships.
3. Give Yourself a Time Limit for Conversations
If you finding that your tolerance level for being civil to your ex-partner is limited, then make sure you only talk in short blocks of time. Practice “doing diaries” in under ten minutes. If you feel yourself start to get anxious, then suggest that “we look at this again next week.”
4. Get Comfortable with Pacing Your Conversations
Not all conversations about our children have to be concluded right now. Try to plan ahead when negotiating access, holidays, finances, having your children be at their friend’s parties. Mention ahead of time that you’d like to take the children to Cornwall, or you want to have them visit their Granny on her birthday. This will allow time for both parents to consider the benefits for the children and to consider what a compromise or re-negotiation might look like.
5. Be Respectful
Right, this bit might take practice and persistence, but it’s so worth it in the long run. Try to be aware of how you speak with your other adult friends, family, and colleagues. Be aware of your tone of voice, how the conversation moves along, and when you sense it’s the right time to conclude. The more aware you get, the more conscious you can be of applying these rules of respect to conversations with your ex. It’s never right to be out of control. So if you feel yourself heading that way, suggest you “leave it for now” and you’ll “take some time to think about what’s been said” and you’ll “pick it again next week.”
There’s no magic wand for powerful communication with your ex, just practice, practice, and practice some good new habits. And every time you do it well, note what you did differently and make a plan to repeat it next time. Success—by the inch it’s a cinch; by the mile it’s a trial … break it down into easily-practiced chunks!