Being able to communicate effectively is one of the most important life skills you can have. It plays an essential role in building solid romantic relationships, as well as in raising our children (and developing friendships and business relationships for that matter). But sometimes, relationships just don’t work out and, when children are involved, it’s not very easy to just draw a line under it and move on. Dealing with an ex can be prickly at the best of times and, particularly when it comes to the kids, it often becomes very difficult indeed.
How do I know this? I’ve lived through parental separation and trust me, we got that communication part wrong. Oh so very wrong. Now, exactly two years on, we’ve learned some great lessons along the way and have built a great co-parenting relationship.
So here’s our story. If you’re going through separation, hopefully you can learn from our mistakes by applying these five golden rules.
Let’s start at the beginning.
My name is Dan and I’m a very proud Daddy to a beautiful little four year old. I remember the day Evie was born like it was yesterday The whole world instantly looked different. After a relatively short labour (it’s easy for the Dad to say that, I just stood on like a bewildered and utterly useless spectator), Evie was born.
I held her skin-to-skin against my chest in the seconds after she was born, her arms clutched tight against me as her body rose and fell softly with every little inward and outward breath.
...That was the moment I learned what love really was.
My relationship with my ex partner had been a bit of a whirlwind. We got swept up in the romance and, before we knew it, we’d moved in together and she was pregnant. Evie came along and it soon became clear that we hadn’t put in enough work into developing the foundations of our relationship and cracks started to appear.
We kept at it, but when Evie was just two years old my ex told me she was moving back in with her parents. I’d known things hadn’t been great between us, but I’d resigned myself to ‘seeing it through’ until Evie was older. This was the wrong attitude.
Truth be told, I’d never even heard of the term, ‘co-parenting’. Though my parents separated when I was younger, I never imagined I would be in this situation and I certainly didn’t know there was a word for separated parenting!
So, here I am, a co-parenting Daddy learning how to parent solo, whilst dealing with bitter disputes over an access schedule and everything else that comes with parental separation.
It was one of the most difficult phases of my life to date, that’s for sure.
When children are involved, separation is an incredibly emotionally charged subject. Messages flew back and forth between us as we struggled to agree on what we each considered access. My ex partner took to telling me what access I could and couldn’t have, whereas given that I had parental responsibility, I felt strongly that she didn’t have the right to dictate to me.
Long and emotionally-charged messages were exchanged in an unhelpful ‘tit-for-tat’ style that looked something like this (you might recognise it if you’ve gone through separation yourself).
Her: You will do [argument a]. Me: I won’t do that [argument a] because of [reasons]. You will do [argument b]. Her: I won’t do [argument b] because of [reasons]. You will do [argument c] Me: How could you be so unreasonable!? I won’t do [argument c] because of[reasons]. Her: Me being unreasonable? How could YOU be so unreasonable?!
You get my drift.
Our ‘War and Peace’-style messages were certainly effective at telling the other person how hard done by we felt, but they didn’t solve any of our problems at all. If anything, they just made things worse.
Before long we were only communicating via essay-like emails and both sides were becoming more and more polarised. A little longer and communication completely and utterly broke down. Solicitors’ letters followed and we just weren’t getting anywhere, so...in a final bid to avoid what seemed like inevitable court proceedings, we enlisted the support of a mediator.
The mediator was brilliant and helped both sides to recognise the flaws in our expectations and achieve a compromise that was fair and reasonable for everybody.
Eventually established a parenting plan, which sets out the rules of engagement between both mum and dad. Thankfully, almost two years later, I’m pleased to say that communication between us is infinitely better and we get on quite well as parents.
If we’d have known what we know now and approached communication a little smarter, it probably wouldn’t have taken so long to get there!
5 communication tips I wish I’d known when we first separated
1. Short, sweet and business-like messages
I remember the mediator reading one of the long and wordy emails I’d sent which tried to pick apart my ex’s argument, with evidence, piece by piece. She told me it was beautifully-written and countered every single one of her points superbly...She also told me achieved absolutely nothing and that I shouldn’t send messages like that.
The mediator was absolutely right. Whether my ex was right or wrong wasn’t relevant in the slightest. The goal was to achieve a compromise that we were both happy with and my bid to prove I was right was a perfect example of how our egos can get in the way.
Every email since that relates to anything important has been short and sweet, ideally with bullet points to communicate key messages. The emotion has been stripped out too; I find it helps to imagine writing an email to a colleague at work that you don’t really know that well – be polite, but not over-friendly!
2. Keep your messages separate
When my ex and I first separated, we were messaging on just about every platform you can think of. WhatsApp, text messages, email...It was all over the place. We eventually both created specific email addresses exclusively for communicating about Evie and it works fairly well.
The amicable co-parenting app has been released since we set all of this up and I wish I’d known about it sooner. It allows you to store all your messages safely and securely within the app, which makes them easy to search and reference at a later date if, for whatever reason, you need to check back.
3. Set clear boundaries and expectations
Building a parenting plan was one of the best things we could have done because it removed any ambiguity surrounding when and where we would have our daughter.
By establishing a clear calendar which outlined a routine, as well as special days like birthdays and holidays etc., it meant that there was less of a need for questions and therefore, we needed to talk less and we knew that whenever we did speak, it was about something important.
4. Be consistent
If you say you’re going to do something, do it. As co-parents, you have to be able to trust that the other person will do what they say they’re going to do. If you don’t, you risk losing the trust of your ex which will make future communications tough.
More importantly, if you commit to doing something and then don’t, you could let your child down, which is unacceptable in my book.
5. Be flexible
Listen, we all have good days and we all have bad days. Sometimes communication can become a little strained when your ex seems like they’re being unreasonable – trust me, they’ve probably thought the same of you.
Remember that separation is an incredibly stressful process for everybody. With so much change going on around you, as well as financial and emotional instability, it’s natural to feel stressed out or agitated from time to time.
There’s a lot to be said for taking the high road and offering a little support every now and again; you never know when you may need the favour returned.
Daniel Betts is the creator of @thebreakingdad. You can find more content like this on their website here.