3 tips to help you communicate with your ex as you separate or divorce
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Communication with your ex during your divorce process can be fraught and full of stress. When you are caught in a cycle of conflict, with hurt and fear in the mix, it can be all too easy for tempers to flare, for things to be said and done, and for the temperature of the discussion to rise very quickly. These are my top three tips for smoother communication with your ex:
1. Set your intention clearly
Know what sort of relationship you want to have in the future. What do you want your relationship to look and feel like:
• In 1 year?
• In 5 years?
• At your children's wedding?
The last one of these kept me out of all kinds of trouble during my divorce. I knew with all of my being that I wanted our children to feel that we can sit in the same room, at the same table and eat a meal together to celebrate their wedding. I do not want them to feel that they must choose between us. I want them to have a happy and stable relationship with us both, and our new partners.
Your vision of your future relationship might be like mine, or it might be different. Some clients tell me that their goal is to have a distanced, but respectful relationship, with contact only about the children. You might want to divorce as simply as possible and then have no contact at all. Whatever your intention for your future relationship, make sure you are clear and that you know why it is important to you – even if you don’t feel you could have that sort of relationship yet.
You may find that it helps to share your vision with your ex, so that you can feel you are working together towards a common goal. Even if you don’t entirely agree, when you have made your intention clear, it can be beneficial to refer back to it.
Once you have decided what your long-term vision for the relationship is, keep it in the forefront of your mind in all your communication. Ask yourself whether the email you are about to send or the comment you are about to make will take you nearer or further away from that goal. This doesn't mean giving in, but it may mean thinking carefully about how you say things, how you react, and the sorts of words you use in your communication.
2. Try to see the other perspective
Do you find that you sometimes assume your ex is acting in a certain way to hurt or punish you? Or to push your buttons on purpose? Or do you find yourself saying sentence beginning with “you always …..”, “you never …….”, or “you make me feel so ……? Do your arguments sometimes bring up old resentments, and throw blame around?
When you find yourself assuming you know why your ex is behaving in a certain way, or saying certain words, pause for a moment, and ask whether you are 100% sure that you are right. What else might their intention be? What might they be feeling? Remember that they are also going through a divorce and may be making assumptions about you too. Can you ask them what their intentions or feelings are? A great parenting coach I worked with recently, Mette Theilmann, describes this as being “curious not furious”.
I often use an NLP technique, called perceptual positioning, to help my clients with this.
Think of an issue that you and your ex have fallen out about recently. Firstly, stand or sit in a chair and explain out loud, or by writing it down, what your perspective is. How do you see the issue? What do you hear, see and feel? What do you believe?
Once you have done that, jump up and down for a moment to shake it off.
Move to a different place on the floor or sit in a different chair. Imagine that you are your ex. You have your ex’s background, experiences, beliefs and outlook. Really feel into what it is like to be them. Now explain out loud, or by writing it down, what your perspective is, as though you were your ex. How do you see it? What do you hear, see and feel? What do you believe? Use “I” for this, so that you are thinking from their perspective.Again, shake it off.
Take a step back. Physically stand or sit in a different space or chair. Imagine you are looking at you and your ex from the perspective of a third person – someone who has no strong feelings about the issue, and who loves and supports you both. This can be a fly on the wall, a guardian angel, even the family pet. What do they notice about you and your ex in this situation? What message of advice to you both might they have?
It can be eye-opening when you do this exercise. I recently did this with a client who realised that both he and his ex-wife were both so focused on being “right” that they had lost sight of the long-term goal, which was to split with as little disruption to their children as possible.
3. Know what you can and can’t control
When you communicate with your ex, what can you control, and what can’t you control? Put simply, you can control anything that is within your power - your own words, actions, behaviours, assumptions, reactions and choices. You cannot control theirs. Of course, you are free to put across your opinion, your perspective. Your ex then has a choice about how to respond.
It was a lightbulb moment for me what I realised this. All the time I was trying to control my ex’s responses and actions, I was only getting more and more frustrated when he didn’t do as I wished. Once I realised that I could only control my part, it meant that I thought far more carefully about my own words and actions, and I took much more time over what I said and did. If he didn’t respond in the way I hoped, I could think about what I could do differently, to get a different result. I couldn’t “make him” do anything, but I could consider how I could change my actions, words and approaches, and see if anything shifted.
Remember that you can always control your breath. If you find your emotions rising and beginning to overwhelm you, STOP! Breathe deeply, before you think and respond. Taking a moment to breathe helps to calm your heart rate and stress response, enabling you to think more clearly.
It is possible for one person to set the tone for negotiations and communication. It takes two people to continue the conflict. If you take the lead and maintain your composure, the outcome may not be what you expect.
If you have any questions, or would like some support, please book a free 15-minute call with one of our experts here.