As painful as splitting up can be, divorce can be a passage to a happier life. Before that can happen, however, most couples go through months of stress and sadness. This time can be made a little less difficult by good communication practices. Ironic though it may be, the need for effective communication during marriage is matched by its importance during the dissolution of a marriage.
Seeing and speaking with your ex-to-be is hard, and many of those going through divorce choose to minimize those contacts. This is seldom a wise path. Divorcing couples must somehow manage to agree on some aspects of their split. Cutting off communication makes that process harder. In addition, if there are children involved, you may be looking at years of interacting with your ex. It makes sense to build good communication practices.
If you think that you can make your life easier by passing information through your attorney, think again. While some matters are best handled by your lawyer, a legal staff isn’t really set up to handle everyday communications between you and your former partner. Besides, the more you ask your attorney to do for you, the larger bill you will get.
Of course, if the person you lived with was abusive or if you had an especially toxic relationship, it may be wise to avoid all contact. This is especially true if there is a restraining order in place. In such cases, seek advice from your attorney about acceptable ways of communication.
Set Ground Rules for Communication
If you and your ex-to-be are willing to work with each other, an early step is to set some ground rules for communication. The two of you need to reach a basic agreement about the subjects that can be discussed, the appropriate times for such discussion and the best ways to communicate with each other. Such rules can be the key to less stressful communication during and after divorce.
You may be able to agree upon the ground rules without assistance, or you may need help from a mediator or counselor. If feelings are still raw, an expert may be able to help the two of you develop a vision of what your post-divorce relationship could look like.
What to Talk About
One part of setting ground rules is specifying the subjects that are up for discussion. Although your attorneys will handle the division of property and child custody, you can resolve some minor issues on your own. Unless your marriage was highly conflicted, you should be able to discuss who gets the toaster and which babysitters are acceptable without too much difficulty. The more you can agree upon, the less work your lawyers will have to do.
One good rule to follow is to make bringing up the past off limits. You are forging a new relationship with your partner, and that relationship should be tainted as little as possible by old conflicts. You were unable to solve your issues during your marriage, so why rehash them?
How to Communicate
Another step is to decide upon communication methods: face-to-face, phone calls, emails or text messages. Most co-parenting couples choose a combination of these. Although it may seem less personal, email and text can be very useful in divorce cases. It enables you to have documentation about what was said during a conversation.
- Face-to-face meetings are most convenient for exchanging children, transferring property and other simple interactions. If your conversations tend to turn combative, try meeting in neutral territory such as a coffee shop.
- Phone conversations are good when you need a quick conference to settle something, such as handling a child’s illness. Be careful of your tone during phone conversations, and stick to the subject at hand. Don’t hang up out of frustration, but do cut the conversation short if it’s not working.
- Written communications such as email can be helpful when sharing information that your spouse may need to refer to often, such as a child’s schedule. Such info can also be sent by text, but if you text a lot, it can be hard to find a particular message.
- Text messages are convenient for quick exchanges, but the immediacy of the medium can lead people to say things they shouldn’t. Keep the texts neutral rather than bringing up emotional matters. If your partner sends a text that pushes your buttons, wait a while before you respond, or simply ignore it.
Prepare Before You Talk
If you are meeting face-to-face or having a live phone conversation, it can be helpful to jot down notes beforehand. Make a list of the topics to be discussed, and try to keep the conversation on track. Here are some useful tactics.
- Verbalize at the beginning what you’d like to accomplish. “I’d like for us to share our plans and expectations for Aaron’s birthday.”
- Begin by recognizing something good your partner has done. “Thank you for picking up Jenny’s prescription so she could get started on it right away.”
- Seek input from your partner first. You may find that the two of you are already on the same page. “What are your feelings about continuing with Madison’s piano lessons?”
- Restate what you are hearing. “From what I am hearing, I think you are concerned about dividing expenses equitably. Is that right?”
- Be sure you are being understood. “Can you tell me what you hear me saying? I want to be sure I am communicating.”
- Keep the conversation on track. “I know you are concerned about the holidays, but we can’t settle everything today. Let’s focus on the upcoming month.”
- Break off the discussion if it isn’t working. “Let’s take a break for now and talk about this another time.”
Communication Pitfalls to Avoid
When to communicate can be almost as important as how. It’s wise to decide upon times for routine exchanges. (Emergencies are, of course, a different matter.) Some parents don’t want to be contacted during working hours unless the matter is urgent. Others don’t mind receiving communications at work. Some parents enjoy peaceful mornings, and some go to bed early. Deliberately contacting your partner at an inconvenient time is a passive-aggressive tactic that doesn’t promote harmonious co-parenting.
It’s also wise to avoid communicating through third parties. Friends and relatives should not be put in the position of delivering messages to your ex, and it’s unwise to use your children as envoys. Besides putting third parties in an awkward position, you run a risk that your messages may not be delivered accurately.
In addition, you should realize that almost all communications have a cyber life. Most exchanges, especially electronic ones, can be saved. Assume that everything that you say or write will be saved or recorded and try your hardest not to say or write anything that could be used against you. While verbal exchanges can be recorded, you shouldn’t record conversations with your ex-partner unless you are sure it is legal. If you have a compelling reason to make a recording, check with your lawyer and learn how to do it within the law.
A Word About Social Media
If you are on social media, although you may not be directly communicating with your ex, you risk your post being seen either by your ex or by someone associated with him or her. Many of those who are going through a divorce find it a good time to take a break from social media platforms. If you do choose to continue, be conscious that posts showing you having fun with family and friends can cause your ex-to-be needless pain.
Working With Alcohol Use Disorder
If either you or your former partner struggles with alcoholism, you will face special challenges in communication. Needless to say, it’s not wise to try to talk when either party is under the influence. Even when sober, however, those who abuse alcohol can have communication difficulties. Studies show that they often have trouble reading the emotions of others, and they may have difficulty projecting appropriate sentiments when speaking. This is a serious problem since the emotional content of an exchange is often as important as the words themselves.
Alcohol monitoring can lessen the stress of communicating during the divorce process. If the party who struggles with alcoholism uses a remote monitoring system to demonstrate sobriety, the divorcing couple can have a more productive discourse, with both parties making a good-faith effort. Remote alcohol monitoring systems are often used to ensure that a party is not impaired during parenting time, but in a kind of halo effect, such programs can positively impact many aspects of participants’ lives, including communication. The best result, of course, is that a program that includes alcohol monitoring can help a parent maintain sobriety.
In summary, contact with an ex-partner during divorce is seldom easy and almost never comfortable. Learning some tips and tactics can make it easier. If you can make it through this difficult passage and still keep the channels of communication open, you have a good chance of making your post-divorce life work.
About the Author
Susan Adcox is a former teacher and a writer who specializes in generational issues, including parenting, grandparenting and family relationships.