TOOLS: COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR SPOUSE DURING AND AFTER THE DIVORCE
“Good communication does not mean that you have to speak in perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs. It isn't about slickness. Simple and clear go a long way". John Kotter
Once the two of you decide to divorce, there will come a very uncomfortable period when you are still living in the same place, and if you have children, that discomfort could go on for years as you co-parent. Regardless of your unique circumstances, the divorce process, with or without children, requires periods of intensive communication to complete the divorce. A few people figure out how to communicate with their soon to be ex-spouse under the new circumstances and manage it well. Most don’t.
Here are my suggestions for how to do it with the least stress:
1. If you can still communicate face to face, stay on task, and NOT have a “Xerox conversation” (an identical repetition of a argument you two have had 100 times before), then sit down over the kitchen table and have a meeting with an agenda (written, but no more than 3-4 items per meeting) is the way to go.
2. Schedule the meeting at a mutually agreeable time, preferably NOT too late at night when you are both too tired to stay in control and solve problems.
3. Write down the agreement you reach for each item and sign it; give each spouse a copy.
4. If face to face meetings don’t work because the level of hurt and anger are too high, then choose the channel of communication LEAST likely to lead to escalation and MOST likely to lead to solution or agreement.
This is my ranking of channels, from LEAST likely to escalate to MOST likely to escalate into an argument:
• Letter writing (Least likely to escalate)
• Phone calls--scheduled ahead of time with an agenda
• Face to face with a counselor or parenting coordinator/facilitator
• Face to face meetings in a public place--scheduled with an agenda
• Face to face in private with a friend present--scheduled, with agenda
• Skype or Face-Time--scheduled, with agenda
• Spontaneous, unscheduled phone calls
• Face to face alone; no agenda (Most likely to escalate)
5. If you are already in the “can’t talk without arguing phase” of your divorce, then start with “letter writing” and work your way DOWN the list above until you find a channel that works for the two of you.
The challenge with letters, email, and text is that all the emotional content is removed, making communication harder and misunderstanding more likely. The benefit of these more impersonal channels of communication is that these same channels remove the “triggers” which re-ignite old arguments because usually the triggers are facial expressions and tone of voice that are signals of criticism, defensiveness, or contempt.
When children are involved, use email and text to set up or change visitation arrangements and to share information about the kids. Keep your face-to-face interactions at the door during exchanges of visitation:
This BIFF strategy also applies to texts and emails you send to the other parent. Protect your kids from seeing more of the conflict and start a new pattern of civil, friendly, cooperation and co-parenting for THEIR benefit. (Special thanks to Bill Eddy for the BIFF strategy.)
Even after the legal divorce is completed, you will still have occasions when you must communicate. Use the channel that works best for both of you.
[A note NOT included in the book]
There is a pattern among couples who are NOT really emotionally untangled that includes multiple emails or phone calls from one spouse (or ex-spouse) to the other about a myriad of issues, usually kids or money. The harassing spouse makes each issue sound like an emergency and demands (or expects) an immediate response, and if that is not forthcoming, adds that failure to respond to list of complaints in the next email or call.
There is a solution:
1. If you know the kids are safe, check voicemail and email from your ex ONE time per day.
2. Go through them all at one time, the same time every day, and if a response is needed to solve a problem THAT DAY, then answer THAT question. Ignore everything else in the messages--do NOT respond.
3. Do the same thing, every day, at the same time, and teach your ex to expect a response at that time of the day, and no other. (Don't bother to try to explain or get agreement on this, just start doing it and keep doing it.)
4. Eventually the calls/emails will taper off because if you don't respond, there is no emotional payoff for them to continue to harass you. You MUST stick to this strategy forever for it to work. If you slip up and respond immediately to one message, the pattern will return and you will have to start over. So be vigilant, and stick to your guns.
This strategy of managing your communication will not only make your own life easier and less stressful, it will be another step in disengaging from a pattern that hurts both you and your children by maintaining the ongoing conflict at a high level. It takes both parents to truly end this destructive pattern, but one parent can wind it down by following these steps and sticking to it.