Do you spend a great deal of your time in arguments with your ex? Is it nearly impossible to communicate anything at all that doesn’t lead to an explosion of tempers? Do you often feel you can’t say do anything right and try to avoid communication altogether, even when you sometimes need to talk about the kids? If so, you are not alone. Communication, in all aspects of life, is difficult and causes great strain in divorce. However, there is a way to avoid escalation and help your kids, too.
Start using four simple tools in your email and other communications with your ex. I endorse email as the “go to” for most of your communication. It is less immediate than text, which can be intrusive and easily inflammatory when quick responses are given. It also creates a written record you can rely on later as needed which in person or telephone communications are less likely to provide.
If you follow these simple ideas, the impact will be almost immediate. Remember, though, that your ex may expect tempers to flare now so may not be prepared for what’s next. The single biggest tip you can internalize now is to stay steady and give it time to work. Once you do, you will find the benefits of reducing your escalation pays off in more joy and less stress for you too. This, in turn, helps you feel better because the messages you send to yourself and others are more positive. It’s a win for everyone in your life!
Go Neutral, Not Nasty
Remember a time when arguments with your ex quickly escalated. Perhaps she wanted to get the kids sooner or drop them later or vary the custody schedule. Maybe she asked for money. All of these demands may act as triggers for you having nothing to do with her request, especially if you feel she has always told you what to do or chronically complains about money. However, it’s your job to address only what’s asked, that is, as the expression goes, “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” If you are asked about something, answer the question. That is, answer only that question and do not bring up other matters in your response.
It may or may not be true that your ex has repeatedly asked for varied times or dates, but it doesn’t matter. Just answer her question. For example, if she asks you whether she can drop the kids at 8 pm instead of 6 pm Sunday night, you can answer, “Yes,” or “No.”
There’s no need to remind her she always asks for a later time and that you are tired of it. In fact, it’s better not to even add, at least as a first response, any reason. Just say, “That works,” or “That doesn’t work this time.” If she comes back to ask why, keep it short and sweet. “The kids need a bath and story by 8:30 so they can get enough rest before school tomorrow.” If she reminds you that you never cared about that when you were married, no response is required. If the kids aren’t dropped until 8 pm, just make a note and keep a record of it.
Over time, you can decide if a pattern has been created that makes any action on your part worthwhile. Remember, the goal is to support the kids and not punish you or her.
State What You Want, Not What You Don’t
When you have a request for your ex, ask it. Don’t tell her you are asking because she has previously failed to do whatever you are asking or criticizing her in another way.
For example, if you want to take your child to the zoo on a day you wouldn’t have her because there’s a special exhibit, email, “Can I take our daughter on Saturday because there is a special exhibit of penguins only on that day?” Don’t say, “I want to take our daughter to the zoo Saturday because I know you won’t do it and I don’t want her to miss the penguin exhibit.” The difference may seem obvious now but may not always be to you.
So, after you draft an email, save it. Turn to another task and come back a bit later. Re-read what you have written. Remove anything that suggests your ex has done something wrong. Remember, you are asking for something and want to get it.
Even if you are entitled to it, she can make it difficult so why communicate in a way that makes it harder for you? If you can’t see your own biases, ask one trusted person to review your email until you get the hang of it. Friends and family can be tricky as they are likely “in your corner.” Often, a divorce coach is the perfect neutral to help you with your goal and hold you gently accountable as needed. But, over time, you can certainly do this on your own!
Make what you are asking as flexible as possible. Allow your ex to feel empowered by what you are asking to allow them some control too. If you want to take your daughter to the zoo on a day you don’t have custody, and there is more than one date or time that can happen for you, ask your ex what she prefers. “I’d love to take our daughter to the zoo and see the exhibit is this Saturday and Sunday. Does one of those days work for you?” This will be much more likely to receive a positive response than, “I want to take our daughter to the zoo and it has to be Saturday because I have other plans Sunday so don’t suggest it.”
This may seem obvious, but you will be surprised by how much you even unintentionally convey if your communication in the past has not been friendly or cooperative. Build in your own flexibility so you can prepare for a response that gets you what you want, going to the zoo, even if it turns out it has to be on Sunday, for example.
Agree to Disagree
You are likely familiar with the Rolling Stones lyrics, “You can’t always get what you want.” Yet, in separation and divorce, we are often loathe letting go any of our ideas when our ex takes another position. We become entrenched in ways we wouldn’t with friends, most family, and even co-workers.
The remedy to avoid escalating arguments with your ex is to recognize that so much of this disagreement is simply noise.
It doesn’t really matter much what she thinks about your ideas anymore.
You need to have some agreement about the kids, but you mostly have authority in your home and she in hers. Of course, it’s better for the kids if you can be consistent across homes on the big issues, but you can let the rest go.
For example, if your ex puts the kids to bed at 7:30 pm and you think it’s too early, that 8:30 pm is just fine; it’s not necessary to tell her that unless you notice the kids aren’t well rested. And, even if they aren’t, there are many other reasons that may occur having nothing to do with your difference in bedtimes. In other words, let it go.
If you can remind yourself of this, in divorce, almost every day, you will likely serve yourself and your kids much better. Naturally, when something happens that has a big impact on your kid’s life, you will state it, with respect and in a neutral way. For example, “I noticed our daughter wakes up at 5:00 am, and I wonder if her bedtime impacts that. I’m trying 8:30 pm now and find she sleeps until 6:30 am. Do you think that might work for you too?” Of course, if your daughter isn’t waking up for you too early, you don’t need to say anything at all and will only tell your ex this suggestion if asked.
Controlling Arguments With Your Ex
After all, we may not always get what we want but it is likely, sometimes, we will get what we need. Reminding yourself, repeatedly, what you can control and what you can’t, and communicating only what you control will help avoid escalating arguments with your ex. And, really, that’s what all of us really need.