As a family mediator, I've seen some pretty nasty arguments erupt between separated parents during a joint session. There are many different styles of arguing: Some people become loud and abusive, some become sarcastic and snappy, and others withdraw sullenly. I'm very aware that often clients who are generally friendly, social and mature in everyday life, can quickly descend into the worst version of themselves when faced with the prospect of discussing parenting matters with their ex.
While I would love for all my clients to have a year of therapy to deal with their emotional hurt before entering the mediation space (after all, separation is one of the most painful and confusing experiences an adult can go through), this is often not realistic. So as an alternative, here are a couple of strategies to help you communicate with your ex when you are struggling to be civil:
The Business of Parenting. It can be helpful to conceptualise your relationship with your ex as something akin to a business partnership. You are now in the business of parenting. In business, you don't take things personally, you only talk about the topics that are relevant to your business, and you don't meddle in your business partner's private life. You are respectful, polite, but also have healthy boundaries and keep an emotional distance. Every time you feel like taking a dig at your ex, ask yourself: would I say that to my business partner?
Process your emotions. This is key to being able to effectively carry out the Business of Parenting. It is your seething anger, your aching heart and your frustration at not being able to control your ex that will cause you to fall off the wagon and go back to your old arguing ways. Real and lasting progress happens when you regain your internal balance. There are many ways to heal your emotional self - therapy, reading books, support groups, meditation, journaling, exercise, any spiritual practice, to name just a few. Find something that helps you feel better on the inside, and commit to doing it consistently.
Keep three things unsaid. I could have substituted the number three with two or four, but the point is to make a conscious effort to filter what comes out of your mouth (or your keyboard or your phone). Keep some space between your thoughts and your words. Not all opinions of your ex need to be expressed to your ex. I recommend keeping a journal where you can vent your frustrations uninhibited. Pages that are particularly toxic can be ripped out and burned. This is surprisingly satisfying.
How you communicate with your ex says more about you than it does about them. I often hear clients justifying their poor behaviour by blaming their ex for intentionally pushing their buttons, provoking them or being unreasonable. While this may or may not be true, rather than blaming your ex, the higher path is to take responsibility for your own behaviour, regardless of what your ex does. You cannot control what your ex does or says. You could not control them while you were together and you sure as heck can't control them now! The only person you can control is yourself. So take responsibility for your own actions and hold yourself to a higher standard.
Do it for your kids. I saved this one for last, though it is of course the most important. Your children NEED to see you getting along. Or at least not waging world war three. Please do not underestimate the impact of parental conflict on the wellbeing of your children. It affects them so many ways. Dig deep for the sake of your children.
These tips can be real game changers when it comes to communicating with your ex. Be consistent and give them a chance to work. Remember, it's never too late to create a better way of communicating.
NB: Relationships with a history of domestic violence require additional safety measures that are not covered in this article.
Alarna Carlsson is a family dispute resolution practitioner, and founder of Carlsson & Co, a specialist family mediation practice based in Sydney. Her mediation model promotes open and constructive communication, with the aim of calming tension between parties and creating long-lasting agreements. It is her mission to help clients transition through separation as smoothly as possible, and restore hope for the future. For more information visit: www.carlssonmediation.com.au
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