Does every communication with your ex end in you feeling frustrated and emotional? Then your ex is probably a high conflict person. Divorce is hard enough when both parties are reasonable. Throw a high-conflict ex into the mix and it can feel unbearable. Communicating peacefully with a high-conflict ex may seem impossible, but there are things you can do to communicate effectively and navigate this process with less stress.
Here are tips to keep in mind when communicating with a high-conflict ex:
You can do this! Your children are worth the effort. If you can use these tips successfully, conflict between you and your ex will decrease and you and your children will benefit.
Parenting is difficult when you have a good, strong marriage. When going through divorce, parenting has additional complications. In order to co-parent effectively, you need to have mutual respect, strong communication skills and a willingness to compromise and work together for the good of your children. It's extremely difficult to have all of the skills necessary to co-parent effectively when you're angry at one another and are in the middle of divorce negotiations.
After a marriage ends, there can be a lot of built up anger and resentment. Sometimes attorneys can exacerbate those negative feelings as they try to get the best deal for their clients. Meanwhile, if you have children together, you need to interact with each other to discuss parenting schedules and various issues that come up with your children. This can be a recipe for disaster because the children see and feel the tension between their parents. Children can be significantly impacted by this tension.
Co-parenting counseling can help. Co-parenting counseling enables parents, with the help of an experienced professional, to work together to build communication and other skills so that they can work together productively. The professional can be very clear about where the boundaries are - what's acceptable and not acceptable for the parents to say, email and text each other. For example, one of my clients thought that it was fine for her to ignore the other parent unless it was an emergency. The other parent would get frustrated and would lash out. Obviously, these are not ideal ways for co-parents to communicate.
When I work with co-parents, I encourage them to think of each other as colleagues or coworkers. This enables them to take the emotion out of their communication with each other. I work with them to be respectful of each other, use I messages, listen to each other and come to compromise. Throughout our work, I stress that they're doing this for the good of their children and although it can be difficult, most of my clients are successful. When my clients develop strong co-parenting relationships, they're giving their children the gift of a better future life.
Sometimes you may feel your relationship is going well and other times you may be worried about the strength of your relationship. It can help to take a step back and see what’s working and what’s not. Here are some areas to look at:
These five areas are important when assessing the strength of your relationship. If you’re doing most or all of these, you’re probably doing pretty well. If you need work on one or more of these areas, don’t be discouraged. These skills can be learned. You can improve the strength of your relationship yourselves or you can always try couples counseling.
For most parents, telling their children about the decision to divorce is one of the most difficult things that they have to face. It is helpful for both parents to discuss ahead of time what they’re going to share with their children and how they’re going to respond to their children’s questions.
Parents should make several agreements:
If you don’t know where you’ll live, that will create some stress for children. Letting children know a plan for where you’re living, even if it’s just for the near future, will help lower children’s anxiety.
If there are issues that the children already know about such as substance abuse, sexual orientation or an affair, it’s better to acknowledge the issue rather than avoid it. If you discuss it with the children, it will enable them to ask questions and feel that they can come to you to talk about things that concern them.
Discuss what the schedule will be and anything else that will impact them. Children need to know things like will they be moving, where will each parent live, who they will live with, when will they see each parent, will they stay at the same school and what will happen on their birthday and holidays. Even if you don’t have all of the answers, telling children what’s happening in the near future will help.
It’s best for parents to tell their children about the divorce together. It helps children see that their parents are still working together. It provides a sense of safety for children through an unstable time. It also provides an opportunity for children to process the information in a safe environment as both parents are available for questions, reassurance and support. Choose a time where there's no distractions and everyone can be together.
If children don’t feel like asking questions or talking about anything, don’t push them. Allow them to have time to process the information. They probably feel a lot of conflicting emotions and may not be able to verbalize their feelings right away.
It’s ok to tell children that you’re sad about the divorce and that with time, you will all heal and adjust to the changes in the family. However, try not to show intense emotions like crying for hours or saying, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Even though you may be struggling emotionally, you need to deal with your emotions separately from your children. They need to know that you are strong enough to deal with the divorce so that they don’t feel obligated to take care of you. If you need help dealing with all of the emotions and overwhelm of divorce, see a therapist so that you can be there for your children.
Relationships are tricky. In order to have a healthy relationship, you must compromise. You have to give up some things that you would want and hopefully your partner also gives up some things that they want. But how much giving up is too much? How do you both give to each other while making sure that you're meeting your own needs?
Communication is key to finding the balance between taking care of yourself and taking care of your relationship. Make some time to talk when you’re both relaxed and can focus on the conversation. Listen to each other and try to understand the other’s point of view. If you find that your partner doesn’t allow you to have your own friends or activities, that may indicate a serious problem in your relationship. If you can have a reasonable conversation about how you can work through this issue, that’s a very good sign for the health of your relationship.
Too many people get into relationships and find that everything they do revolves around their partner. The problem with this is that it may work in the beginning but after some time you'll most likely feel resentful. You'll wake up and realize that you’ve become distant from all of your friends and you don’t have any outside interests. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can give of yourself to the relationship while you take care of yourself.
The first step is to think about what’s important to you. Prioritize the things that you do that make you happy. Is it important to attend a weekly book club with your friends? Is it important to work out every day? Is it important to spend time with your sister regularly? You probably won’t be able to do it all but you can choose some things that you value the most. You need to feel grounded and happy. If you find that you’ve given up too much and you’re starting to feel resentful, that needs to be discussed.
Good communication is essential to finding the right balance for your relationship. Check in with your partner regularly and make sure you’re on the same page regarding time spent together and time spent apart. If you do so, you’ll develop the basis for a really strong, connected relationship.
In today’s fast-paced, connected world, we often communicate via email and text. Remembering to update an ex on all events, conversations and decisions is important and requires organization and time. But failure to do so can lead to the breakdown of the co-parenting relationship and can negatively impact your children.
Luckily there are tools that are now available to help co-parents communicate more effectively. The app that I’d like to highlight is called “2Houses” which includes a calendar where every family member can view an online schedule. Parents can schedule recurrent activities like tennis lessons and special events such as birthday parties. The app has a finance tool that helps parents manage their children’s expenses. When a payment is needed for a doctor’s appointment, a reminder is sent to the parent in charge of that payment. A great feature is a wish list where each parent can suggest what should be bought for their children such as food or something needed for school. It even has an album feature where you can share pictures of your children with each other. Lastly, there is an info bank where you can share important contact numbers and addresses.
If something is not communicated correctly, there can be serious consequences. Apps like 2Houses make it easier for co-parents to be on the same page. By using 2Houses, the chances of miscommunication is lessened and you and your children will benefit.
Most couples struggle with communication. You may spend a lot of time together with your partner but much of that is tied up with kids, work, or chores and responsibilities. At the end of the day, exhausted, you each watch your favorite program and go to sleep. In truth, very little meaningful communication occurred.
If that sounds familiar in your relationship, you can make some changes that will significantly improve your communication. The first step is to schedule time to communicate into your day two to three times a week. Make that time sacred so that nothing else can take priority. It doesn’t have to be that long – 30 minutes is plenty of time. Make sure there are no distractions. Then use the following guidelines to structure your communication time:
Good communication in relationships is a skill that takes practice. It may take some time to change the way you communicate, especially if you’ve been doing it differently for a long time. But using these techniques successfully will help you communication better and as a result, you will have a closer, more connected relationship.
We can get provoked or “triggered” by many things – a fight with a spouse, a child who won’t listen, a boss who treats you badly, an aggressive driver, etc. Being triggered simply means that some event has impacted us emotionally and we have a difficult time reacting rationally. When we’re triggered, we do things that we shouldn’t do. We yell back at our spouse or child, we say something inappropriate to our boss, or we leave in a huff. How wonderful would it be if we could somehow, in the moment that we are triggered, find a way to detach?
One skill that you may have tried in the past when you’ve been triggered is deep abdominal breathing. Deep abdominal breathing is where you push your stomach out as you breath in and pull your stomach in as you breath out. This enables your lungs to expand much farther than if you take the typical “chest breath”. When you do it correctly and for long enough, your brain will release a hormone that will calm you. This calm will enable you to detach. Once you’re detached, you can respond logically rather than emotionally.
Sometimes deep abdominal breathing doesn’t work. You try it and you’re still triggered and unable to detach. Grounding is another technique that can be helpful in these circumstances. Grounding is a type of coping strategy that is designed to “ground” you in or connect you to the present moment. You can only use grounding if you have given yourself some space from the person that you were interacting with. You can say that you have to go to the bathroom, ask them if you can talk about this a little later or find some other way to get to a separate space. Once you’ve gotten to a separate space, you can try these steps for grounding:
The key to being successful with these techniques is to practice them when you’re not being triggered. You can also make up your own method of grounding that enables you to distract and detach yourself from your emotions. Learning to detach is a powerful tool that can help you to be more successful in your communication skills and improve your relationships with your spouse, children, boss and anyone else important in your life. Let me know what techniques work for you!
In most relationships, there is conflict. The way that you deal with conflict is so important to being close. John Gottman suggests using specific word to help people repair their relationships when there is conflict. He suggests using “I feel” statements instead of “You” statements. Saying how you feel with “I feel” statements allows the other person to hear you without becoming defensive. It’s a non-threatening way of communicating.
I Feel statements:
If the communication starts to get more intense or emotional, one of you may need to take the intensity down. When emotions are high, it’s very difficult to have a reasonable conversation. Here are some suggestions for those circumstances:
I Need To Calm Down:
Apologies and taking responsibility for your part can be really powerful, especially when they’re heartfelt. They can immediately change the intensity of the interaction and start moving you in a different direction.
Finally, in every conflict there is a way to get to a resolution. Providing some positive comments can be very helpful in getting you to an agreement.
Get To Yes:
Using these statements and tools involves being kind. Kindness is the glue to healthy relationships. Kindness is like a muscle – it’s easier to be kind the more you practice. It’s difficult to practice kindness during a fight when emotions are running high. When you’re emotional, it can be hard to think of what to say to be kind. But these kind words can be powerful tools to repair feelings during a conflict so that the end result is a much closer, more intimate relationship.
When your partner pulls away, you may feel hurt. You may even feel a deep sense of rejection and fear that he or she doesn’t love you and may leave you. Typically, this is an irrational feeling if your partner has shown you over time that they love you. Your partner pulling away from you is likely the result of their past experiences and circumstances. Something happened in their past that makes them pull away when they feel upset.
Intimate relationships are hard because there are so many complex emotions that we might not fully understand. Experiences from the past are brought up and those feelings impact your reactions. If it was just about the single incident, it wouldn’t take you long to recognize that your partner loves you and when he or she pulled away, it wasn’t due to the way they feel about you. But instead you feel that irrational rejection. So why do you have that irrational feeling?
These irrational feelings are usually triggered by past experience – possibly being rejected by a parent or a past partner. A part of the brain that is triggered doesn’t know the difference between the current experience and the past experience. So you feel deeply hurt and you become scared that the person will leave you. You immediately react – either fight or pull away. This may create the same feeling in your partner and, in turn, they may pull away even further. Before you know it, you are completely disconnected from each other emotionally.
What do we do about this? The first step is try to figure out what previous experience is coming up for you. Did you have a rejecting parent? Was your parent depressed, anxious, addicted to something or unable to meet your needs when you were a child? If so, when a partner pulls away you feel like a child again. I call it being “kicked into your kid”. You are that 8 or 10-year-old child again where you didn’t get your needs met and didn’t feel unconditional love from a parent. If you have a bad experience of being hurt by a previous relationship, when a partner pulls away you may feel scared of being hurt again. This is a little easier to understand and connect on an emotional level. But this new partner didn’t leave so it’s important to separate your feelings from your past from this current relationship.
The second step is to share your feelings with your partner in a clear, non-threatening way. Use an “I message”:
I feel ________________ when you ____________ because _________. Would you please ______________?
I feel hurt when you pull away because it brings up the feelings I had when I was rejected by my mom when I was a child. Would you please let me know that you still love me?
This is scary to do for many people because you are making yourself extremely vulnerable. But you are also learning how to communicate your feelings which will bring you closer and will enable you to have a truly deep intimate connection with your significant other.
Jill Barnett Kaufman, MSW, LCSW and Certified Parent Educator is an experienced clinician who helps clients discover new ways to resolve a variety of challenges and bring more happiness and peace into their lives.