Updated: May 31, 2022
Managing Children's needs when Divorce Impairs Communications
When I was going through my own divorce, likely one of the most challenging factors my ex-wife and I had to deal with was communication. Children’s lives need to be managed, yet there is so often in divorce a period of time lasting months or years where the divorce is quite raw, and the couple challenges to communicate while trying to manage co-parenting needs.
When a couple is no longer living together and communicating daily, and distrust and anger have replaced love and affection, but the couple still needs to deal with each other because children are involved, there’s a fertile environment for misprocessing, misguided claims, false assumptions, and changing perspectives between the former partners.
In some divorces one or both divorcees become unable to reasonably process what the other has to say and offer. This happens in many divorces and therefore requires having strategies in place that allows the couple to co-parent effectively during this period. Many divorces describe the first months and sometimes years following the split into two households to be the low point with respect to communication.
A word of encouragement is that communication typically improves over time. However, successfully navigating through these initial turbulent times can have a huge impact on the sanity of the divorcees, and most importantly allow the children to be as unaffected as possible by the parents’ communication challenges.
Four of the favorite tools to help divorcees communicate during these times include:
Strategy 1: Use the “timecard.”
The timecard is a powerful human relations tool. It forces a person to process thoughtfully rather than giving a gut answer. This is a popular business tool recommended by a leading relationship coach for use in divorce communication. The timecard involves categorizing the topic that comes up with your former spouse. The divorcee segments co-parenting issues that arise into two buckets, issues that must be addressed due to logistics or specific level of urgency, and issues that do not carry an upcoming deadline and can be processed in the days and weeks ahead.
Successful use of the timecard results in three benefits. First, it reduces the number of issues that must be discussed immediately, and the reduction in communications that require immediate and urgent dealings with a contentious ex helps to lower the temperature. Secondly, we human beings all make better decisions when we have time to thoughtfully consider every angle and that simply is not done as effectively when the decision is rushed. Lastly, some non-essential issues with children tend to solve themselves or become redundant over time.
Strategy 2: Have your former spouse generate the suggestion or solution.
It is not uncommon in some high conflict divorces where most any suggestion that comes from a divorcee is rejected by the former spouse. Again, there is a need to navigate children’s lives, and both parents under joint legal custody optimally should be contributing to co-parenting decisions.
There is a successful therapy tactic that leads a client to arrive at their own solution. This is also used commonly in business communications. Brought into the divorce space, the divorcee would limit his or her initial communications to “stating the problem” that must be solved and asking for input. This is a superb communication tool, and one of two things will commonly happen. In an ideal scenario, the former spouse offers an initial solution that he or she will be able to own that is close enough to what the divorcee deems to be a reasonable outcome.
When that does not happen, the divorcee can use this tactic to over multiple exchanges focus on the elements of the former spouse’s response that align with the preferred outcome while continuing to reply to the parts that do not align. This is done not with criticism, rather in a format that continues to state problems and reply with questions. Again, by skillfully using this strategy often the divorcee can arrive at an acceptable outcome without divulging his or her preference, thus increasing the likelihood of an agreeable solution.
Strategy 3: Work with the therapy team.
An excellent strategy to ease communication challenges is to utilize professionals in helping the separating couple effectively co-parent during contentious times. The divorcee simply communicates the problem, deferring the rest to the professional. When dealing with competent professionals, you can certainly suggest some ideas of your own, yet a good rule of thumb is to communicate the problem and allow the professional to come up with the solution.
This takes two formats. One or both can be used. A co-parenting counselor is typically a non-binding family therapist who divorcing couples meet with according to an agreed schedule. A key purpose is to discuss and resolve key co-parenting needs. A skilled co-parenting counselor should be able to navigate the couple to resolutions of most disagreements. A Special Master can also be utilized, and this typically results in a binding resolution that the couple is forced to comply with. Use of a Special Master does tend to ultimately favor a parent that typically takes the more reasonable positions.
Strategy 4: Use of specific organizational tools for communication
Many therapists who deal with divorce suggest communicating within a private e-mail forum and overall organizational tool such as Family Wizard or Divorce Communications. These are structured organizational tools that help divorced couples communicate, and many of these tools go beyond basic communications and help with expense organizations, coordinating activities, and much more. While tools like this will not ultimately help reach agreement on co-parenting issues directly, they are effective at reducing the temperature of communication exchanges during the more toxic periods post separation, and that in turn does certainly benefit co-parenting. These tools are also wonderful at reducing stress factors that impact divorcees.
If a high-conflict divorce is enduring a period where the parents can for a time not effectively hear one another, accomplishing effective co-parenting will be challenging. Adjust your own expectations, and do not expect any idea or preference of yours to be warmly received. Adjusting your expectations is not a solution. It is merely a mechanism for protecting the divorcee’s sanity. Use these four strategies when topics arise that must be addressed with your former spouse. Finally, reminding oneself every now and then that communication typically does improve over time and there is a light at the end of the tunnel is healthy and can keep the divorcee focused on the children until communication improves with the former life partner.
Bio: Andy Heller is an author of “Take the High Road, Divorce with Compassion for Yourself and Your Family”