5 Tips for Healthy Communication During a Separation or Divorce
The pain and stress of relationship breakdown often bring out the worst in us. In the aftermath as we try to give our lives new structure, poor communication can hold us back from moving on. Communication is not simply a factor in the mental and emotional wellbeing of spouses and children; it can also impact your position in litigation if you are perceived to be acting unreasonably.
To help you navigate post-separation communication, here are some tips and resources.
Do not use the children to communicate with your Ex
There are several means of communicating with your ex that do not require you to speak with them directly: a shared calendar, email, text, a parenting app, or your lawyer. Children should not be used as a messenger between parents. If faced with your child pressing you on issues relating to family law negotiations, assure them that it is not their concern, you and your ex are addressing the issue and that both parents love them.
Your children have parts of you and parts of your ex. Therefore, when you say unkind things about your ex, children can internalize these criticisms. If you are speaking with your children about your ex, keep it neutral or positive.
Do not post about your former spouse, their family or family law issues on social media
This seems like an obvious one, but people still feel inclined to take their grievances to the web to rant about their ex, their lawyer, judges, and the woeful events that brought them to their current circumstances. These posts can be seen by almost anyone, and frequently come back to haunt people in the courtroom. Parenting assessors may consider this type of conduct in determining the best interests of the children, especially where the children are able to view such posts. Courts are making orders regarding social media in family matters with increasing frequency restricting what people may post about. Some posts may put their authors at risk of harassment charges or defamation claims. As a good rule of thumb, it is best not to make such posts and keep your social media settings private as possible. Even if your ex is not your ‘friend’ on Facebook, more likely than not you have people in common who will be happy to screenshot a heated post for their records.
Minimize communication and keep it child-focused
One simple way of minimizing unnecessary communication is simply to have both parents communicate directly with third party professionals such as doctors, teachers, and coaches. Each parent should be responsible for keeping their own extra-curricular schedules and keep up to date on their children’s scholastic needs. When one parent acts as the gatekeeper to this information, it tends to stoke tensions and force parents to communicate unnecessarily.
Try using the ‘BIFF method,’ an acronym coined by Bill Eddy, which stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. You can find copies of Eddy’s book “ Biff: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns,” here. It is a quick read that can give practical strategies to navigating unpleasant communications received from others.
Confirm things in writing if reasonably possible
A lot of frustration, miscommunication and errors can be avoided by simply following up. For example, if you have arranged for a change in the parenting schedule by phone, following up with a quick text or email confirming the five W’s (who, what, where, when and why) can make sure that there are no issues the day of.
Here is an example using the Biff Method:
“Hey John, I am following up on our call today to confirm that you are picking up Timmy from school on Friday, October 8th to go camping in Gatineau, and dropping him off at my home the following Sunday October 10th at 6 pm. Since this is normally my parenting weekend, I will have makeup time the following weekend from Friday after school to Sunday at 8 pm. I hope you and Timmy have a great trip.”
This is a strategy regularly employed by lawyers. Following a telephone call with opposing counsel, lawyers will often send their counterpart an email confirming the items discussed during the telephone call. This ensures that both participants are on the same page with next steps. If there is any miscommunication, it will be identified and corrected quickly. A non-response will often be taken as confirmation that the written state of events is correct. A judge will often ask; if the contents of the confirmation email were wrong, why did you not correct it at the time it was received? Therefore, it is important to correct inaccuracies promptly, and can be advantageous to be the person to follow up after a call.
Consider Engaging Some Professional Help
There are many counsellors and therapists that specialize in post-separation communication and co-parenting. If this sort of thing is not for you, fear not; there are other options. Courthouses often have resources to connect you with group programs. You can take a parenting course alone or with your ex. Many of these programs can be found for little or no cost, and you can usually get a certificate of completion.
If you and your ex cannot seem to get on the same page regarding parenting issues, you may explore hiring a parenting coordinator. This is an objective third party professional who will consider both parents’ perspectives but focus solely on the needs of the children involved. They can be very helpful in making recommendations which can be implemented to form a healthy framework for co-parenting moving forward.