If you’ve gone through a breakup and have children it’s likely that you’ll find yourself faced with the question “How do I deal with my ex?” The two main areas many of us struggle with in dealing with our ex are communicating well and resolving conflicts. Are there better ways to do it? Regardless of how the other parent acts, can our behaviour be the key?
Note: There are specific ways to deal with an ex if they are narcissistic, abusive or manipulative in some way. If your ex is like this it’s important to get advice and help because often a different approach is needed to keep safe.
Conflict and communication
We can’t change our exes behaviour but we can choose our own. Choosing high value behaviours can be the key to successfully negotiating a difficult relationship. We are going to have to deal with them until our kids grow up (my children are still only 8 and 12), so it’s worthwhile making it as smooth as possible. So what does it mean to be High Value?
Co-operation, kindness and generosity are the three qualities that make you a “High Value” person. There are a number of great reasons to be a high value person and parent (I’ve talked about this idea before in my blog post Being a High Value Parent). But how do we deal with conflict in a high value way? In co-parenting it’s pretty inevitable that there will be conflict. Is it possible to do in a positive, constructive way?
The opposite, low value behaviours, feel good sometimes in conflict. When we get angry it’s easy to resort to blaming and arguing for example, but they are generally short-term fixes to problems.
So before we figure out what high value conflict skills are, let’s look at low value ways of dealing with our exes (so we know what to avoid).
Low Value Behaviours
- Blaming. When things go wrong it’s easy to blame the other parent. Sometimes a situation might in fact be their fault but blaming and criticising will just get them responding in a defensive way or put them in attack mode. Neither of which are helpful.
- Being argumentative or combative. Obviously, things haven’t been going well between you and the other parent (you broke up after all) so you may head into combat-zone easily. Criticism and contempt are often ways we enter combat. Relationship expert John Gottman talks about these as the signs of an unhealthy relationship in his Four Horseman Article. (Criticism is different to a complaint so it’s worth reading his article to understand how.) Contempt includes sarcasm, mocking, name-calling and ridicule. It makes people feel worthless and despised and is not helpful in anyway for good communication!
- Playing the victim or getting defensive. If you find yourself in a pattern of being defensive, making yourself smaller, giving up your power, or in some other way slipping into a victim role, try to assess what’s going on. Couples can sometimes slip into the drama triangle of Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer. Getting professional help is often necessary (and a way to get your power back!) in these instances. Note: There are specific ways to deal with an ex if they are narcissistic, abusive or manipulative in some way. If your ex is like this it’s important to get advice and help because often a different approach is needed to keep safe.
- Being supplitacive. This is a bit of an old fashioned word and includes being passive, begging, or people pleasing (being too agreeable). It’s a bit like playing the victim and can lead to resentment, unfairness, not feeling heard or not really dealing with issues.
- Being Competitive. A common thing for exes with kids is to start to compete with who does more, pays more, buys more etc. As easy as it is to do, it just puts us on the slippery slope to depression or resentment.
High Value Alternatives
So now on to the High Value ways of dealing with our exes! I have learnt a lot about these from two places: The Art of Charm podcasts and John Gottman’s research at the Gottman Institute.
The guys at Art of Charm discuss and explain these ideas really well in their blog and podcasts. They have a number of podcasts on recognising low value behaviour, dealing with toxic people and how to be high value yourself. Their ideas on high value conflict are fantastic for those of us who are co-parenting. I’ve outlined some of their ideas for you here, as well as some conflict resolution tips from the Gottman Institute who are relationship experts and have done over 30 years of research in this area.
1.Get started on a friendly note. Use the soft start up that the Gottman Institute discuss. Smile, act friendly, and be optimistic that the discussion will be a win-win situation, or if it’s through text you could use emojis or a light conversation starter.
94% of the time, the way a discussion starts determines the way it will end.John Gottman | Gottman INstitute
2. Be patient. You have been thinking about this issue for a while but it might be new to them. If they have a strong reaction at first, and enter into some low value behaviours, offer to give them time to think about it. Show empathy, be polite and appreciative. Remember, they are most likely finding this hard too.
3. Take responsibility. Use I-statements that also acknowledge the role you played in the issue (This is also another good way to soften the start-up of the conversation).
“I realise I was late yesterday picking up the kids. I think it’s important that we set proper times for pick up so it’s less stressful.”
“I think I haven’t been communicating very clearly lately about this issue.”
4. Use cooperative language. Use ‘we’ instead of ‘you’. Try being a team. What do you agree on? What are your common goals?
“We both want the kids to do well at sport. I am wondering how we can both be more involved with their practices?”
5. Offer options. Think up some solutions. Avoid telling them what to do (as that might seem controlling) but try to come to the conversation with potential ways to solve an issue. Remember you are the one bringing it up so it’s up to you to help solve the problem.
6. De-escalate if it turns negative. If the conversation turns combative, or your ex isn’t communicating well, try to reassure them of your goal. Say something like “I’m not trying to criticise you here. What I want to do is work out a solution together with you.”
If they get off topic and start to talk about other issues, criticise you or get into a negative discussion, take a moment to get calm and then try to get them back on track. Ignore the unrelated comments and state the issue again.
“What I’m really asking today is how we can sort out pick up on Sunday. Do the times I suggested suit you? 3pm or 5pm?”
Sometimes you just have to end the conversation and try again another day.
Carl Pickhardt Ph.D, psychologist and regular contributor to Psychology Today, sent me the following guidelines for co-parenting and I’m excited to be able to share them with you. I think they are really valuable and cover what successful coparenting can look like.
The Articles of Consideration by Carl Pickhardt Ph.D
Obviously, the relationship between divorced parents does not always run smoothly, any more than the course of true love, which in this case ended in divorce. However, with effort and attention, there are some specific acts of courtesy that signify consideration and tend to support a strong working alliance between two divorced parents who are still wed to doing their joint best for the children’s sake.
To help start you thinking about what these acts are, reflect on the ten “Articles of Consideration” below, and see if you are willing to sign them for the sake of allying with your ex-spouse, for the sake of your children.
1 “I will be reliable.” I will keep the arrangements I make with you and the children. You can count on my word.
2 “I will be responsible.” I will honour my obligations to provide for the children. As agreed, I will provide my share of their support.
3 “I will be appreciative.” I will let you know ways in which I see you doing good for the children. And I will thank you for being helpful to me.
4 “I will be respectful.” I will always talk positively about you to the children. If I have a disagreement or concern, I will talk directly to you.
5 “I will be flexible.” I will make an effort to modify childcare arrangements when you have conflicting commitments. I will try to be responsive to work with unexpected change.
6 “I will be tolerant.” I will accept the increasing lifestyle differences between us. I will accept how the children live with us on somewhat different terms.
7 “I will be supportive.” I will back you up with the children when you have disciplinary need. I will not allow them to play one of us against the other.
8 “I will be involved.” I will problem solve with you when the children get in difficulty. I will work with you to help them.
9 I will be responsive.” I will be available to help cope with the children’s emergencies. I will be on call in times of crisis.
10 “I will be reasonable.” I will talk through our inevitable differences in a calm and constructive manner. I will keep communicating until we work out a resolution that is acceptable to us both.
By subscribing to the ten articles of consideration, you model behaviour that you encourage in return, and you strengthen the alliance with your ex-spouse, as he or she is encouraged to do with you.
© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
You could either discuss this list with your ex or use it as a guide for your own behaviour.
If you are recently divorced or separated remember to grab your copy of: Kids Ask Hard Questions: 15 questions kids ask during separation and divorce (and how to answer them). I’ve made this ebook completely free for you because, even if we are solo parents, we don’t have to do it all on our own!