A common issue that arises with divorcing couples is that they get into fights about how one talks to the other. “I can’t stand it when she yells at me and I’m not going to take it.” “When he speaks in that condescending tone to me, I want to hit him with something.” “She asks me questions about my personal life that are none of her business and then gets indignant when I won’t tell her.” Complaints such as these are commonplace in divorce mediation. And they must be addressed because they cut off communication.
As a mediator, I’m not just there to work out the details of a separation agreement. I also help the couple make the transition from marriage to divorce while retaining the ability to cooperate around raising children. The negotiation of a separation agreement usually occurs when the separation is new, or has yet to occur, and feelings are often raw. And in those cases when the decision to divorce is not mutual, the non initiator can be particularly indignant and given to frequent provocation. Angry discussions leave both partners less able to cooperate and generate a pessimism about the divorce that can sink a mediation, and lead the parties into expensive, exhausting and unnecessary litigation. A major goal is to help the couple develop a new way of communicating.
There are two problems in the communication of divorcing partners. The first is the emotionality of the communication. Hurt feelings, fear about the future, resentment of the other generate communication characterized by intense emotions. Choice of words, choice of tone and facial expressions of anger and contempt are common. These behaviors make it difficult for the partner to understand or feel understood. The second problem is violation of boundaries. In intimate relationships we tend to lower boundaries and share thoughts with spouses we would not share with others. But as couples separate each may start to raise boundaries and not want to share information and thoughts with the other. A rejected father may want information about his wife’s dating behavior, and when she declines to share he begins to interrogate the children. Although understandable in the context of divorce, this behavior is inevitably destructive and must stop.
Divorcing people need a model of how to communicate. The model I have found most helpful is that of collegial communication. Most people have colleagues at work or in community activities. If you were to disagree with a colleague at work, how would you express that disagreement? If you do it in a contemptuous manner, or if you raise your voice in anger, or use a sarcastic tone of voice you will alienate the colleague. Do it to enough people and you find yourself out of a job. You would not accept such behavior at work and you would not think of behaving that way with colleagues. A similar principle applies to personal boundaries. You do not inquire about the intimate details of a colleague’s life. Nor would you regard it acceptable if a colleague demanded intimate information from you. If you have a disagreement with a colleague, you assume you will work it out through civil discussion and negotiation.
This is the model I urge on divorcing people, and most of them are able to “get it.” Your ex spouse is now your colleague for the joint purpose of raising your children successfully. Just as your collegial relationships at work are bounded by what is necessary to do the job, so your relationship with your ex is also bounded by the necessity of parental cooperation. Communication is limited to concerns for the children and the logistical arrangements for shared parenting. Criticism of the other’s parenting must be minimized. I suggest that people bite their tongues until they bleed rather than expressing every thought about the children. It is only on vital issues affecting the children that you speak out, and even then you use the tone appropriate to raising a problem with a colleague. You cannot police the parenting of your ex because when you try, the damage to the relationship affects the kids more than the thing you are complaining about. So you respect boundaries and you closely monitor the tone and the way you frame the issue. Do this and your shared parenting will be successful and you will avoid the anger and recrimination that can sour post divorce life.