Common communication problems in separation: what do you do when it’s gone really badly wrong?
This is the last in our series of blogs looking at communication. We’ve talked about how having the right tools can help you communicate better, how being at different places in the grieving cycle can impact on communication and given some tips for listening that can help improve communication.
What happens when communication really has broken down?
When a couple has separated a complete breakdown in communication might look like one of these:
• You are fearful about talking to your ex partner because they are so angry, or you know they are now fearful of talking to you for the same reason
• One of you or both has said communication can now only take place between lawyers
• At least one of you is avoiding the other’s calls and emails because you can’t face the heated discussion
• You feel there is now no alternative but to go to court
What does this mean?
Any of the above scenarios likely means that the communication between the two of you is ineffective and isn’t working. It may also mean that communication has taken a destructive tone and is now having an adverse effect on you. If it is having an adverse effect on you then it is likely also having an adverse effect on your children.
If you find that you are becoming really angry when you’re talking to your ex partner, or they are becoming angry with you then this may be borne out of a frustration that you, or they, do not feel heard. Being heard is not the same thing as being agreed with. It is simply being reassured that they person you’re talking to has heard your point of view – even if they respectfully disagree with it.
Anger can also mean that you feel threatened. You may be fearful about what happens next, you may be deeply worried that your life will change quite drastically and this is causing you to react to things like a wounded tiger who has had their paw stepped on. Or it may be your ex partner reacting like this. Having an honest conversation about your fears and what is keeping you awake at 3 a.m. can be a good way of understanding what each other are trying to achieve and what they might need support with.
How can you have a conversation about anything when you feel like this?
When you and your ex partner have said the very worst things to each other you can think of how can you start to talk to each other and open the conversation again? This does take enormous courage. It also requires a mutual desire to improve things. There is a vulnerability in this that is understandably quite frightening. It is part of human nature that it is sometimes easier to accept things at their very worst and to then deal with them. To give yourself hope that things could somehow improve and be better also opens up the possibility that that hope will be dashed and you will end up in the same place but feeling worse.
Here are some of our tips to try to move forward:
• If conversations between the two of you are impossible then consider having them in family mediation with a trained professional there to keep you on track and focus your attention. Having a third party can also help to keep a level of civility that you might not manage alone
• Consider having either family therapy or individual therapy to help you separate what is your issues about the separation and what you may have taken on from the other person. Having some form of therapy can also help you to face up the things that scare you (living alone, moving house, going back to work) so that they lose their hold over you
• Establish some ground rules for future conversations to stop things turning nasty. To start with keep them short, only on point, and center them around how you move forward. Sometimes you might need to arrange very small steps forward before you can tackle big things.
• Consider using a different dispute resolution process like the collaborative process where lawyers help you to have constructive round table discussions
• Get support so you have people to talk to. You may have helpful friends or family members but if they are egging you on in conflict it might be helpful to approach your GP, a support group or a specialist charity to see if they can help you to move forward and improve communication
• Try communicating using email for a short period of time. Make sure you each re-read your messages before sending to ensure they are focused and constructive and never send a response in anger. Taking out this immediate, knee jerk, wounded reaction may help you to put things back on track. Remember to focus on the solution and the way forward rather than going over what has happened before today.
Those going through a separation often worry about spending money using other professionals because they are concerned about costs and the impact this will have on the overall resolution. We firmly believe that pressing the pause button and spending some money on getting the right support is likely to save you a lengthy battle in solicitors’ letters or court and that will overall save you money. If you cannot improve your communication and in anger you both commit to a court battle that will cost you thousands of pounds in legal fees then spending a few hundred pounds on therapy or coaching support is likely to look like a bargain!
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