Reduce your stress levels and work as a high functioning team
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Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? - H.Jackson Brown Jr
My ex-husband was the poster boy for staying cool, calm, and collected. It always seemed like nothing could rattle him. In fifteen years of knowing him, I’d only ever seen him really angry once.
In fact, he used to tell me that I had a temper and would belittle me if I ever got angry or upset. That’s the way they were in his family. It wasn’t acceptable to show anything other than a polite smile.
So when I saw him completely lose his shit and throw a bowl through our bay window during the last months of our marriage, I was shocked.
It highlighted to me just how much stress the end of a relationship will put people under, even those who are very good at hiding their emotions.
Conflict is inevitable when you’re going through a separation, especially when you throw co-parenting into the mix. Our ex knows us inside and out, and they know exactly how to trigger the hurt in us, whether intentionally or by accident.
Nothing brings out our stress and fear more than the thought that our kids might be caught in the middle of something that isn’t good for their emotional well-being.
If your marriage is ending, there’s a high chance you were experiencing a communication breakdown and could not make each other see what you needed. With separation and co-parenting, the need to become a better communicator is even more critical.
Each couple is unique in terms of their communication skills. There may be one person who is level-headed and can keep their cool. One of you may find it easier to rise above the need to be right over keeping the peace.
Whatever you’re dealing with, wherever you are starting from, there is always room to improve your communication skills and make it easier on yourself, your kids, and your ex-spouse.
The primary goal of any communication should be to hear what your ex is saying and find outcomes that are in the best interests of everyone, including you.
Making sacrifices shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of one person. It’s a team effort.
Why is good communication so important?
Think about it. Once you separate from your spouse, you are now in a working relationship. The role is to parent your children the best way that you can.
Imagine a workplace where the employees didn’t talk, or they started getting upset or yelling every time they spoke. They’d be unlikely to produce good ‘results’. In this case, confident, settled children.
In the early stages of separation, every interaction counts and sets up expectations for the future. Start as you mean to continue by showing your ex-spouse that your priority is to work together to get the best outcomes for your kids.
Here are five ways to help make communication with your ex less stressful and more effective.
1. Choose your timing
Fatigue is the enemy of good communication. Effective communication requires a lot of brain power, and emotional energy saps our bodies. If you feel exhausted after an intense talk, you’re not alone. It’s completely normal to feel that way.
I remember when my ex-husband and I went to couples therapy, and I would come out feeling absolutely drained. Just the look on his face made me want to crawl into bed and sleep for days.
Talking about things your partner may not receive well takes a lot of energy. Ditto having to hear some harsh truths from their end as well.
There are always good and bad times to try and have a challenging conversation. If you’ve just walked in the door from a hard day at work or been struggling with one of your kids about something, that’s not the best time to contact your ex.
If you’ve been out the night before and are feeling worse for wear, I would avoid all contact with your ex under those circumstances if possible.
2. Put the phone down
These days most communication is done through instant messaging or texting. The issue with this is an immediate response is right at our fingertips. The fingers fly when we are feeling pissed off, hurt, or self-righteous.
Arguing through texts is never a great idea. Context can very quickly get lost, and reactions are instant.
If you find yourself emotionally triggered by something you’ve read in a text, try putting your phone down and walking away. Find something you can do for 15–30 minutes, depending on how long it takes to calm down and begin to think rationally. Set a timer on your phone, and commit to not responding until the timer has gone off.
If your ex is someone who gets angrier with sudden silence, clearly tell them that you will reply to them later. You don’t have to give any reason for this; you can say, “I will reply to you in 30 minutes time”.
Put your phone on silent if you think you’ll get a barrage of messages that will prompt you to break your time out.
3. Is it urgent?
Ask yourself if you need to respond immediately. Many times we react to something purely because someone has sent us something. We don’t stop to ask ourselves, ‘Do I need to answer this text/email/voice message straight away?’.
If not, give yourself time to mull over the message and how you would like to respond.
4. Speak quietly
There is power in speaking quietly. Your instinct might be to raise your voice when you feel like you aren’t being heard. It feels counter-intuitive, but talking loudly reduces the chances that you’ll get your point across effectively.
Once you start to raise your voice during a discussion, you have lost the willingness of your audience to listen. All your ex hears is someone yelling at them, and their cortisol levels rise. When cortisol increases, the brain loses the ability to process what is being heard properly.
When you think of it that way, you realize that yelling is pointless.
If you get to a point where you feel like you have to raise your voice to be heard, take a time out. Reschedule the conversation for another time.
5. Use digital communication
Face-to-face interactions can be far more challenging than digital communication. Each mode has pros and cons.
However, the main benefit of emailing is that you get to take stock and think about your reply before sending it. You can then re-read your writing and tweak it if you need to. Take out any unnecessary information and stick solely to the subject.
Take things one day at a time
Treat each interaction like a data-gathering exercise in the first months of co-parenting. Learn what methods of communication work best for you and for your ex-spouse. Make it a priority to become a co-parent who can be an open, curious team player.
There will always be those times when Murphy’s Law kicks in, and anything that can go wrong will go wrong. You’ll find yourself in a conversation that ambushes you out of nowhere and end up in an argument.
This happened to me recently after ten years of great communication. It happens. Nobody is perfect.
I was messaging my ex about holiday plans for the kids. I thought what I asked him was pretty reasonable. He came back at me with harsh words and started going off-topic.
I was stung, but I put my phone down and tried to see it from his point of view. After a few minutes, I told him I thought it would be best to talk about it in person and that I’d call him when I was free.
When I called him a couple of hours later, he had calmed down, and we managed to discuss the problem and come to an outcome that suited us both and looked after the kids’ needs.
In the past, I would have entered into a back-and-forth with my own reasons about why I felt I was right, but these days I trust my ability to stay calm and talk it through assertively. I can hear my ex out and, at the same time, stand my ground where I need to.
It’s a delicate balance and one that comes with time and practice.
Quality communication is an essential part of successful co-parenting. Learning effective ways to interact with your ex strengthens the working relationship and reduces your stress levels.
Less stress means you’ll be able to function at a higher level and show up consistently for your kids, career, friends, and family, and most importantly, yourself.
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