Staying Calm while Negotiating with Your Ex

Ten tips for staying cool and calm during heated divorce-related negotiations or conversations.

By  Carolyn Ellis
Updated: October 16, 2015
Staying Calm while Negotiating with Your Ex

There aren’t many people who jump for joy at the prospect of having a potentially contentious and heated conversation with someone they are divorcing. It can be very unsettling, profoundly frustrating, and deeply disappointing. The unfortunate reality for the vast majority of divorcing couples is that tense moments, conflicts, and arguments are inevitable during your divorce journey; how you handle the conflict will help to determine how long and how difficult the process will be.

Negotiating your separation agreement requires you to make decisions about crucial factors that will impact you and your family for years to come – such as division of marital assets, child custody, and financial support. When emotions run high, intelligence tends to run low. During divorce, you’re asked to make decisions about your life when you’re least emotionally equipped to do so.

Brain science helps to explain why it’s so hard to make complex and challenging decisions when you’re in a place of emotional upset. When faced with situations that create fear or insecurity, the brain sets off the “flight or fight” response. Adrenalin floods through your body, creating physiological responses to ensure your physical survival. For example, breathing and heart rates increase sending blood to your limbs so you can run or go into battle. 

Use these ten simple tips to help you keep your cool when the conversations get heated. 

1. Take a Deep Breath

To help you stop spiraling into emotional reactivity, nothing beats taking a few deep breaths. This strategy is free, easy, and something you can do anywhere and anytime.

Studies show that taking deep, conscious breaths for even one minute can help you feel more grounded immediately. Breathing like this helps to dial down the amygdala response that triggers the “fight or flight” response so you can better access the part of your brain that governs rational thought.

Most of us tend to breathe shallowly, using primarily the chest cavity. It can take a bit of adjustment to learn how to breathe more deeply, using your full lung capacity. To help you get the deep breaths going, place your hand on your navel and breathe deeply right down into your diaphragm. When you inhale, imagine you’re sending your breath right down to your hand. You’re on the right track when you see your hand moving outwards with your inhale, and then back in towards your body on the exhale.

2. Release Negative Emotions

Before you sit down to negotiate, let go of negative thoughts and emotions. Past upsets and grievances, unexpressed emotions, worries about the future, or feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, or fear create static that can make it harder to get your point across effectively. 

If you’re feeling angry, write an angry letter (don’t send it, however!), write about your feelings in a journal, take your dog for a walk, or work up a sweat at the gym. If you’re feeling sad, spend time with people you love or do some yoga. To get a fresh perspective, take a nature walk or get creative in the kitchen or with a hobby. Finding ways to move and release pent-up emotions before you have your tough conversations makes it easier to speak your truth when it really counts.

3. Create the Big Picture

When you’re deep in the trenches of negotiating your divorce settlement, it’s so easy to lose perspective: everything feels urgent and high-stakes. You must take the time to create the big picture. 

One of the most effective ways to do this is to look out into the future: imagine what you want your life to look and feel like 20 years from now. Do you want to be upset and still resentful about your ex, or do you want to have more peace and clarity in your life from all the wisdom you’re getting from this divorce experience? If you have children, what do you want the day when they graduate college or get married to be like? Keep the big picture in mind and do your best to let it pull you through the stress and conflict you might feel today.

4. Don’t Give Away your Power

When it comes to a divorce, everyone has an opinion for you. We hire lawyers; we talk with therapists or coaches; we poll friends, family, and neighbors for their experiences and suggestions. We devour self-help books and attend workshops to try and find our way through the divorce maze. But at the end of the day, you are the world’s best expert on you and what’s right for your life. 

When you decide to take responsibility for your choices, you put yourself in the driver’s seat of your life. When the heat is on and the conversation gets tough, it’s tempting to give your power away to others in order to avoid conflict. Your lawyer may be an expert on the law, but you and your family are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of your legal decisions. Your ex-partner will know what buttons to push to upset you. During your marriage, you may have backed down when he/she pushed those buttons; today, don’t take the bait. You have both the power and the responsibility to give input on decisions that will affect the rest of your life.

5. Pick Your Battles

Most people are surprised at how grueling it is to actually implement the decision to end your marriage. Especially if you have children, there are a lot of major issues that need to be negotiated, such as child support and custody, spousal support, and division of assets and debts.

It’s crucial to pick your battles. You’ll get exhausted if you go to the wall on every single issue that arises. Brainstorm a list of all the issues that you can think of – holiday schedules, education choices for the kids, what happens when one of you loses a job or when a new partner comes on the scene, and how to handle it when your teenager wants to get tattoos and a few piercings. What’s negotiable for you? What’s a deal-breaker for you? 

Get clear on your core issues and set some priorities. You’ll need to have some give and take in your relationship with your ex, particularly if you are co-parents. Learn to become strategic and identify where you’re willing to get creative or compromise in order to build good-will for the long run.

6. It’s Not Personal

One big trap that’s so easy to fall into is taking interactions and choices made by your ex-spouse personally. Especially in situations of conflict, people will inevitably have different opinions and strong emotional reactions. Doing your own emotional homework with a therapist or coach can help you defuse some of those “hot buttons” that ex-partners are so skilled at pushing.

Realize that what your ex-partner thinks of you is no longer any of your business. The degree to which you continue to respond and react to what your ex thinks, says, or does is the degree to which you help create your own suffering. In the words of spiritual teacher Matt Kahn, “What others think of you is their journey. What you think of yourself is yours.”

7. Own Your Part

We are human beings, not saints. Particularly when under stress, we’re likely to do or say things that we’ll regret later. Help keep your negotiations moving in the right direction by taking responsibility for your actions and how you may have contributed to the conflicts you’re trying to resolve. 

In negotiations, take ownership for your feelings when you speak. Avoid blaming statements such as: “You’re being unfair!” Instead, take responsibility for your feelings by using “I” statements, such as: “I feel upset when XYZ happens.” 

When you find yourself making a misstep or losing your cool, show yourself compassion. See these “mistakes” as enormous learning opportunities. To really own your part, you should acknowledge the mistake and apologize to your ex if necessary. You’ll be surprised at how a genuine apology can transform an angry conversation into a cooperative one.

8. Get Support

Einstein said that problems cannot be solved at the level of thinking that created them in the first place. Learn to ask for help and support; if you don’t ask, there won’t be any help or support. If you do ask, chances are that you’ll be able to resolve whatever problem is keeping you stuck.

If you reach an impasse with your ex-spouse, get help; you may need to enlist a third party (counselor, mediator, lawyer, etc.) to help you resolve difficult issues. It’s critical you find effective support in your social network during your divorce process. Find a trusted friend or divorce “buddy,” a divorce coach, therapist, or a community support group.

9. Talk It Out

When you have big stakes on the line, don’t just “wing it” and hope it all turns out the way you want. Taking time to prepare yourself in advance helps give you confidence and clarity that can make all the difference.

One way to do this is to write down all the key points you want to make. Get some of those nervous jitters and hesitations out of the way before the meeting even starts by practicing out loud. You can even do this in front of a mirror to take your “talk it out” strategy to an even deeper level. 

10. Surrender and Center

Anyone who has ever tried to swim upstream can confirm that going against the current can be exhausting. When you make the choice to surrender, you let go of needing to know or control everything all the time. Surrendering complete control isn’t a sign of weakness: it doesn’t mean you’re giving up your position or your beliefs. 

Before you head in to your next tough conversation, take a moment to close your eyes and get centered. Create an intention to center yourself that you can come back to when you feel challenged or unsettled, such as: “Let this be resolved in the best interests of all involved” or “Let me speak my truth powerfully and clearly today.” You can even anchor this intention by holding a small object, such as a small crystal or stone, in your hand. Bring this object with you to your meeting to help you stay centered and remind you of your intention to surrender your desire to control every aspect of the negotiation. 


Carolyn Ellis is the founder of Thrive After Divorce and is committed to providing success strategies and resources for separated and divorced individuals. A Harvard University graduate, Carolyn is the first Canadian to be certified as a Spiritual Divorce Coach. A member of Collaborative Practice Toronto, Carolyn coaches individuals world-wide and lives in Toronto with her three school-age children. This positive and helpful book was written to give single families the strategies they need to sidestep common parenting mistakes. With compassion, humor, experience, and wisdom, the author will help you understand and negotiate your new role, so you can help your children with the transition. Written in a straight-forward manner, each chapter also includes one or two simple tasks. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, reassurance, and relief as you follow this program.

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