Divorce can take you to the edge. The fight-or-flight response takes over, and emotions run wild. Everything that was once familiar begins to come apart; finger-pointing reaches an all-time high. The undercurrent of the thought “do something, make it stop” seems to compel action. This may include hiring an attorney, sending a scathing e-mail, or demanding things change right away.
You may feel driven to say or do something. If you are blamed, shamed, or manipulated, you might be thinking, “How can I let him (her) get away with that?” Yet the best thing to do in those situations is nothing. In the beginning stages of divorce, you might have lots of reasons to react. You might be fearful that your ex could turn your kids against you or that your ex may spread wild rumors about your break-up. You might be holding your breath with the hope of a breakthrough. Meanwhile, you might be getting advice from family and friends to take a parenting class, see a therapist, start journaling, or to hang in there for the sake of the kids.
Disengaging or removing yourself from conflict is the best measure against ongoing future conflict. Reacting in the face of a nasty e-mail message or voicemail only prolongs it. The only reason to maintain communication is for co-parenting purposes. In conflicted divorce, about 80% of e-mail communication is used to vent, blame, or re-engage the other parent; the other 20% might be related to child-related matters. Sift through the communication; respond only to a co-parenting issue. A brief, factual, and on-point message can create the outcome you are seeking. Allowing any other form of communication to take place can derail you from healing and recovery.
Reacting and re-engaging only delays the inevitable. Divorce is heartbreaking. With it come feelings of sadness, anger, upset, and betrayal. It can get complicated with heated exchanges. As angry words are hurled, it might be difficult to feel sad, but sadness is a natural emotional response to loss; it’s part of the grief cycle. Reacting with anger keeps you connected to your ex. You start to convince yourself that if you can get her/him to understand where you are coming from, you could have better co-parenting communication.
You might think that the upset will vanish if you can talk it out. Not true. Trying to get your ex to see a situation the way you do is like climbing Mount Everest. It’s draining at best, and certainly not your project to take on. Significantly, the resulting anger makes it nearly impossible to come to terms with the loss of your marriage—instead, it extends your suffering. If you are having difficulty with your divorce, it might be helpful to talk with trained divorce therapist who can help you take actions which support your healing.
Protecting children from parental discord is one of the toughest aspects of being a single parent. Children are quick to take their parent’s lead; they feel at ease when parents are able to navigate their anxieties and fears. Alternatively, children blame themselves when parents fight. Keeping adult matters out of earshot can help kids feel safe. Modeling healthy boundaries takes a bit of practice, but as a rule, kids don’t need to know all the details about the divorce—they do, however, need to know they are loved and cared for by both parents.
A single mom said to me: “I stopped cake decorating because all my energy was being drawn into creating something for someone else, instead of creating something with my son.” There’s only so much energy we have to give. By making this powerful choice, this mom freed herself
Life is more than this given moment; you are not your sadness or regret. You have a choice each time you are drawn into engagement with your ex. Remember, you can’t go back. But you can learn from it. The next time you are reading an intrusive message, ask yourself, “What will this particular e-mail message mean to me five years from now? And what would I rather create in this moment?”
Sonia Brill, LCSW is a high-conflict divorce counselor and parental responsibilities co-evaluator. She works to ensure that her clients move beyond high-conflict gridlock.