These days, everyone involved in a difficult divorce thinks their ex has a personality disorder – such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. Find out how to determine whether or not your ex might actually suffer from a genuine personality disorder – or whether they merely suffer from garden-variety divorce-related anger or sadness. In this podcast, Megan Hunter gives an overview of the most common personality disorders she has seen in divorcing couples, explaining how you can tell whether or not your ex-spouse really has a personality disorder. She offers strategies for setting boundaries and handling communication with a difficult ex-spouse, including how to prevent yourself from engaging when triggered by your ex’s behavior. Finally, she offers advice on how to recover after a long, painful divorce process with a high-conflict ex-spouse.
Host: Diana Shepherd, Editorial Director and Co-Founder of Divorce Magazine
Speaker: Megan L. Hunter, MBA, Publisher, Author, Speaker
Megan is the CEO of Unhooked Media – a company focused on relationship and conflict resolution through print, digital, and the spoken word. She is the co-founder of the High Conflict Institute and currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Personality Disorder Awareness Network.
Press PLAY to listen to podcast. (Allow a few seconds for loading.)
Divorce Magazine’s Podcasts are available on iTunes. Click here to subscribe to our podcasts.
Read the Transcript of this Podcast Below.
Podcast: My Ex Is Crazy! Handling Divorce with a High-Conflict Ex-Spouse
Intro: My name is Diana Shepherd and I’m the editorial director and co-founder of Divorce Magazine and a facilitator here at The Divorce School. Today’s topic is entitled “My Ex is Crazy – Tips for Handling Divorce and Co-Parenting with a High Conflict Ex-Spouse”. And my guest today is Megan Hunter. Megan’s expertise is in high conflict disputes. She’s the CEO of unhooked media and books, co-founder of the high conflict Institute, and publisher of high conflict Institute Press. She’s also the Co-editor of Healthy Parents Happy Kids magazine, and the author of Bait & Switch: Saving Your Relationship When Incredible Romance Turns into Exhausting Chaos (Unhooked Books, 2015). Welcome, Megan!
Megan L. Hunter: Hi, Diana, thank you for your kind welcome. It’s a pleasure to be with you today.
Diana: First, I want to start by acknowledging that it’s these days everyone involved in a divorce, particularly a difficult divorce, thinks that their ex has some kind of personality disorder. We all hear the buzzwords nowadays, they’re a narcissist. They’ve got borderline personality disorder, they’re anti-social. In reality, can you tell us? How common are these types of disorders?
Megan: Well, it’s a good question, Diana. There, as you mentioned this, there’s so many people think that once they’re in a crazy relationship and they’re headed to divorce court that everyone’s ex is crazy now, and they think that they have a personality disorder – but they’re really not qualified to diagnose a personality disorder. Nor am I. Nor is anyone except a qualified mental health professional that does the appropriate testing and those types of things.
The closest we can come to really understanding the prevalence of a true personality disorder is a study that was done by the National Institutes of Health back in 2006. There have been a few other studies as well, but this one sampled over 35,000 people. In that study, they found that a little over 20% of the US population may have a personality disorder that could be borderline, narcissistic, histrionic, antisocial, or paranoid. Put together, about 25% of the US population may have a personality disorder, with borderline and narcissistic each being around 6% to 6.5% percent, and a bit less for each of the other categories. Put them all together and that’s a lot of people in a population of 300 million.
In divorce court, we’re going to see probably a disproportionate number of these folks because these are relationship disorders. Eventually, unless there is some resolution along the way and they learn to work things out on their own, they may come back to court over and over and over again. The courts are going to see a higher number of them.
If I were a parent, and I really needed to understand: “Am I dealing with a really difficult time with a person – who is kind of cranky and doesn’t like me right now – because we’re in this difficult relationship that’s getting dissolved?” as opposed to being in a relationship with someone who truly does have a personality disorder. You have to think about whether it matters. What [really] matters is how we reach resolution and how we move forward to raise our kids the best we can – unless [the personality disorder] is really in an extreme range of behavior and the children might be at risk of being damaged [by our co-parent].
The majority of cases in divorce do not involve someone with a personality disorder. Most of the people who are seen in divorce court – and that means not in mediation, not in some other alternative dispute resolution process – can get through the process without a lot of assistance. But those who really need the court because they’re so extreme and outrageous might be people who have personality disorders.
Megan, can you describe some of the most common types that you have seen?
Megan: Sure. Some of the common personality disorders that we see in divorce court and child custody battles are probably borderline and narcissistic personalities. And you have to understand there’s a range of personality. If someone is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, there’s a range from mild to moderate to extreme. You have to take that into account.
Because the borderline personality needs to feel connected, they need to feel attached, they’re really drawn to being in a relationship. And once they’re in that relationship, something from their background, something within this disorder causes them to sabotage that relationship. So it follows that they will end up in some relationship chaos along the way – hopefully, not in divorce court. The hope is for people to be able to work things out before divorcing and hopefully avoid a divorce altogether.
However, we do see quite a bit of a borderline personality and narcissistic personality [in relationship chaos and divorce]. They’re attracted to relationships, and once they get them in them, their fear-based personality starts to take over and they sabotage those relationships. The sad thing for me is to watch people who could avoid divorce court altogether – even if they have a personality disorder. There is help now for anyone who might be suffering from that or something close to that, and relationship repair that would prevent them from going to court. Conflict in divorce is really hard on kids. To sum it up, borderline narcissistic personalities are the most commonly seen [in divorce court]..
How can someone tell if their ex is genuinely suffering from a personality disorder or maybe just has common garden variety divorce related anger?
Megan: You know you’re dealing with someone with what we call a high-conflict personality, someone who could possibly have a personality disorder, when you feel like your life is in constant chaos and out of control. What’s the difference? How do you distinguish if you’re dealing with someone like this or not? There’s a lot of anger that can come through during a divorce or separation, and custody battles and things like that.
What are those patterns of behavior? And what are the tips we can we can help parents with? It might look like this: all or nothing thinking, or “splitting.” What is splitting? Splitting is putting people in “all good” or “all bad” category. Things were “all good,” and you were an “all good” person for a while, but now you’re “all bad” and everyone in your family’s “all bad.” Those are characteristics of this high-conflict pattern of behavior.
This is different than a “normal” upset person. [Someone with a personality disorder] has a hard time showing empathy towards others, towards your situation – and maybe even towards their children. They seem to act outside the norm and act out with very extreme behaviors. They have very rigid thinking, maybe some out-of-control emotions; the behaviors can come and go, or they might be constant. They might have some really bad behaviors like smashing someone’s headlights in, stalking – those sort of extreme behaviors. Less extreme behaviors might be things like constantly texting, constantly needing to be in control of everything that’s going on with the children, or what’s going on with the house. If you look at these patterns of behavior and you start seeing that it’s not just a one-time incident, it’s happening over and over and over again, [then you may be dealing with someone with a personality disorder]. You might think: “No matter what I do, no matter what I say, no matter what I try, I just seem to be repeating failed strategies – especially when I try dealing with this person and handling them in the same way that I deal with other people. And it seems to me that logic works with other people, but it’s not working with this person.” That’s when you know “Hmm, maybe there’s my red flag that I could be dealing with someone who has a very complicated operating system.” It doesn’t make them bad.
Our topic today is toxic people. Is my ex crazy? And you see blogs and all kinds of stuff online about how awful people are. Well, you know what? Most of them are actually pretty good people – they just have some fear-based behaviors that we don’t understand. Many times, behind those behaviors, there’s unresolved trauma that goes way back to childhood. When we can identify that we’re dealing with someone who’s outside the norm, then we have to adapt our strategy and also respond outside the norm. We don’t react, but we have to respond outside the norm.
Let’s talk about some techniques for dealing with a difficult ex-spouse during divorce. So, I’d like to ask you for some of your best tips and strategies for dealing with some of these most difficult people who may or may not be suffering from personality disorders.
Megan: Within about one year, divorced spouses will level out as they develop new patterns and they develop a new trust with each other – in two separate homes and in handling the children. But with the high-conflict or complicated person, the conflict seems to be ongoing. Because of this, they are “frequent flyers” in the court system: their case keeps going back to court, back to cork, back to court.
If you’re the parent who’s going through repeated court hearings, if you’re the one filing these constantly, take a look at yourself and check yourself. “Am I having black-and-white thinking? Am I rigid? Am I being flexible at all? What am I teaching my children?” If you can have that kind of insight into your own behavior, then you’re probably doing okay – especially if you can adapt your behavior and do things differently.
But if you recognize these patterns in the other parent, then you have to start employing some different techniques and strategies.
The very first thing you have to do is unhook, which is one of the hardest things to do. What I mean by “unhook” is to unhook emotionally. Because face it: you were with this person for a while in most cases, and the other parent knows your triggers and you know theirs. It’s easy to get enraged when you’re triggered, when you’re emotionally hooked. We work a lot on helping parents understand how to unhook emotionally, and it can be really hard because of those triggers, because of old habits and patterns you’ve had throughout the years.
How do you unhook? You unhook by putting yourself in that person’s shoes and remembering that there’s a fear-based operating system guiding and directing them. What do I mean by that? With the borderline personality, the person has a fear of being abandoned – a fear of feeling disconnected. They need to be in a relationship, so they get into a relationship, and then because of all of this cognitive distortion in their heads (and things that they don’t even know are going on, being totally unaware of them), they sabotage their relationship. After they sabotage it, they need to connect their air hose to someone else. And that’s typically the kids, so if you’re dealing with a parent like that, you have to look at their fears.
When you understand that this is a fear-based personality, when you see these patterns of behavior, you should consider doing things differently. Put on a different hat. “I need to have empathy for this person. Today, I’ve got to deal with this situation, so I’m going to put on a different hat and I’m going to respond instead of react. I am going to use empathy, attention, and respect to call it fear.” Empathy for these folks is the key to everything – to taking the wind out of their sails.
Even though what comes out of them can seem to be toxic and ugly and vile, many people will say to us: “I’ve looked the devil in the eye and survived.” A lot of times, when you are dealing with the most difficult co-parent, it just means they’re craving empathy. They’re craving acknowledgement – craving being understood. If you can key into that, that’s how you emotionally unhook: see them as a hurting, wounded person instead of an ugly, toxic person. And then you say, “Okay, I’m going to put my superpowers on. I’m going to be a superhero. And instead of seeing this person is all bad, I’m going to see them as a hurting person. I have to handle the relationship and the communication differently. I have to use empathy. I have to use acknowledgement and give them some respect.”
A lot of people say: ”Well, doesn’t that just feed into the problems that they already have?” No, frankly, it doesn’t. You have to remind yourself of that because it’s a big temptation to withhold praise, withhold empathy, and instead criticize and engage and argue and explain. Instead, you have to use empathy, attention, and respect, and then shift the person into some problem-solving.
That’s kind of the next technique; I call it the “Connect and Shift.” Connect with the person: “I understand you’re frustrated about what’s going on with Johnny at school. I would love to listen to what you have to say; what are your concerns about that? Have you thought of any ideas about how to handle it?”
What did I do there? In the beginning, I connected with that person. I connected through understanding, listening, and asking to hear their solutions. The shifting part is important because we’re shifting from right-brain negative emotion, to left-brain problem solving. A lot of times, a complicated operating system keeps them over in the right-brain – the defensive brain – and it’s hard for them to start thinking logically when they’re upset.
It is relationships, especially these close relationships, that upset them. If you use empathy, attention, and respect, you can connect and then shift them over to left-brain problem solving. The way to do that is to say things like “What are your ideas? What things can you think of? Maybe we should write them down to solve this problem or tackle the problem?” You want to use words like “thinking” and “ideas” and “solutions” – anything that will get them problem solving.
It probably sounds a bit simple – and it is – but it can be really hard to do if you don’t get unhooked first. So get unhooked and then manage the relationship with someone who has very little ability to manage it themselves. You have to get good at connecting with EAR – Empathy, Attention, and Respect – to shift them into problem solving.
A lot of times, I’ve learned the best strategy is to just shut up, to be perfectly blunt. Just stop talking. You don’t have to explain. You don’t have to. You don’t use logic. Just say “Mmhm, okay,” because this is a person who needs to get some things out because they’re feeling some anxiety from this fear-based personality. You don’t need to respond, you don’t need to react to everything. Just shut up.
Is your advice the same for someone who might be dealing with a narcissist? It seems like the latest buzzword is narcissist. Everybody is in a relationship with a narcissist. Is your advice the same if that is the case or at least they have narcissistic tendencies?
Megan: The true narcissistic personality disorder is a fear of feeling inferior. And you have to remember that the true personality disorders are fear-based kind of operating systems if you will. So, with the narcissistic personality, it’s a fear of feeling inferior. Well what makes them feel inferior? Anything – it could be tone of voice, even a little bit of a condescending voice. Or, words that make them feel like they’re less than you, or something around them. So, if you can address the fears (the fearful fear) if you come into it knowing they need to feel superior, then you just kind of allow them. You don’t need to allow for a person to control you or violate or abuse you in any way. You have to have good boundaries. These are cases that take excellent boundaries. But, you can use the same skills no matter what the disorder or whatever tendency they have, just connect. With some of the more narcissistic tendencies, you would connect with respect. They respond really well to respect. It can be the hardest thing in the world to do. But if you say hey, I respect what you’re trying to do with Johnny after school, taking him and his sister to softball practice, I respect your efforts to do that. And I actually use the word respect, because that’s what they’re craving. And when they hear that, it calms down their upset emotions. So, you can get really good at this – calming someone down – once you unhook emotionally. It’s actually hard to do with if it’s an ex sometimes because a lot of angry stuff can be coming out of them – but the more you practice this, you get them to trusting that you’re not going to sabotage them, you’re not out to disrespect them, and that you’re not trying to ruin the relationship between them and child or children. And once they start to feel that more, they feel safer and they feel calmer, and that’s going to be good for them. It’s going to be good for you and it’s going to be much better for your children than engaging and having conflict with this person.
Are there any other personality types that you see commonly that we haven’t already touched on? Do you have some advice about those types of difficult ex-spouses?
Megan: We’ve touched there on narcissistic tendencies and someone borderline, a little bit more on borderline, they really do have a fear of feeling disconnected. So if you keep them feeling connected, while at the same time having excellent boundaries, then you’re going to be far better off. You need good boundaries and you need to be honest. You don’t need to be mean, but you need to be honest. They need to feel connected because it makes them feel secure. So, they need to know that when the children are in their care, and now the children have to go to the other parent’s house for the weekend or a vacation overseas or a vacation you know in the next town, that parent is going to be feeling some anxiety. And it doesn’t make them a bad person, it makes them a person with some anxiety over their children leaving and it can cause some really bad behaviors. So, sort of anticipate that in advance. And let’s let them know, even in front of the children, that you plan on having a great time with the kids and you appreciate everything that that parents done with the kids to get them ready for this vacation or for even just for this overnight or this weekend. And I’m sure the children will be looking forward to coming back to. You know, things that will make that person stay feel connected, right? And I think that’s where so many people get it wrong is they see kind of disturbing, ugly behaviors come out and they just want to fight back and push back – and they get frozen and we have fight, flight, or freeze, right? And some of us are conflict avoiders and some are explainers and engagers, and you can’t be any of that – you just have to unhook and be neutral. So, there’s the borderline sort of patterns of behavior. And then there’s a couple more, the antisocial pattern: their fear is a feeling of being dominated. So, when they feel dominated, they need to dominate you. And a lot of times they can be pretty hard on the children, using the children for their own benefit. They can use the children against you or even harm the children because they feel like they own them or they have the right to do that. So these are these are cases that are more difficult and you know, you definitely want to go listen to or consult with a mental health professional perhaps and get some good advice, and you know, protect yourself and learn what best steps you can take to help your children. Bill Eddy has written a book called “Don’t Alienate the Kids” and it has some really great steps on how to handle all these different personality types. Now, there’s one more I’ll touch on and that’s histrionic personality. And it’s a fear of feeling ignored. So they need to feel like they’re getting attention. So, if you can see the pattern I’ve been talking about here, there’s this pattern of fear in any of them. And it doesn’t matter, if you know anything about borderline or narcissistic or histrionic. What you need to know is these are fear based operating systems. So if you can address the fears and calm the fears, they’re going to have a lot less anxiety, they’re going to trust you more, and you’re going to be more of a team to raise your kids. Then, if you constantly engage, explain and fight. Now, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t times that court shouldn’t be used. The court is there for a reason. Sometimes the black robe effect is truly needed. But to be running back to court over every little thing, it’s not a good idea – just try to problem solve. Any parent, problem solve with the other parent, problem solve yourself, get your children to problem solving. So that, we don’t want our kids to have conflict, right? We don’t want them raised with conflict. We don’t want them raised with parents fighting or teaching them all the negative things that we see in these cases. So I would encourage parents anywhere to always check themselves and think about loving their kids, connecting with their kids, and teaching them really three big skills in life, which are: flexible thinking, managed emotions and modern behaviors.
How can someone guard against parental alienation with a really difficult ex-spouse?
Megan: They’re very, common in cases like this, I guess we call them high conflict cases. And I think it’s a bit more talked about than it actually happens, maybe we like to call it child alienation instead of parental alienation – there’s a lot of disputes amongst the profession about what to call it. But really, when there’s alienation involved, what you’re doing is alienating the child from a parent. And it’s just not a good thing. Because, children, learn from both parents, and we want them to learn good behaviors from both parents and when the behaviors are so extreme that they’re harmful to children, then, there are measures in place. There are laws in place that can protect children. But, alienation, people want to run to court a lot over alienation and think that the court can fix it. Yeah, I’m going to go to my lawyer, my lawyer is going to go to the court and make sure that I’m not alienated against or that my ex will never see the kids again, right? So, the judges don’t have a magic wand. And there many, many judges, who care a whole lot about children, and they lose sleep at nights over these cases, because they don’t know. It’s really hard to determine sometimes who’s telling the truth and who’s not. And they need to protect children. But if you protect too much, then you might have alienated a relationship. So, what I like to help parents see is that when there really is alienation going on, a parent is trying to turn the children against the other parent. Then you have court options. But let’s put those aside for a moment. What can you do in your own home with your children so that they don’t get impacted so much by alienation? Back to the three big skills. You teach them the three things that they might not be learning from the other parent: flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors. So, you love them, you connect with them, you let them know “I love you, your other parent loves you, and we want the best for you”. And, “anytime there’s a problem, I want to hear about it, and let’s talk it through and let’s problem solve”. So, it seems kind of simple, but there’s so many things you can do within your own home to combat alienation. So if they come back from the other parents house and they’re saying, well Dad said that, “you’re a big fat slob. And, he wishes you just die”. You know? Not so good, right? And the kid is kind of confused. Or, in the other another instance is a child who just really shuts down and they get stomach aches and they’re doing poorly in school and you know, their health suffers because they can’t talk about what’s going on. And they’re not allowed to talk to dad when they’re at mom’s house and all these things. So what can you do when the child’s in your own home, that’s really the only time you have access to your child and to teach them the opposite of what they’re learning in the other house. So, if they’re learning to be really rigid and black and white in the other household, you teach them the opposite in your household – not only by your words – but in your actions. We teach them to have flexible thinking. You teach them to problem solve, you teach them to have empathy for other people. You don’t teach them to have negative thoughts about the other parent, when they know that something bad is going on with the other parent, you talk it through with them, and you help them see that everybody has good in them. And those are the things. They’re small and simple and seem like maybe they wouldn’t work. Like maybe it should be something bigger. But I have to tell you, parents really find success when they start teaching their kids these three things and start modeling that behavior in their own house.
How do you stop yourself from engaging when you get hooked or triggered by the other parent? Maybe your ex is trying to pick a fight with you in front of the kids? How can you stop from engaging in that moment?
Megan: We’ve all been around difficult people, right? And especially that intimate, former intimate partner can trigger us more than just about anyone. So you have to take care of yourself, first of all, and you have to be prepared. Because we get taken by surprise and a lot of times. And we’re busy in our lives, and we’re rushing through life, and oh, I’ve got to get the kids ready to pick them up from school, pick up the bag, pack the bags and brush them off to meet the other parents at the drop off or exchange place. And we have a million things going on and we get there, and then the other parent says something that triggers us, either to the child that she loves, or they’re late or you know, a million different things. And it kind of takes us by surprise. So I would suggest making notes to yourself that every time you’re going to be around the other parent, you prepare yourself in advance that there may be a trigger here. So, I need to step back. I need to take my time and be aware that I could possibly be triggered and how am I going to handle that? Right? So awareness is really the first step in being prepared and having a plan in place. And it really does take that. You don’t want to get in a situation where you engage in conflict once you’re once you’re triggered, it’s so deadly for the children in so many ways. So be prepared, have a plan, and if you do feel hijacked, your emotions get hijacked and you feel the heart rate go up, what that does is it shuts down the logic to your left brain. So you have to try to override that and you do that by kind of talking to yourself, taking a minute, stepping back, letting your anxiety calm down. And like I said before, just keep your mouth shut. Most of what is going to come out of that kind of complicated mouth is kind of what I like to verbal vomit. Sometimes I call verbal vomit because it’s just something that’s kind of icky and it needs to come out and it’s coming from anxiety. And you don’t need to, you don’t need to jump on that you don’t need to react to that. You can let it go by, it depends on the severity. I mean, if it’s degrading, and you’re being sworn out, or you’re at risk in some way, then, that’s a whole other level and we need perhaps to go to supervise exchanges or something. A lot of it is just something that they need to get out. Even just a quick little clip that they have, or you know, a little big, just let it go by. If it gets to be more of a pattern, then you know, you document those things. And back to your original question about how to not get triggered, it’s really back to just having a plan, taking care of yourself, not being overly tired, and knowing you’ve got to put on it different hat when you’re dealing with this person, and doing the opposite with them that you do with everyone else.
Is it possible to set boundaries with a high conflict ex? Particularly if there’s someone who really doesn’t respect boundaries in the first place? How do you do that?
Megan: Boundaries are really, really critical. So I would suggest for people who have a hard time setting boundaries (and you’ve been walking on eggshells a lot) to maybe see a therapist and have them help you set some boundaries. Read a book on boundaries – build yourself up so that you can have boundaries. And you know, what are boundaries with this person? Well, you’re used to walking on eggshells, you’re used to maybe letting them kind of run the show. You don’t want to be aggressive in your boundaries with them, but you want to take an assertive approach. And what’s that mean? It just means standing up for what you need to stand up for, protecting yourself, protecting your children. If you need help with this, you go to mediation and have a mediator try to put an agreement together if you’re having trouble co-parenting or things like that. So there’s a lot of information online, you can look at High-Conflict Institute, a lot of articles written by Bill Eddy there on how to have boundaries. But it’s really important that you step those in advance. I can’t emphasize that enough. You have to really prepare and plan these in advance. You write down what it is that the other parent is violating – what boundaries are they’re violating? Where did you struggle? Where do you what do you say when you walk away? And you go, “oh, man, I feel this way again. I screwed up again. I lost my temper again”. Okay, well, what was it that caused you to lose your temper? What was it that caused you to avoid the conflict or whatever your reaction was? And then try to develop a boundary around that. You don’t want someone with narcissistic tendencies to just walk all over you. You don’t want someone with borderline tendencies to completely run the show. Because what that actually does (if you don’t have a solid boundary with them) they have a really hard time creating those boundaries themselves. So you’re actually enabling them if you don’t give a boundary, to continue the bad behavior, and it kind of keeps him sick. Giving them a boundary helps them feel safer, it helps them feel more structured. So if you give them a boundary in a calm but an assertive way (you can still do it with empathy, attention, and respect) but with firmness and confidence and sticking to that boundary – you’re giving them a gift. And I think most people don’t understand that boundaries are gifts that you give another person. And if you really have a hard time with that, like I said, I would recommend you seeing a therapist to help you kind of build yourself up and just be stronger.
During and after divorce, if there are children involved, there is going to be an ongoing need to communicate from time to time with the co-parent. How do you suggest that someone handle communication with a really difficult ex-spouse? Do you get technology on your side, maybe use email or text message or phone them? What is the best way of communicating with a really difficult high-conflict co-parent?
Megan: As one of the areas of highest contention, really it’s hard for a lot of them to control their impulses and they’re feeling all this anxiety like we talked about. And all this kind of needs to come out and it needs to come out now. So with the advent of technology, we can, text and call and email and you know, just be in a presence in that person’s life, instantaneously. Facebook, whatever it is, it’s not really helped people that have poor impulse control gain any control over it. So you need to have boundaries around that that communication. So, a lot of courts will order that all communications go through either just by email or there’s a website called “Our Family Wizard” – I know a lot of people are using that these days, and all communication goes through that technology. And then it’s just kind of there on the record and it keeps some people from blowing up. And if they do blow up, it’s there on the record. But we don’t want our phones you know, our text going off constantly, every time there’s a little upset, a little crisis. So email is a pretty good way to communicate with the high conflict person – because they’ll actually have to wait to respond a little bit. They may type it all out and hit send (and there may be a little verbal vomit that’s come out through that) but the mere act of just having to type and think, can get them in a less upset state of mind because they’re shifting over to logic problem solving a little bit. Now there’s still going to be plenty of texting that goes on and emailing that goes on that is not that nice, but he mainly it might slow it down a little bit. I would not do texting to be honest, unless you have an agreement with the other parent about when texts will happen or the court can order, that you’re not going to be texting each other, if things are going to go through email. And it can be at set times – the more structure you can provide around communication, the better. So, you really need to be clear about how you can be contacted, especially when a child with at the other parent’s house think there’s too many restrictions on contacting you, while emergency may come up. So you need to have something in place in case there’s an emergency, but you don’t want that to be violated and for the constant communication to kind of creep back in. So you get to set your own boundaries on what is the best communication and how much you’re willing to accept. Now what I find with a lot of People, they think they need to respond to every text, every email, every phone call, but you really don’t and you don’t need to take every phone call. A lot of times, it’s just kind of that “meh” that needs to come out and once it comes out, it’s kind of gone away. So a lot of times there’s not even a need to respond. So you evaluate and think, okay, number one: do I need to respond to this? Or is this just some upset stuff coming out at the moment? Okay, now, second: if I do need to respond, how do I respond? And a technique that’s proven to be very, very useful, in co-parenting cases is called the BIFF technique, B-I-F-F, and BIFF stands for brief, informative, firm and friendly. So brief – a lot of times the emails and text messages will be pages long or at least several paragraphs long because they’re to make a point, they’re trying to get everything out, there’s a lot of blame and accusation. You don’t need yours to be long and responding to every single accusation. It really needs to just be brief and focus on the facts. So that’s the informative part – is focusing on the facts only, and not responding to everything in there, because not everything needs to be responded to. It needs to be firm, not aggressive, and not mean or nasty, but just firm. “This is how I am going to handle this. And that’s it”. So, brief performative, firm, and then a friendly tone. And friendly doesn’t mean you have to have smiley faces or emojis all over it, although they don’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt if you’re texting, to have a smiley face or something – but really, it just means keep a friendly tone, because you don’t want to activate an upset in this person. So anything you can do to keep them calm through your communication, it kind of takes the wind out of their sails and they’ll stay calmer. So, at first it might be hard and you might think, “okay, that’s just a bunch of bologna, that’s not really working”, but you keep trying and keep using it. And after a while, they begin to trust you, that you’re not out to get them. You’re not out to malign them or take the children away from them, but you can be counted on to be rational and logical. So a BIFF response is a good way to handle communication.
At the best of times, divorce is hard, difficult, painful – but if you have an ex who has never seen a molehill that they couldn’t turn into Mount Everest, I’m guessing it’s harder, more painful, more difficult – maybe exponentially so. Do you have any advice for how someone can recover from what is probably a long and pretty arduous process and help their kids recover as well?
Megan: Yeah, these can be long arduous processes and really take a toll on a person. I’ve talked to many people, many parents in these situations who are just exhausted, they felt like their life is in chaos, and they’re just simply exhausted from dealing with it – so, good self-care is vital. You have to take care of yourself, all the normal things we tell people to do to be well: eat right, get plenty of sleep, keep a consistent schedule, exercise, and then surround yourself by a good support team – that could be family or friends, professionals, even a support group – but avoid inviting anyone into your world who might try to really aggravate the situation amp you up to fight the other parent, because those are just kind of negative people and you don’t need those kind of people in your life. Because your focus is your children, right? And you’ve got to take care of yourself, you have to take care of your children. So keeping yourself Well first, and surrounding yourself with good people, getting supports from therapists, from support groups, all great ideas. And how do you help your children? Well, that’s probably the best way you can help your children is by taking care of yourself first. And then you know, monitor what’s going on with them. Let them feel comfortable and safe in your home. Let them feel comfortable and safe talking about their other parent, and help them understand that if they’re coming home to complain about the other parent after a weekend with her or him, that you can talk through that with the child so they can kind of get it out and help them problem solve through it. Not maligning the other parent. But you know, kind of being aware of what’s going on and helping the child experience life. Because what we see a lot of, especially in high-conflict divorce and co-parenting, is this wanting to eliminate the other parent, wanting to malign the other parent, and that just doesn’t do any good for the child. They need to feel safe and secure in both homes. So we tend to get myopic. We want to focus on that one little problem that’s going on now, and we’re so focused on this world and I’ve got to protect my child, well take care of your child the same way you’re taking care of yourself. Good structure, good boundaries, good eating, get some exercise, keeping steady and consistent schedules, and teaching them those three big skills: flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors. The more they learn to do those things and experience successes and failures in the world (and that means if things didn’t go perfectly well and the other parents house) then you teach them how to handle that through flexible thinking, and how to manage their emotions. So you don’t want to say, “Mom was a horrible person, she shouldn’t have done that”. Instead, you say, “well, that’s really unfortunate that that happened. Sometimes people do get upset and sometimes, maybe more than others. But let’s think about some other ways that maybe this could be handled or how would you handle it if you were that person in those shoes”? So you’re just constantly sort of turning it around. So you get the children thinking and problem solving. Now if it gets to a point where you see the child is really suffering or you have any concerns, it’s always a good idea to consult with a mental health professional at some level, and let the child have some kind of a neutral person to talk to and guide them through some things. Because I tell you, in the divorce industry, we know that these kids are so hurt and wounded long term by parental conflict. So parents must keep in mind there’s a big long game. You know, you’re divorced when your children are 3, there’s a lot of years left. Whether they’re 3 or 15, that other parent, they’re parents for the rest of their lives. So, you want to get through the daily little struggles and not making big battles and just teach the children to deal with things and to problem solve.
My guest today has been Megan Hunter, CEO of Unhooked Media and books and the co-founder of the High-Conflict Institute. You can visit her bookstore at www.unhookedmedia.com to browse a great selection of titles, dealing with high-conflict divorce, co-parenting, relationships, and much more. Thank you so much for being with us today, Megan – this has been really useful and informative.
Megan: Thank you! It has been my pleasure. You guys are doing great work with the magazines and websites.