Learning to cooperate with your ex
If you have children together, you must learn to cooperate with your ex; the marriage may be over, but your parenting relationship will last forever.
Cooperation means working together towards a common goal. Fostering a spirit of cooperation with your ex means laying down your weapons in the war of divorce in order to protect your children. It means that when your ex begins to argue with you, you don’t argue back. It means that you stop being reactive and start being proactive. Your kids should be your priority, and although it may kill you to share them with a jerk, it will hurt them irreparably if you continue to do battle.
It’s understandable that you may feel bitter, angry, and vengeful toward your ex, but when you deliberately bad-mouth or argue with him or her in front of the children, it’s as if you’re saying those things to your kids. The hurt and confusion they feel at those times can be damaging. We know that nobody’s perfect. And obviously, there will be times when your child overhears you arguing with your ex, sees the expression on your face, or senses your underlying (and many times valid) disgust and anger.
You’re human. The point is that no matter what your feelings are, your children will be better off if you keep them as your central focus and work diligently at keeping the parenting relationship civil and cooperative.
There are two ways to work at change with your ex. One is by changing your internal state. You sort through your angry and bitter feelings and obtain insights into those feelings that enable you eventually to change them. Once your feelings are different, your actions automatically change. This is often a lengthy process and many times requires the professional assistance of a counselor. Another way to change is by changing your actions first, no matter how you feel. It’s akin to administering CPR to someone whose heart has stopped. You can’t get inside the person and restart the heart by changing the internal state. Instead, you work from the outside. You place your hands over the person’s breastbone and push down at regular intervals. This external force eventually changes the internal state, and the heart begins beating.
By learning the cooperation skills presented in this article, you’re essentially administering CPR to the parenting relationship. When you change your actions in an argument with your ex, eventually your internal state will change too. Remember that although it’s okay to allow the marital relationship to die, it’s not okay for the parenting relationship to die, because if it does, it’s your children who will suffer.
The Fight-or-Flight Response
When you find yourself in a stressful situation, your subconscious automatically assesses your physiological response (sweaty palms, fast heartbeat, rapid breathing, shaking hands, cracking voice) in order to determine what kind of signal it should send to your body. Should it tell your body to run from danger? Should it tell your body to prepare defenses and fight? Or should it tell your body that everything’s fine, sit down, relax, and have a cup of tea?
The problem with what your subconscious finds is that it’s not discriminatory. It can’t tell the difference between the rapid breathing that occurs because you are furious that your ex won’t take your child to a birthday party and the rapid breathing that happens when you realize you’re being pursued by a wild beast. In either case, your subconscious sends the same message: run, fight, or be eaten!
This panic signal effectively shuts down the part of your brain that handles language and rational thought. Your reactions include clenched fists, gritted teeth, red face, slamming down the phone, and crying. In other words, you respond on a purely physiological level. When that happens, you become ineffective and you give away your power and control over the situation.
Altering the Fight-or-Flight Response
Speaking to an ex often evokes a fight-or-flight response. One father we watched would get red in the face and clench the arms of the chair until his knuckles turned white. Then he stuttered at the mere suggestion that he talk about what he would say to his ex. Invariably, the first words out of his mouth were, at best, explosive, and at worst, profane.
Beginning a discussion with profanity and name-calling (even if that’s the way you feel) is not cooperative. When your blood pressure has already risen or your hands are shaking, you considerably weaken your position. We wouldn’t presume to suggest that you can rid yourself of anxiety or rage completely, but you can use techniques that will calm, center, and focus you enough to enable you to stay in control during an argument — as well as maintain a powerful position.
Deep Breathing — A Technique That Calms
Breathing deeply breaks into the cycle between your subconscious and your body and gives you an alternative to the fight-or-flight response. When you breathe deeply, you alter the message that your subconscious receives. In essence, you send the message to your subconscious that there is nothing to be afraid of. After all, if there were, you certainly wouldn’t be standing around taking time to breathe! When you change the message you send to your brain, it stops sending the panic signals that make you ineffective and less resourceful.
To be an effective deep breather, you must practice. Begin by practicing in front of the mirror. Don’t rush. Breathe in deeply enough to fill your lungs, then sit or stand straighter and take in just a little extra. Breathe out slowly. Count as you inhale and then as you exhale. Say, “That’s one.” Breathe again. Say, “That’s two.” One more time, “That’s three.” This technique is useful not only during a conversation with your ex when you find yourself reacting, but also prior to phoning or meeting your ex. And if three breaths don’t seem to be altering the fight-or-flight response, take more.
When you believe that you must respond immediately to whatever your ex says, and you rush to fill in the silences in a conversation, you inevitably engage the fight-or-flight reaction. In addition, you place yourself at a disadvantage by not allowing yourself time to think. It’s not only okay to allow silence (and breathing) in a conversation, it’s necessary. If your ex is continuing to talk, or shouting at you to answer him or her, take the phone away from your ear for a moment. If you’re face to face, close your eyes. It’s difficult to count breaths when you’re staring at someone you don’t like very much. Closing your eyes momentarily shuts down your visual sense.
If you find it difficult to breathe deeply and incur silence, then practice during your conversations with friends and family members. It may feel awkward at first, but soon you’ll discover that the pressure to speak disappears. And remember not to cover your silences with “um.” Silence is much more powerful.
Shifting Your Mindset
Part of the difficulty in cooperating with your ex may lie in your tendency to rehearse negative thoughts about him or her. Much like self-defeating self-talk, these thoughts engage and propel you into a negative Think-Feel-Do cycle. For example, you think, “I hate him, I hate him, I wish he would die,” over and over again as you listen to him tell you why he doesn’t have time to take your child shopping for camp. This sets you up to fail because you plan your next action based on these negative thoughts.
Likewise, the self-defeating self-talk you engage in prior to a conversation with your ex sets you up to fail. You may have thoughts like, “I can’t do this, she’s just going to start screaming at me again,” or “Why do I even bother talking to him? He’s such a jerk.” This rehearsal of negative, angry thoughts serves only to make you more, rather than less, angry and negative. That rehearsal robs you of momentum and power and creates a tendency for you to respond argumentatively instead of cooperatively.
Listen to Understand
The basis for cooperation lies in being able to communicate effectively, and the foundation for good communication lies in being able to listen. Steven R. Covey, in his bestselling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes that if he had to choose the single most important thing he’s learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Listening and trying to understand your ex is far more powerful than you might realize!
Listening is a skill. It’s not, however, a skill that most of us were taught, and although we do it quite naturally with the people we feel close to, when we feel confronted, misheard, or wronged, we fail to draw on our ability to listen.
Listening can be broken down into four components: attention, acknowledgment, reflection, and restatement.
The First Component of Listening: Attention
Listening is more than just waiting your turn to speak, more than just being quiet, and more than hearing the other person. The other person must feel as though he or she is being heard. We help them feel heard when we give them our full attention.
Giving another person your full attention is a crucial part of the listening process. It means looking your ex in the eyes, keeping your arms and legs uncrossed, and fully facing her. When your body language communicates an attitude of attention, the other person softens her attack, because she no longer feels as if she has to work so hard to get you to understand the points she’s trying to make.
The Second Component: Acknowledgment
Acknowledgment means verbally indicating that you’re listening to the other person. That you’re actively following along as she speaks. “I see,” or “Uh-huh,” are examples of how to verbally acknowledge that you’re listening. Acknowledging that there is a problem or that your ex has a point doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it.
Arthur’s ex-wife called him and began to complain about money. She said that she had taken an extra part-time job on Saturdays but was having trouble coming up with money to pay a babysitter during that time. Arthur got the feeling that she was taking a roundabout way to ask him for more financial support, which he was unwilling to give. Rather than reacting to his thoughts, however, he simply acknowledged her by saying, “Uh-huh… I see… I understand that you don’t have the extra money for a baby-sitter on Saturdays. It’s been a bad year for a lot of us, and eight hours adds up to a lot.”
Had Arthur reacted to his suspicions by exploding and saying, “I’m not giving you more money. How many times do I have to tell you that before you get it through your thick skull?” it might have provoked an argument, at the center of which would have been their child. Both parents might have left the conversation feeling as though neither of them “wanted” their daughter. Resentment and hurt feelings might have ensued.
The Third Component: Reflection
Reflection goes hand in hand with acknowledgment. It requires that you try to determine what the other person might be feeling. This isn’t easy. As you’ve already discovered, many times angry words or actions mask our more subtle emotions.
Reflection refers not only to the process of looking underneath the masking emotion for the other person’s more subtle feelings, but also being able to reflect those feelings back to him. This sounds something like, “I hear that you’re feeling defensive about being late,” or “Sounds like you feel accused.”
When Arthur refused to engage with his ex, she began to utilize some of the old dynamics that hadn’t worked in the past. “Arthur, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t afford a sitter, I just can’t.” Arthur responded with, “You really sound overwhelmed. Juggling work with a child is difficult.”
The Fourth Component: Restatement
Many times people think they’re clearly hearing someone when in fact they are interpreting what’s being said.
When Arthur listened to his wife complain about babysitting, he was sure that she was going to ask him for more money. Rather than explode at her with, “I’m not giving you more money,” or “What do you want from me anyway?” he restated what he thought she was saying, “Margaret, I’m hearing you say that you’d like me to cover the child-care expenses for you on Saturdays. Am I right?” To his surprise, she seemed bewildered, “Arthur, I’m not asking you for more money! I was just going to see if we could switch visitation from Wednesday nights to Saturdays so that time is covered for me for the next couple of months.”
Asking “Am I right?” at the end of a restatement is useful because it enables you to check in with the other person to see if you heard correctly. And it affords your ex the opportunity to correct you if you didn’t understand.
What Can You Agree With?
Another important cooperation skill involves listening carefully to see if there are any points on which you can agree during an argument. In business, for instance, when a client is extremely resistant, good business-people listen carefully to see if there are any points on which they can agree. They think to themselves: “Could I agree, either in principle or in part, with any of what she’s saying?” When they find even a part of a statement they can agree on, they seize that opportunity. It’s akin to trying to turn a wild horse around: sometimes you have to ride the horse in the direction it’s going before you can get it to respond to your words and actions.
When you’re feeling attacked by your ex, it may be difficult to think in terms of agreement. You’re far more likely to enter a negotiation with your ex with thoughts like, “She’s such an idiot,” or, “He’s 100% wrong, as usual!” Yet when you look for points on which you can agree, you put yourself in the position of control and relay to your ex that you’re working toward a common goal and resolution.
Many times cooperative communication with an ex breaks down because we block it. Sometimes we deliberately do this, and sometimes it’s subconscious. It helps to recognize some common ways communication gets blocked: through interrupting, by giving advice, and by invalidating another person’s feelings or point of view. Let’s see how those look.
Interrupting is one of the most common causes of communication breakdown. In an argumentative state, the thing people want most is to be heard. When you interrupt, you are not allowing the other person to finish his turn. You’re not giving him his chance to feel “heard.” Remember that cooperation means working together. Let your ex finish what he or she has to say before you respond, and then request that your ex let you finish, as well.
Another way to block the communication process is by offering advice. When you become the adviser, the cooperative mood vanishes.
Sam was experiencing some sleep problems at home. His father, Steve, couldn’t seem to get him to stay in bed at night until around eleven or twelve. He called his ex, Rachel, to see if she was experiencing the same difficulty on the nights Sam stayed with her.
“Rachel? It’s Steve. I have a concern about Sam’s sleeping habits and I wanted to ask you a question about it. I can’t seem to get him to go to sleep until around midnight when he’s here. I wondered if you were having a similar problem?” “What you have to do,” Rachel sighed, “is be firm. A little firmness goes a long way.”
“I am being firm,” Steve retorted. “Well, clearly not firm enough. A boy needs a strong hand, especially from his father.”
Steve’s blood began to boil. “Are you accusing me of not being a good father? You’re infuriating!” he yelled as he hung up the phone.
When Rachel responded to Steve’s request for information by offering advice, she may have believed she was being helpful. After all, wasn’t Steve asking for advice on getting their son to bed earlier in the evening? The problem is that we often give advice when we’re simply being asked for information. To keep communication with your ex cooperative, it’s best to determine what your ex wants before dropping your pearls of wisdom. Steve and Rachel would have been better off had she employed her active listening skills, then asked Steve if he wanted advice before giving it. She might have said something like, “It sounds like you’re asking me what I would do, is that right?” He might then have responded with, “No, I just want to know if it’s happening at your house as well.”
Another effective communication block occurs when we invalidate another person’s feelings or point of view. Everyone has, and is entitled to, her own opinions and feelings. By telling another person that her opinions or feelings are wrong, or even by implying that they’re wrong, you invalidate what to her are legitimate concerns and are more likely to arouse her anger than her cooperation.
Josh’s mother, Cheryl, called her ex because she was concerned about Josh using her ex’s car during rush hour. She wanted to make the suggestion that Josh borrow the car only before five in the afternoon, when there wasn’t much traffic, or after seven, when rush hour was over.
“Hank? It’s Cheryl. Do you have a minute?” “Sure.” “It’s about Josh borrowing your car. I’m concerned about him driving in traffic…” “Cheryl, you’re being ridiculous!” Hank interrupted. “Josh is a good driver, and he’ll be fine.” “Hank, I’m just trying to ask that you restrict his use of the car to non-rush hours.” “Look, Cheryl, there’s nothing to be concerned about. Don’t you have better things to do than worry?”
Not only did Hank interrupt Cheryl, he also invalidated what to her was a legitimate concern. Here is a major breakdown in what could have been a cooperative communication between Josh’s parents.
Doing the Box Step
Cooperative communication can be looked upon as a box step. Think of yourself as a partner in a dance. What you are doing is drawing a box on the floor by moving your feet in that direction.
Step back — and assess the situation. You could, at this point, strike right back, but this action encourages retribution. Listen to understand, and remember that you don’t have to make any decisions right this moment.
Step to the side — your ex’s side. See if there is anything on which you can agree. Look at what your ex’s feelings, objectives, and motivation might be.
Step forward — present your ideas clearly and concisely.
Step to the other side — close your negotiation with a compromise.
Tim’s mom was surprised when her ex called one day and began yelling. “You listen to me!” he said, “I am not going to have Tim riding a bike in the city! He’s done fine up until now without a bike and I think it should stay that way.” Remembering the box step of cooperative communication, she didn’t engage right away in an argument she knew nothing about. Instead, Sarah stepped back and went into a listening mode. “I hear a lot of concern in your voice, George. What’s going on?”
“Tim says you promised him a bike for his birthday, and I simply won’t have it. It’s far too dangerous to ride in the city!” Sarah then stepped to her ex’s side, trying to hear it from his point of view and find something on which to agree. “I agree that it can be dangerous to ride on the streets.” She then stepped forward and presented her plan. “I had thought that I’d buy him a bike only if we limited his riding to the park with a helmet to ensure his safety.”
“Oh!” George seemed surprised, almost as if the wind had been knocked out of him. “I guess I didn’t realize that.”
Then Sarah stepped to the other side, closing the communication. “So can we agree that he can have a bike if he rides only in the park with a helmet?”
“Okay,” George agreed, “and thanks.” When Sarah engaged George with her newly learned cooperation skills, she was able to handle a situation that previously would have escalated into a fight.
Catch ‘Em Doing It Right
One of the most powerful ways to engage another person in cooperation is to acknowledge and appreciate his efforts.
Very often we watch for and pick on the things a person does wrong, mistakenly believing that if we point out his mistakes, it will help the person change his behavior in the future. Unfortunately, this often makes the behavior worse, because soon the person realizes that you’ll never acknowledge what he did right anyway, so he might as well do it wrong.
By watching for the things a person does right, however, and acknowledging those things, you increase the likelihood that the person will do things right in the future. Even if you believe that your ex never does anything right, you’ll find that it will move you in a more cooperative direction, even if you only acknowledge his efforts: “I know how hard it is for you to get out of the office on time. I appreciate that you made this effort today, even if it didn’t work out.”
If You Lose it, Apologize
Working towards a cooperative relationship doesn’t mean you’ll achieve a perfect one. We’re all human. Obviously, there will be times when you won’t hold it together, when you’ll lose your temper or composure in front of your ex. When this happens, apologize. It’s not what you do, but what you do afterwards that counts. A simple “I’m sorry for calling you names” can go a long way. (This is an important point to remember when dealing with your kids, as well.)
Finally, cooperating with your ex for the sake of your child means compromise. Many people look at each conversation with their ex as a miniature battle to be won. If you look at it this way, hanging on to your thoughts of revenge, setting out to hurt your opponent, wanting to come out of every conversation the victor, you might end up winning each battle, but rest assured you’ll lose the war. Your children are at stake here, and if their happiness and self-esteem suffers in your battles — which they most assuredly do — you’ll have lost much more than you ever realized.
When you give yourself permission to compromise, you give yourself and your children permission to be happy. You’ve worked hard to get where you are today. Being a single parent is not an easy job. Raising a child is not easy. Cooperating with your ex reflects your maturity, sensitivity, and personal growth and, ultimately, makes things easier for you.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex by Julie A. Ross and Judy Corcoran. This hands-on guide to dealing with delicate custody issues is specifically designed for divorced parents who have trouble communicating with each other, offering step-by-step techniques and scripts to help them cope with difficult situations.