This blog post explores some basic strategies you can employ to reduce conflict with the other parent.
The Gottman Institute has been studying relationships for decades. This statistic comes from studies done on couples who are in an intimate relationship. So, I reckon the statistic would probably be very close to 100% for interactions between separated parents!
To me the message is clear. If you want a chance of having a positive, productive conversation with the other parent then don’t start aggressively. In fact, don’t let aggression enter your part of the conversation at all. Of course, this won’t guarantee a positive conversation, but it will help!
Note that these strategies do not apply where there is domestic violence. If you are experiencing domestic violence please contact a local agency that specialises in domestic violence. If you’re not sure, give me a call to discuss your situation.
How Conflict Can Happen
You might be thinking that you are never aggressive (at least until the other parent is), and you certainly don’t start a conversation aggressively so this post is not relevant to you. In every single interaction between co-parents in conflict that I have witnessed negative conversations have started when one parent interpreted something the other parent said as being aggressive, whether it was intended to be or not. In most cases, as an impartial third party, I would not have interpreted the parent’s comment, question or statement as aggressive (or negative). Yet it sparked fireworks in the other parent!
Books have been written on why this can happen. Without writing a research paper on the topic, I’ll simply describe it as a hiccup in brain processing. Somewhere along the way the original words are interpreted by the other party’s brain as something threatening. Take the typical history of conflict and hurt between separated parents, throw in a generous helping of high tension that usually accompanies their interactions, and the rational part of the brain or either (or both) can easily be flooded. They ‘see red’ and the fight, flight or freeze part of the brain (deep inside, near the top of the spinal cord) takes charge. Once that happens it can be very difficult to re-boot the rational brain so a calm, rational discussion can take place. Here’s a cute YouTube animation that explains it well and can be used with your kids: LosingControl or another more scientific explanation.
What are some things you can do to prevent this from happening? This post will explore basic strategies. I’ll add Intermediate and Advanced strategies later.
Prepare yourself for interaction with the other parent ahead of time. Yeah, I know this takes some time but what else do you have to do on your commute to work? Spend 5 minutes thinking about a time you lost it. Can you remember what you were feeling just before you flipped your lid? Internalise that sensation. If you can, try to recall multiple interactions that have ended poorly. Now, take that knowledge with you into your next interaction with the other parent and pay attention to how you’re feeling at all times. If you start to feel like you might be leading up to flipping your lid, get out of there! Be polite. You can let the other parent know that you need to think about what they’ve said. Or, work up the courage to admit you’re feeling triggered. Try saying ‘I’m sorry, but I need to take a break. Could we please discuss this over email (or text, or phone, or later in person). Make sure that you follow up.
Maintaining awareness of how you feel will be much more difficult if you’re distracted by additional stressors. For example if your phone is ringing or message notifications are coming through, the kids are talking at you, fighting or starting to melt down, your stress levels might be rising. So, try to eliminate those disctractions. If you can’t eliminate distractions then hold off what you need to say until a later time. Don’t take the chance. If the other parent tries to initiate a discussion with you about something potentially explosive and you can’t control the distractions, politely ask the other parent if you could discuss it at another time (make a time), on the phone or via text/email because you’re distracted, can’t concentrate and you want to give the matter all of your attention.
I know when my kids were acting up, crying or whingeing at handover I was unable to control my tone of voice. I would start speaking faster, louder and in clipped tones as I got more and more frustrated with the kids (being kids) and feeling obligated to interact with my ex-husband in that moment. This would trigger him, in turn, to get angry. Until I learned to ensure there were no distractions most of our handover discussions turned into heated arguments (I’m embarassed to admit that took me several years to suss out).
If the other parent is upset or flips their lid don’t tell them to ‘calm down’ or ‘be reasonable’, and don’t remind them of possible consequences or threaten them with some form of retaliation. This is just throwing petrol on a fire if they are getting worked up or have already flipped their lid. Get out as quickly and safely as possible and maintain control over your emotions. ‘I see you’re upset. I’ll go now. I’ll text you later to set up another time to talk about it’. Then leave without saying another word or taking any other action against them. If they yell at you on your way out don’t react. If you’re in danger or feel unsafe, by all means call the police! Don’t wave sarcastically, stick out your tongue or glare at them. Just leave with as much dignity as you can muster. If they send abusive text messages don’t answer. If they call consider sending it to voice mail unless you’re sure they’ve calmed down (please don’t answer if you’re driving). If they haven’t calmed down use the same tactic – ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. I’ll contact you later.’ Just hang up, don’t feel compelled to keep apologising and explaining. If you feel unsafe call the police or contact a local agency that deals with domestic violence.
These are just some basic strategies that might help you to start addressing the conflict between yourself and the other parent. Remember, nothing will change unless something changes.