This article (the first of a two-part article) was written by Dr. Honey Sheff, a Dallas-based mental health professional and a board member of the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas.
One of the most common challenges facing any couple is establishing good and healthy communication patterns. Mental health professionals tout the importance and benefits of good communication for relationships to develop and to thrive, and teaching communication skills is one of the foundations of any kind of marital counseling.
Divorcing and divorced parents often experience different kinds of interactional challenges, starting with simply how to communicate with each other at all – not to establish deeper bonds of intimacy and connectedness, but rather how to share information with each other about the most mundane and simple matters, as well as making major decisions in regard to their children. In working with divorcing and divorced parents, my ultimate goal for them is to communicate in a way that is effective and productive, and leads to less conflict and greater harmony.
In this day and age, there is little justification for parents not being “able” to share information with each other, even in situations of extreme hostility and animosity. I can remember twenty-five years ago when I worked with couples that literally could not talk to each other without it escalating into an explosion or “he said, she said.” For those couples, I insisted on their each purchasing a portable fax machine so that the majority of their communication could be by fax, which would limit the volatile arguments and also create a paper trail to offset the “I told you/no you didn’t” interaction.
Times have changed, of course, and the ways in which we communicate have changed with it. Today, in addition to face-to-face conversations, we have smart phones, voice mail, texting, email, and social media.
The first rule of communication for divorcing and divorced parents, regardless of the medium used, is that all communication must be between the parents, and that children should not be used as messengers. We do not want children getting caught in the middle or triangulated between mom and dad.
Although there are indeed a variety of mechanisms that parents can use to interact with one another, at times talking is the really the best way to figure out a situation. . Sometimes, as much as parents might like to keep a “paper trail” of all conversations there are some decisions that truly require the back-and-forth interaction on the phone or in person that only gets distorted by texting and email. The goal of all communication between parents, intact or divorced, is that the interaction be respectful and honor the parenting relationship between you.
Recognizing that this can be a challenge for many divorced couples, and can become destructive or volatile, it is critical that such conversations not take place in the presence or earshot of your children. If such concerns exist, simply meeting at a neutral place in public can be useful in mediating a situation that might get out of hand otherwise.
Both of you should make attempts to actively listen – be sure you are hearing the messages accurately, not making assumptions and not interrupting. You should each have an opportunity to present your point of view, understanding that the other person may continue to disagree. The goal is to remain as factual as possible, try to limit the emotion, use “I” statements and not make personal attacks. If such attempts prove unsuccessful, and a decision has to be made, perhaps then is the time to reach out to your parenting coordinator or facilitator, if you have one, or your child’s therapist if he or she has one, or to contact a neutral mental health professional to assist in mediating the discussion. And sometimes, you may have to simply agree to disagree in spite of your best efforts, if compromise is just not a viable option.
In my upcoming blog article, I’ll discuss written forms of communication – which, in this day and age, are plentiful and carry their own particular set of rules with them.