There is no doubt that going through a divorce is extremely stressful. It is much akin to death. It is, in fact, the death of a marriage and nothing hurts like losing someone you love whether it is due to death, divorce or the breakup of a non-marital relationship. People go through the same stages of grief during a breakup that they would if their spouse died. Most of us have heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All of us are likely to do or say things while grieving or angry that we might not do or say in a calmer state of mind particularly when that grief or anger is the result of the break of one of the most significant and powerful emotional-tie attachment bonds in our life.
Good communication is as essential during a divorce as it is to a healthy marriage. You might be thinking, why would I want to communicate with my soon to be ex-spouse? Seeing and speaking with him or her is difficult and sad. It is human nature to try to avoid or minimize pain, if possible but bad or no communication may well make the process of reaching agreement more challenging. Why should you care how you speak to him or her and why does it matter? The simple truth is the way you communicate with your spouse during this process can impact how quickly and easily you are able to come to an agreement resolving your issues whether they are financial or child related, it can influence the quality of the relationship you have with your ex-spouse after the divorce is over and it also can negatively affect your own emotional and physical health. The stress and emotional pain that a divorce can cause is made worse if the communication between the divorcing couple is hostile or counterproductive. You cannot escape this even if you just refuse to communicate at all and taking that approach normally results in a lengthier and more costly divorce. Effective communication practices can make the divorce transition a little less painful, a little less difficult. You can keep your process moving in a more positive direction, be more productive, conserve the energy wasted by negative emotions for you both and for your family and friends while reducing the overall legal expenses you incur by working on your communication with your spouse during your divorce. Even the most competent communicators can find these skills elusive when dealing with their own personal matters.
So, you know you need to communicate in a way that fosters progress instead of hindering it and promotes meaningful understanding, but you may not certain where to begin. The following are just a few guidelines that may be helpful as you try to avoid the landmines that exist.
- If you have children, always put their interests first. Treat the other parent with respect. Do not use your children as messengers or as pawns. Do not say things that make them feel you are wanting them to divide their loyalty by choosing sides. Do not argue in front of your children. Do not disparage your spouse or their family. You will have many years of interacting as co-parents so start to build a good communication style and base as soon as possible. It is often said that children are resilient. They can be but they normally only do as well as their parents do. How you divorce matters. Do not ever forget that you will always be a family.
- Set communication and other boundaries as early as possible and be clear about what those boundaries are during the divorce process. Remember that because you are very familiar with each other, it can be easy to cross boundaries without meaning to or even realizing it. Setting boundaries can help you avoid arguments and destructive feelings. One or both of you might be accustomed to calling or texting each other multiple times during the day. Determine if that is still acceptable to each of you and if not, what seems more reasonable. Are there some forms of communication that are more desirable than others in different situations? If so, what are they for each of you? Do you have to call or text if the communication is not time sensitive and an email would work just as well? Conversely, does an email work if the communication is time sensitive? Are there some things that are better communicated in person or on the telephone instead of by text or email? Communicate your preference whether it is in person, by phone, text, or email. Communicating and adhering to simply set boundaries can go a long way toward helping you successfully maneuver the divorce process.
- Social media is NOT your friend. Avoid it if possible, during your divorce. If you cannot or will not avoid it completely, do not use it as a platform to denigrate your spouse or their family. Do not post pictures of you with your new beau, on vacations, during happy hours, or at parties. Many a case has become more acrimonious and more costly by a post or a tweet. The temporary satisfaction you receive from it is not worth the potential trouble it can cause.
- Watch your tone. The tone of your voice is as important and sometimes even more important than the words that you are saying. How you say something matters. Albert Mehrabian, a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles is best known for his work on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. He teaches us the 7-38-55 rule which is that seven percent of meaning is communicated through spoken word, thirty-eight percent through tone of voice, and fifty-five percent through body language. Do not raise the volume of your voice when you are speaking to your spouse and keep your tone even and moderate. Watch your body language, including your facial expressions.
- Be calm and courteous when communicating with your spouse. Treat this type of communication as you would one in a professional situation. Try to put your feelings aside when you are speaking to your spouse even though you may be angry, sad, resentful or feel betrayed. Focus on the issue to be discussed instead of repeating old arguments about your relationship or missteps made by your spouse during your marriage. Use “I statements” when talking with them such as “I am feeling really hurt” instead of, “You hurt me.” “Your statements” can be viewed as accusations which are normally met with a defensive response and are counterproductive to what you want to achieve.
- Think before you respond. Are you angry or upset and feel an overwhelming desire to respond in what may be a negative way? Go ahead, write that email, or note but DON’T SEND IT. Wait and read it later after you have calmed down and rewrite it, if necessary. Consider asking someone to objectively review your words to see if there is a better way to frame your reply so that the message received is helpful to you and to the response you would like to see materialize.
- Prepare for your conversations with your spouse. Write down what you want to accomplish during the conversation. Think about what you want to communicate and how you want to say it. Write reminders to yourself on the best way to have an effective conversation so you can refer to them if you find the need during the conversation. Write notes about what you understand your spouse is saying and ask for feedback to make certain that your understanding is correct. Make certain that your spouse is aware of what you are trying to get across to him or her. If possible, without it appearing patronizing, say something positive about something they have done well during this time. If the situation warrants it, stop the conversation instead of allowing it to degenerate into an argument. It takes two to have an argument. Be respectful but cut off the discussion, if necessary. You can always take it up again on another occasion.
- Try to understand the emotional state your spouse is in at the time. Your spouse may not be ready or even able to effectively communicate. If your spouse is not ready for the divorce, he or she may still be grieving about the end of your marriage to such an extent that he or she cannot effectively communicate at that time. They may avoid communication or be harsh when communicating. Grant them the grace you would like granted to yourself. Give them space, if possible.
There are numerous other ways to improve your communication, and these are just a few. For couples who choose collaborative divorce to transition through the divorce process, they have already made a conscious decision to try to avoid the emotional, relational, and financial damage that so often results from divorce in a litigation setting. If you need help with communication, go to your therapist or the neutral mental health professional who is helping the two of you navigate your collaborative divorce. They are an invaluable asset and can help you communicate better during divorce. Communication is sometimes difficult and professional advice can make it easier. One of the many goals of collaborative divorce is to create a safe environment for clients. Establishing effective communication fosters that feeling of safety and security and results in a better outcome for all.