You’re probably a pro at fighting with your ex. Perhaps he’s given you years, decades even, of opportunities to practice. Which is no doubt why the two of you are now separated or divorced. And if you can agree to disagree, split your property amicably and stroll away clean with a heart-felt Have a good rest of your life, well then, more power to you. But if you’re like so many couples who divorce, there will still be things that bind you together – children, a business, property, family – even as your marriage dissolves. Inevitably that means communicating … which can become arguing … which can lead to dredging up every bit of nastiness, wrongdoing, disappointment and anger that ultimately drove you apart. And before you know it, you’re going at each other like a pair of ultimate fighters.
The thing is, knock-down-drag-outs may make you feel better in the moment, but they’re not terribly productive. And once you no longer have the love, affection, friendship or even makeup sex to smooth over your differences, you need to fight more strategically so you come away with most of what you’re fighting for. So, whether you’re divvying up credit card debt, working out a co-parenting agreement, pushing for more alimony or simply sorting out who gets custody of the dog and the Mad Men DVDs, relationship experts say that by following these rules of engagement (or estrangment), your “discussions” with your ex will net you more results and a lot less angst.
Never fight in front of the kids. If all you share with your ex is a well-worn futon and a Netflix queue, then skip ahead to Rule 2. But if you do have children together, consider this one of the holiest of divorce commandments. “Never … ever … ever…” emphasizes Jennifer Freed, PhD, MFT, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara, California. “There is nothing more tortuous to a child’s psyche than being in the middle of parental conflict. It splits them emotionally. If they love Dad, are they betraying Mom? If they love Mom, are they betraying Dad? It’s King Solomon’s dilemma but with a child’s psyche. And that makes a child feel terribly unsafe and insecure.” That said, the next time you’re tempted to mix it up with your ex because he’s bringing your child home late on a school night … again, you gotta mom up and put your kid ahead of your anger. You can always give your ex an earful later.
Remember who you’re dealing with. If your guy was intractable before your divorce, there is no reason to expect that your interactions will be less volatile once the judge signs your divorce decree. “Don’t go into any discussion thinking your ex is going to be any different than he ever was,” warns Dr. Freed. “You have nothing at stake emotionally, and the bad communication patterns that led to distance and divorce typically get more aggravated without the emotional attachments. If you have children or finances in common, before you even start the conversation, it’s important to anticipate adversity and consider what his issues might be.”
You set the communication parameters. When you dictate (subtly) when, where and how your communication takes place – in person, on the phone, via email or text – you’ll be ready and able to approach the discussion calmly, so you can get in and get out with minimal drama. “Conversations can quickly go from Can we swap weekends? to You can’t stick to a schedule! You never respect my time!” explains Miami marriage and family therapist Lisa. Paz, PhD. “It’s really important that you’re in the head space to address the issue at hand, so your discussion doesn’t spiral into an argument about everything that was ever wrong in your relationship.”
If your ex catches you off-guard, resist being pulled into a discussion on the spot. Buy some time so you can mentally prepare. “If you’re not ready for the interaction, say Hey, now’s not a good time, let me get back to you by ______. Maybe that’s 15 minutes from now or an hour or tomorrow,” says Dr. Paz. “That way, you’re mentally in the zone and won’t be so reactive.”
Some ex-couples schedule weekly phone calls for an update about the kids. But, at least initially, it might be better to hash out potentially contentious issues through email rather than face to face or even on the phone. “Changing your mode of communication can really help,” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Mount Kisco, New York. “I have two female clients who will never get on the phone with their exes unless it’s an emergency because there’s something about hearing their exes’ voices that really sets them off. But by not having to actually speak with their ex-spouses, they’ve been able to let go of a lot of their anger.”
Another benefit of email: it can slow the communication process enough so that you won’t feel rushed or bullied into making a snap decision you later regret. And keep in mind, even though we’re living in the instant messaging age, you’re not obligated to respond that quickly. If your initial knee-jerk reaction is to fire off a vitriolic email telling your ex exactly where he can stick his demand to, say, completely overhaul your painstakingly devised visitation schedule, pour it all out in an email. But then sleep on it before you hit Send. In the morning, you can probably dial down the snark and send a more reasoned, measured reply. “In my women’s group, I have women write what they wish they could say to get all of their anger out,” says Dr. Freed. “Then they can go to the table and in a sense, turn the other cheek.”
Don’t DUI. Dialing or texting or IM’ing, basically any contact, in person or virtual, while you’re under the influence “will not go well and don’t kid yourself about that,” cautions O’Neill. The probability is high that you’ll say something you’ll be sorry for later … and perhaps not even remember. “Unless it’s an emergency, it’s best not to have any kind of conversations with your ex through any kind of technology if you’ve been drinking or indulging in anything else,” advises O’Neill.
Role play with a friend. There’s a reason politicians drill and drill before big TV debates – that way they can’t get shaken off message and led down the rabbit hole of someone else’s crazy agenda. Borrowing a page from the politician’s playbook can help you stick with your own talking points so you don’t get drawn into arguments you don’t want to have. Work with a therapist or friend to rehearse the various ways a difficult conversation might unfold. Even do a few run-throughs where you scream everything you’ve ever wanted to scream at your ex to get it out of your system, says Dr. Freed. “It’s not productive to bring your rage into the conversation, so you need to vent and spill that somewhere else, get acknowledged for all that you’ve put up with and then really be strategic,” she explains. “The whole point of even talking with your ex is because there’s something you want. You need to be an expert negotiator, which means you need to not be so heated up.”
Do five minutes of aerobic exercise before any discussion. Get on your treadmill, race up and down your stairs, pop in a cardio dance DVD – anything you like, as long as you push yourself to the max. Vigorous aerobic exercise burns off the cortisol and other stress hormones, like norepinephrine and adrenaline, that rush through our veins when emotions run high. Exercise also increases levels of the calming neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine, so you don’t feel as nervous and you can think more clearly and rationally, explains Dr. Freed.
Find common ground. Sure, there are plenty of good reasons that you’re no longer together. But unless he’s an abusive psycho stalker guy – in which case your attorney should handle any necessary communications – you can probably find something you both still agree on, particularly if you have children. For instance, say, your daughter isn’t doing her homework when she’s at your ex’s house. Rather than accusing your ex of being a slacker dad, Dr. Freed suggests this tack: “Start with the three things you have in common on this issue: We love our kid. We’re committed parents. We want her to do well in school. Right there you have interest instead of defensiveness,” she explains. You’ve also avoided the Blame Game and in acknowledging a shared challenge – We both experience this problem, so we need to figure this out together – you’ve forged an alliance with your most natural ally. Because face it, even if you didn’t work as spouses, you’re still parents. And no one will love your child the way the other person who had a hand in creating her does.
Keep it civil. Maybe he is an asshole. That’s why you divorced him. But is telling him that (again and again) going to entice him to agree to whatever it is you’re asking for – swapping weekends with the kids, picking up the tab for Li’l Suzy’s braces, finally putting your beach condo on the market? Unlikely. So … remember what your grandma always said about catching more flies with honey. “If you call him an inconsiderate bastard, he’s not going to say, You’re right. Thank you so much for pointing that out. But whatever you were really approaching him about in the first place will get thrown out the window, and any agreement you could have reached is further away,” says Dr. Paz.
Stay focused. “Continually take inventory during your conversation to make sure you stick to the issue at hand,” advises Dr. Paz. That way you avoid getting sucked into a negative free-for-all where you’re just spinning your wheels, rehashing ancient history. “It’s one thing to put up with unproductive disagreements in your relationship. But you shouldn’t have to with your ex,” says Dr. Paz. “You’re done, the relationship is over. Now it’s just logistics. Your dealings should be as pointed and as focused and productive as possible. Get in and get out.”
Identify your (rock) bottom line. No one gets 100 percent of what they ask for. And that includes your ex. So the idea is to figure out in any given disagreement, what’s the least you’re willing to settle for and still feel good about the terms. “If you want to walk away from a fight or disagreement feeling good then it can’t just be that you didn’t throw daggers at each other,” says Dr. Paz. “If you walk away feeling so dissatisfied with the interaction, then that too is an unfair fight. But if you walk away getting your lowest bare minimum, then you won, for you.”
Bail out rather than melt down. When the fighting gets supremely nasty, most of us cease to be rational, reasonable, logical beings. Literally. Once the fight or flight response gets triggered, flooding our bodies and brains with stress chemicals, the instinctive, emotional part of our brain – aka “lizard brain” – takes over, and we actually revert to a more primitive state where it’s all about survival, explains Dr. Freed. Reason is abandoned. Compromise is abandoned. And nothing cooperative will ever come of that. “Once you cross over into a certain rage place, you’ve activated a part of your brain that’s no longer rational,” says Dr. Paz. “If you recognize that your blood is boiling, you’re starting to sweat, your heart is palpitating or you’re getting that really revved up feeling and starting to get nuts, don’t be afraid to get out of the fight and say, You know what? I’ve got to run or I’ve got to take this other call; let’s revisit this later. And if it means telling a white lie to get off the phone, do it.”
In fact, Dr. Freed recommends jotting down several Get Off the Phone Quick Excuses on index cards and have them at the ready in case tensions escalate. A few to use:
School’s calling, gotta go.
Toilet’s overflowing, I’ll phone you back.
FedEx’s at the door and they need a signature. Let’s pick this up in 20.
It takes a full 20 minutes for those stress hormones to dissipate and your brain to calm down, according to Dr. Freed. In the meantime, take some deep breaths. Step outside. Go for a run. When your head’s cooler and you’ve regained your equilibrium, you can get ready for round two.