Smart Parenting During and After Divorce: How to Communicate with a Jerk
The main principles of communicating with an unreasonable co-parent are very much the same as the principles of negotiating with one. Here, however, I will focus on how important it is to detach yourself from all of the button-pushing that goes on during heated arguments. This includes preventing your attorney from engaging in similar types of nonproductive communication with another attorney. It is one thing to be aggravated by someone who is unreasonable and uncommunicative. It is adding insult to injury to pay someone to do it as poorly as you have done it. Here are some simple principles for communicating if your co-parent is a jerk.
Avoid Questions to Avoid Arguments
If there is a single piece of advice I could give to parents who argue with their co-parent, it is this: Do not ask questions. Questions invite sarcastic answers, and sarcastic comments escalate conflict. Here is an example:
Co-parent A: How can you expect me to live if you won't pay me the money the court has ordered you to pay me?
Co-parent B: Why don't you shake down your lazy boyfriend for some money? I'm tired of giving him a free ride.
Here is another example:
Co-parent A: Do you want our son to grow up without a father? Is that what you are trying to do?
Co-parent B: A father? Is that what you were trying to be? I'm sorry, I must have blinked and missed that part.
Make Your Requests Nonthreatening
If you are trying to communicate something you need or something that must be done, do it with a short, nonthreatening request. Do not begin your request with the following phrases:
- I would like . . .
- I need . . .
- It is important that . . .
- I am upset . . .
- I am angry . . .
- You need to help me . . .
- You need to pay attention to . . .
- It is absolutely necessary that you . . .
All of these phrases invite responses that begin with phrases such as the following:
- What makes you think I care about what you would like . . .
- What makes you think I care about what you need—there are a lot of things I need that you don't care about . . .
- It may be important to you, but it isn't to me . . .
- If you are upset, then I am happy . . .
- If you are angry, that's too bad—try going to therapy . . .
- You need to help yourself . . .
- I need to pay attention to how to get you to stop bothering me . . .
- You may think that is necessary, but I don't . . .
If you give opportunities for sarcasm to your co-parent who does not want to engage in civilized discussion, the hostility will usually escalate and you'll fail to resolve the problem.
Another opening you should never give someone in an argument is What do you expect me to do? The almost universal answer to this question is I expect you to act like a human being.
Unfortunately, by this point in the conversation both parties are acting like human beings—and that is part of the problem. Many human beings do not know how to disagree in a civilized way.
Write a Note or E-mail Instead
When communication is poor, it is far better to communicate by writing a note in memo form, but only if you keep it short, businesslike, and neutral in tone. Here is an example:
RE: Field trip to Washington, DC
The sixth-grade field trip to Washington, DC, will be held on Thursday, May 28th. Ben should attend, and the cost is $65. I will lay out the total, as it is due tomorrow. Please forward your half of this fee to me in the envelope provided.
If you are interested in attending as a class parent please contact Ms. Berger at 555-9876 by this Friday.
Thank you in advance.
There is no guarantee that the response to a note like this will be pleasant, nor is there any assurance that there will be a response at all, but it is possible. Be sure to always keep a copy of notes of this kind. Even if your co-parent's response isn't pleasant, notes like this will show that you were flexible and you provided the necessary information for the co-parent to participate as a class parent.
People arrive at the point of writing notes like this when face-to-face and phone conversations are nonproductive. Do not allow yourself to endure more than a few nasty conversations before you resort to this mode of communication. Hostile communications often escalate, and even when you can manage to get the last word in, they never make you feel good.
By writing e-mails, notes, and letters, you can choose your words more carefully and create a paper trail of your reasonable requests and your co-parent's unreasonable responses or lack of response. Often, people in conflict will not accept each other's mail. If that is the case, you may have to get your attorney to intervene.
E-mail communication can be just as damaging to the co-parenting relationship as verbal communication. Remember to mind your sarcasm and avoid the temptation to discuss multiple agendas in the same emails. Short and to the point is the rule here.
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