We were sitting at a sidewalk café a handful of blocks from the ocean. We’d begun the process of filing our divorce, finally, and were writing a separate document that would clarify our intentions, commitments and goals as co-parents for life. It would cover issues such as who would pay for college, what we’d do if one of us wanted to move out of state, how we’d handle our households if one became a millionaire while the other struggled to pay the rent. On the topic of divergent incomes: my almost-ex made a comment suggesting that unless I started working harder, in two years he’d be rich while I'd barely scrape by.
Here’s one reason that filing for divorce can be so hard—the process can recall old disagreements and grievances from the marriage, such as in our case, issues around money. I took a sip of my coffee, managed not to react, and remembered two positive communication skills I’ve learned in divorce.
Two positive communication skills:
1. Interrupt a difficult topic with an easy one.
It’s tempting to continue focusing on a point of contention, thinking you must work it out now before going on to other issues. A better route? Switch to a conversation you know will go well.
Beth Henson, a Colorado Super Lawyer and mediator who works at the Resource Center for Separating and Divorce Families in Denver, said that when couples hit a topic of conflict in mediation, she’ll suggest tabling that discussion, and moving on to something they can agree about more easily. “When they have success agreeing about one thing, that makes it easier for them to come back and agree about the other. Sometimes therapists who work as mediators will ‘push through’ the area of conflict. I’ve found it much better to avoid it, and then come back to it.”
I loved this idea. It reminded me of something from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the notion of strategizing to win a battle with ease, like water running down a mountain, rather than like a boulder being pushed up a hill.
As Sun Tzu wrote, “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.”
A former spouse is not an enemy, but pushing past resistance "without fighting" is a good approach for any relationship. “Well, we can discuss our careers later,” I said, proud of myself for my restraint. “Why don’t we move on to talking about college?”
2. Keep it short.
As in, make any complaint or concern you have last no longer than five minutes in the telling. This suggestion comes from Mordecai Finley, PhD, a rabbi who does counseling and leads the congregation at Ohr HaTorah in Venice, CA. His idea is that we often hammer away at a complaint, repeating it again and again, thinking if we just phrase it exactly right, the point will stick and our partner will change.
But criticism rarely leads to positive change. Instead, Finley suggests, say it once. Stop. Move on.
In our case, we started talking about how our son is more attached to me than to his dad. Why is this?
There are any number of reasons our son might be more attached to me than to his father. It's pretty typical at this age. Little boys love their mommies. I’m emotionally attentive while his father . . . well, I found my husband too spottily present when married, too likely to drift off, rather than listen to my concerns and actually feel them.
This is a perfect example of a time to use the Keep It Short rule. My almost-ex's emotional style is none of my business, now that we're not together. But I did wonder if our son experienced his father as being distracted.
“I know you’re a good father,” I said. “And he is always happier when you’re around. But why don’t you just make a note to pay attention to this, and see if there is any way in which you might be not as attentive as you’d like to be?”
And then I dropped it. I never dropped it while married. I harped on it again and again.
These were both difficult topics. But as I mentioned in a previous post about why some people get along better, post-marriage, I found that good communication became far easier, once we split. I was no longer confronting issues that irked me on a daily basis, and could avoid what marriage researcher John Gottman has called “The Four Horseman of Apocalypse:” criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Many others I’ve spoken to said something similar: being out of an unhappy marriage opened up a new ability to practice some of the good communication skills marriage counselors always stress. These are two easy ones to try.
* This post originally appeared on wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is involved in the family law reform movement in the United States. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.