As family lawyers we see some former couples and separated parents who are in high conflict every day.
That conflict is usually borne out in terse and accusatory emails and text messages.
Those communications are about everyday life – how children are to be picked up from sport; paying of bills; and overdue school fees.
They tend to have a very negative trajectory – they start out with irritation, develop into anger, and end up in absolute hatred.
That is very toxic to have in one’s day to day life – every time you check your email or look at your phone, the product of a ‘poison pen’ is waiting for you.
Things get to the point where your heart rate is elevated as soon as you receive a communique from your former spouse or co-parent. You dread opening their message, thinking ‘what now’. You feel rage immediately, and pen a red hot response.
And so the cycle continues, getting worse and worse.
That is negative energy, and will be having a daily effect on you, whether you admit it or not. It shifts your focus from things immediately in front of you (work; new relationships; ‘life’), to the management of that conflict. It eats away at you throughout the day, making you unhappy.
Change is required in order to excise that daily hostility from your life.
So how does one bring about that change?
Be honest. Recognise that change is necessary. It might be as simple a coming to the realisation that Sunday afternoon ‘changeover’ of the children has become a weekly warzone, that this conflict is probably affecting others around you (including your children), and that there is a better way to manage it.
Once you’ve come to this realisation, it is time to get your former spouse or co-parent to reach the same conclusion:-
- Be brave. Have the courage to extend the olive branch to the other party – being frank that you see the manner in which communication is unfolding as being a very negative experience for you (and for children), and something that you would like to adjust. It is hard to be the first one to do that, but someone has to be the first to propose real ‘change’.
- Watch your words. A little courtesy goes a long way in any communication. Address your former partner or co-parent as you would like to be addressed. As the saying goes, honey catches more flies than vinegar. Adjusting the way in which you communicate will invite an adjustment in the way your spouse or co-parent communicates. This does not mean ‘giving in’, but rather, carefully choosing your words. Ask yourself, if I were the ‘recipient’ of this text message, how would I react?
- Leave the past in the past. Implementing change often involves ruling a line under past events. It will not help to hark back to prior incidents of conflict.
- Set rules. Identify what it is that has gone wrong, and upset you both, in the past. Suggest some ground rules about future communications, and ask the other party to join with you in adopting them. Those ground rules might simply be an agreement to be civil with each other; an agreement not to send messages after 8:00pm; an agreement to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’; an agreement not to write in capital letters. There are no wrong answers. Remember to be the first to follow those rules.
- Be persistent. Change does not happen overnight. You will need to stick with it. Extending the olive branch may not work the first time. Keep at it.
These things won’t work for everyone. After all, high conflict cases have a ‘history’ which is hard to overcome. Further, not all of us have the scope for introspection, and to change our behaviour.
Where you are one of the cases involving daily aggression however, chances are you have nothing to lose by attempting to bring about change.
It may take a few attempts, but give these tips a try (to two).
Even if it does not work, you will at least not be perpetuating the conflict. Conflict begets conflict, and if you disengage from it by communicating in a neutral and courteous way, the other party is then choosing conflict of their own accord. And that will be on them, not you.