Communicating after Divorce
Brad stared at the phone dumbfounded. “I offered to take the kids this weekend so Julie could go out with friends for her birthday. Why is she yelling at me????”
Brad isn’t alone. When former spouses try to talk to each other, all too often they end up frustrated and confused.
Brad wanted to give his former wife time to enjoy her birthday with friends, so he offered to take the kids on her parenting weekend.
In Julie’s mind, Brad was trying to deny her time with her children on her day.
Why the disconnect? More importantly, how can it stop?
Broken trust lies at the bottom of virtually every divorce. Some event or pattern eroded each person’s ability to believe the other. When the trust goes, so does the communication.
When people trust each other, communication flows. Spouses give each other the benefit of the doubt. They communicate layers of meaning in just one word. Misunderstandings are easily repaired.
When trust is broken, all that changes. Instead of giving the benefit of the doubt, words are often perceived in the worst possible way. Mistrust then leads to misunderstanding.
Brad considers time with friends the best way to celebrate birthdays. Julia’s birthday is coming. So, Brad offers to take the kids, hoping to give her a good day.
Julia’s idea of a great birthday is time with family. She sees Brad’s offer to take the kids as a ploy to deny her what she wants most.
Because their starting assumptions are so different, Julia can’t see Brad’s offer as he intends. She sees it only in light of her own perspective. Brad and Julia need a way to communicate effectively—if not for themselves, at least for parenting their children. Some ground rules can help.
- When speaking: Be stupidly concrete—then double-check
Brad realized Julia didn’t trust him and wanted to fix it. He learned to be extremely, even stupidly, concrete. After Julia’s outburst, Brad responded with, “Julia, I know your birthday is Saturday. I enjoy time with my friends on my birthday and thought you might, too. I just wanted to take the girls for you so that you could make plans.” The clarity helped Julia understand Brad rightly.
Too often people assume that the other person “knows what I mean.” When trust is gone, one thing is sure—they rarely genuinely know what the other means. That lack of knowledge leads to misunderstanding. Only by Brad specifically stating what he was offering, and why, could Julia understand.
- When listening: Focus on words, not assumptions about motives
Julia’s anger came from assuming Brad was trying to hurt her. Because he had hurt her deeply in the past, she believed all his actions were designed to hurt her now. That belief undermined every interaction.
Julia and Brad made progress when Julia stopped focusing on trying to figure out why Brad was acting as he was and instead focused on what he was saying. Julia took the huge step to take Brad at his word. A step with many benefits.
First, taking Brad at his word proved easier. Rather than spending energy trying to dissect motives, Julia began simply taking each message at face value.
Second, Julia could relax and decide if she wanted a night with her girls or with friends, without wondering if she was giving into a plot or giving up territory to him.
Finally, Julia could tell whether Brad was sincere by whether his actions matched his words. As she took Brad at his word, she found there was more to trust than she thought.
- When acting: Ensure actions match words
For trust to return, actions and words must match. Co-parenting offers divorced couples the opportunity to rebuild lost trust. As words and actions match, parents begin to trust each other—at least in the realm of parenting—which makes life easier for all.
If words don’t match, parents have a basis for holding each other accountable.
Either way, parents create a foundation for working cooperatively for their children.
Communicating after divorce is hard. These rules help couples work together for better parenting.
If you need help working with a former spouse, call (317-344-9740) or email (info@TheResolutionCenterIndy.com) The Resolution Center for ways to improve co-parenting. We look forward to serving you.