In this guest blog for CFLP, family consultant Jane McCann examines patterns of communication common among separating and divorcing couples, and how to turn destructive ways of relating into constructive co-parenting models that provide a good example for children
Many couples cite poor communication as being a key factor in their divorce or separation. How many times have you heard, “She wouldn’t listen” or “He couldn’t communicate”? The sadness lies in the fact that what we mean is often not what we actually say; and what we say is often heard in another way altogether by the other.
We each bring to each individual relationship our own set of filters through which we listen. We can make wild assumptions about the responses we receive as we try and make sense of our feelings. Depending on our levels of self awareness, we may or may not have a sense of what’s going on. We may just be left with a continual feeling of not being heard and of not being able to get our message across which results in frustration and resentment. It’s easy to see how misunderstandings then become commonplace and in the end, partners argue more and more or drift apart and separate.
At times of high conflict, couples have a tendency to take up polarised positions where communication is less likely to be moderated. The flavour of communication becomes more about “I’m right, you’re wrong – you just don’t get it!” Listening can often go right out the window as each battles to get their point across. These battles can go on for a very long time, well beyond the decree absolute, with untold damage to the family’s wellbeing.
So why is communication so important once a couple has split up – surely that’s the problem solved? For the very reason that it’s arguably even more crucial that you communicate well with your ex-spouse post-divorce rather than pre-separation: in order to function well as co-parents. Without good communication, it is easier merely to repeat the dysfunctional patterns and dynamics that are probably pretty well entrenched by now and perhaps one of the key reasons for the separation.
When a couple separates, understandably there is often a powerful mix of emotions including hurt, sadness, rejection, betrayal, misunderstanding, jealousy, denial, anger and more besides. When we experience these difficult feelings, our natural response is to take up a defensive position that involves attacking the other, either explicitly or implicitly. It rarely involves saying what we think or how we feel, but instead tends to focus on what the other has done or not done. More often than not, we’re not even aware of how we’re acting.
Good communication can minimise the detrimental impact that this kind of behaviour has on the whole family. It can be very hard to do things differently, which is why support from family, friends or professionals can really help. Others can listen and help us find alternative ways of communicating.
Good communication becomes easier if you are able to think of your ex-spouse like you would a business partner (as a co-parent) rather than as ex-partners. Although you might be separated, if you have children you will need to communicate for years to come – whether that’s discussing children’s arrangements, making decisions together or simply attending parents’ meetings or family celebrations. The more openly you are able to talk, the easier it will be to make tough decisions, to negotiate issues on which you disagree and most importantly, to mutually support your family in the future. Good communication models something very powerful to children and makes it much harder for them to take sides or play one parent off against the other.
If we communicate honestly and openly, we are far less likely to blame, point fingers or engage in manipulative behaviour. The upside is that good communication also aids understanding, helps us feel heard and can leave us and the other person feeling much better.
Jane McCann – Family Consultant, Mediator, Counsellor