Words can wound, or words can heal. In the context of a relationship breakdown, the expression of unresolved hurt arising from the breakdown is often reflected verbally, in letters, emails, text messages or through solicitors’ letters.
Any attack, whether verbal or written evokes a flight or fight response. The first results in either disengagement or capitulation to the person who is seen as more powerful and the second, a response that may be of even greater hostility, leading to an escalation of conflict.
Either way, the result is that one or both people feel angry and may try to re-exert the control over their lives they feel they are at risk of losing. Response leads to another response, because the whole basis of litigation encourages a point-scoring, blame-attributing approach to justify one’s own actions and undermining that of the other person.
Judges almost always express dismay at the inability of parents to understand that their conflict is harming their children, apparently oblivious to the fact that it is the system they are part of that encourages this adversarial approach.
How can this vicious cycle be broken? How can conversations be transformed into a problem-solving approach?
I don’t have all the answers, but I have found the following effective in many situations:
- When receiving an aggressive or angry communication in any form, first listen to your natural internal response. It is likely to be one of protest, anger, a desire to respond and justify your own stance. Put into words how it makes you feel – you may find it helpful to highlight or underline the provocative words that evoke your strongest response. They may be overtly rude or manipulative.
- Write down how you would instinctively want to respond. This allows you to give vent to your feelings in a private note, which will not be sent. It is good to get the instant feelings out and acknowledged. Until that first step is done, it will prevent any further progress.
- Take a moment, have a cup of tea then review the communication again from a different perspective. This time you will be searching to ascertain whether the other person is being purely controlling or manipulative or whether (despite the words used) part of what they say has some validity, even if it expressed poorly.
- This is the time to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’. Your challenge is to determine which parts of the communication you wish to respond to and which you do not. You do not have to answer everything.
- Some parts of the communication will be gratuitously rude or hurtful. They are designed to get you hooked into an argument on their terms. The more insecure someone is, the more they will seek to control their world by pushing the buttons they have learned are likely to get a response. Don’t respond to these parts of the communication. You can choose not to
- Other parts may be motivated by something different. They may be simply angry about something or be fearful of loss and trying inappropriately to secure their position by threats.
- You now have a choice as to how to respond to the different elements.
- In relation to provocative, hurtful comments, the basic thing to understand is that you get what you reward. If you respond to those words, you are likely simply to add fuel to the fire. If you try to shame them or remonstrate with them for their use of language it will be viewed as a response – this will then justify a further response from them, and so it goes on. The right response is to ignore such comments. You can of course record them to show later to a judge or other person what language has been used, to demonstrate their coercive approach – it is the best possible evidence of the approach adopted by the other person, as it comes from their own hand. This transforms their power to hurt into a sense of satisfaction for you that they themselves have provided the best possible evidence should you need it later. Keep it.
- If there are concerns that are genuine to them but badly expressed, and which if written differently would have evoked an adult response from you addressing any concerns then do the following:
Re-write their communication in the way you feel they should have written it. For example, starting politely with “Dear …” and using your first name. Include:
a) What they are worried about.
b) What they are asking you to do about it.
c) Asking for a response within a reasonable timescale.
Now draft your response to your reworked communication. Start with “Dear….” and end with “Regards”. You are writing to them to illustrate what good communication looks like written politely from one parent to another parent. Acknowledge their worry and do not dismiss it, in words they should have used. Address any concerns in a way you can – if there is a matter that you will not agree on, take this opportunity to explain why, in non-emotive language. This shows that your approach is one that meets the needs of all concerned children and adults alike. If you can, provide alternative choices. Explain the pros and cons and why you prefer your suggestion. This will provide them with the opportunity of responding in kind. Your communication should model a good boundary-setting structure by setting out factually what happened:
a) the effect on you and/or the children was (factual)
b) what now needs to happen
c) when it needs to happen by (setting a reasonable deadline and agreeing to any justified request for an extension
d) the consequence of it not happening by that deadline. This should not be worded as a threat but rather an expression that you are left with no alternative in the absence of a positive response, to any other course of action to resolve the situation.
10. As this will be a new form of communication between you it may well take some time to take effect and bring about a change in response. The exercise may have to be repeated many times but sooner or later the difference between your communication and theirs should become clear to them, showing them to be unreasonable. They will realise that anyone seeing such communications (such as a judge) will quickly conclude which is the reasonable parent. Your role is to set a good example of what communication between parents should look like and not respond to provocation.
Your children need you to be the one to take responsibility as the adult. Hopefully by using the above method you will educate the other parent to follow your lead for the benefit of the children.