Some of us are super lucky to have completely constructive, healthy relationships with the other parent. But some of us are not so lucky. In my own case, my relationship with my son’s other parent(s) has run the gamut from toxic and threatening to positive and healthy. Although the specifics of each relationship a very very basic part of human psychology is that we seek out the stuff that makes us feel good or will get us what we want – and avoid the stuff that doesn’t make us feel good or will not get us what we want. If your co-parent is avoiding you or is angry or defensive towards you, here are five (more subtle) ways to use that facet of human psychology to encourage mutual communication from your co-parent.
1. Respect their Boundaries – and Yours
Anger and, in turn, defensiveness, is a natural reaction when someone crosses a personal boundary. Boundaries make us feel safe and when someone does something that is adverse to that sense of safety, the natural reaction is to defend those spaces – be they physical or emotional. Respecting the other parents boundaries is an easy way to avoid hurt, anger and defensiveness, which are enemies of constructive, healthy, two way communication. If both parents respect each other’s boundaries, a sense of safety can grow and safety begets trust.
For example, if your co-parent would prefer to converse via email instead of by phone, unless it is a considerable burden on you, conduct your conversations via email. Perhaps the other parent would prefer to exchange the child in a public location rather at their home – or would prefer not to discuss their personal life. Unless there is an urgent issue affecting the well being of your child that requires something adverse to their boundaries, make every effort to respect them.
In the case that you need something that the other parent has said is off limits, explain your need to them and let them help you come up with alternatives. Include them in the process rather than simply violating their boundary. That doesn’t mean that you must be at the other parent’s whim, and there are definitely limits that can be too restrictive or unreasonable. But making this honest effort will go a long way towards fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect.
Likewise, communicate your own boundaries gently and reasonably, and expect them to be respected. Many of us assume that our boundaries will just be understood but often, the other side has no idea really what the boundaries are.
2. Exercise Empathy
There are always more than two sides to every story. Very often difficult custodial relationships degrade into finger pointing and blame – mutually – from both sides. And there is probably a grain of truth in both sides. Empathy is like ‘tuning in’ to the other side. It gives you insight into what they might be thinking or feeling, why they might think or feel that way and helps you to better communicate with them. In order to practice empathy, try these questions :
- If I, the non-custodial parent, were actually the custodial parent, how would I want them to handle this?
- If I, the custodial parent were actually the non-custodial parent, what would it be like to be in those shoes?
- If I reacted in the way they reacted, what might I be feeling in order to make me react that way?
Having empathy for the other parent in a situation in which they have not been similarly empathetic to you is tough. It can feel vulnerable or even weak. But the payoff for having empathy is the ability to have increased compassion for them, which decreases your own anger.
3. Be Compassionate
Compassion goes hand in hand with empathy because one will increase the other.
Anger, vindictiveness and defensiveness can sour any relationship – but no one becomes that way in a vacuum. There are always circumstances that make a person the person they are. Just because you have made the decision to change the way you behave towards them doesn’t mean they have made the same decision.
Having compassion towards someone is having the ability to say “I am where I am and you are where you are and we’re both ok. I understand where you are and I hear/see your actions/words as a reflection of that rather than blaming you.” That doesn’t mean you have to enable or allow abusive or ill behavior or that they are not responsible for their behavior. You shouldn’t allow abusive behavior – and they are very much responsible for their behavior. But having compassion means moving from a place of finger pointing and blame to a place where you are able to separate the behavior from the person and have compassion for the person who is in the angry or defensive place due to a history of hurt, sadness or fear.
When you are able to be compassionate towards the other parent, you cultivate a greater sense of where they are coming from, and therefor, more empathy, which will allow you to communicate in a way they will hear and understand. And you will find that your own anger diminishes.
4. Use Nonviolent Communication
I swear by this method (and this book). It’s from Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. I’ve recommended it to clients, students, lovers, friends and co-workers. I use it at home when tension runs high. I use it at work when dealing with difficult co-workers. I use it when negotiating sticky social situations. I have mediated difficult situations between other people using this method. It works. If you put it into practice and REALLY follow it… it works. Always. 100%. And the beauty is that the other person doesn’t need to be following it if you know your stuff well enough.
The basic template is “I observe”, “I feel”, “I need”, “I request”. I know it looks super simple. And it is – once you get the hang of it. But there is a process involved, for most people, in learning to distinguish what we observe from what we feel. Or what is a feeling from what is a need. And then, in learning to express all of that with ‘I’ statements and without placing blame that might otherwise make someone defensive. This book is an excellent, gentle, easy ready on how to do that process.
Using this method, you can take the absolute most defensive, angry person, and turn the conversation completely around. I’m actually a little surprised that I didn’t already post a review of this on the site! I might have fervently searched for the post I was sure I made before writing this section. Get the book, practice it with friends. Try it out at work… and then use it in your next difficult conversation with your co-parent.
5. Lead by Example
So many spiritual paths have versions of the golden rule – Act towards others the way you’d want them to act towards you. But rather than looking at it as a moral value, consider the common sense in treating them the way you’d want them to treat you – and therefore leading by example.
- Humans learn by example. We learn our very basic fundamental interaction skills when we are very young by watching the adults around us and learning the ‘template’ for human interaction. Later in life, we might learn something by hearing instructions but mastery comes by trying it out or participating in watching someone else do it in real life.
- We learn to be in a relationship, as very young children, before we even really realize what a relationship is, by watching those around us who are in relationships. Usually, we are only privvy to the inside workings of a relationship by watching our parents. This is why children of abusive homes often go on to be in abusive relationships, as an extreme example – why we look for our parents in our mates. Because those are the examples or templates that we feel very comfortable with (minus any conscious effor t to break those templates).
- Many people don’t have an example of healthy, constructive communication. Most of us did not grow up in homes in which our parents had a perfect storybook relationship. I know that because I know that over 50% of marriages in the US end in divorce. Of the other 50%, a good proportion believe they should stick it out no matter what, due to traditional or religious values and expectations – which does not a healthy, happy relationship make.
That means that the other parent might very well have no idea what it even looks like to be constructive or healthy in their interactions with another person – including you. Telling them will sound too preachy and will be likely to be rejected, sending them a self help book might look condescending and be rejected out of hand – but showing them. Now that’s the hot ticket. What if, every time they came away from you, they felt GOOD? What if they noticed that the way you phrased things made things go so much more easily? They would begin to emulate the behavior that makes them feel good!
We’ve all been in situations in which we had to reach up, excel or advance to meet the expectations of a given situation. Either by buying a nice suit or dress and putting on those manners that mom taught us but we never have to use for a higher class function, by learning a new skill set to fit into a particular company role or department or even learning new skills and behaviors to be more like someone who we admire. By leading by example, not only do you pave the way for them to respond to you in a more positive way by showing them compassion and empathy and communicating with them in a non abrasive way but you give them an example to aspire to or grow towards.