How To Manage Conflict With Your Ex

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Your ex is your ex for a reason.

Divorce is a parting of the ways and as such, it has weaved in its very fabric a conflict of interest, even in the most amicable of divorces.

But for many, the conflicts can feel like battles, with one winner and one loser. And often simply with two losers: nobody really wins.

They can be beyond exhausting, demoralising and destructive.

Change your perspective

Conflict can actually be good if you see it through a particular lens and treat your ex in a particular way, because conflicts can create a common understanding and purpose.

This is especially true if you have children where ongoing communication can’t be avoided.

Act as though your children can see and hear everything

A lot of my clients believe that because arguments are behind closed doors, their children are unaware of any hostilities.

However, I work with children too and I can definitely say that they pick up the signs very easily.

Always be aware of what you are teaching your children about conflict: it is a positive life lesson that disagreements can be resolved respectfully and even amicably.

They will pick up their clues from you.

Learn from volcanos

Volcanos can cause violent eruptions.

However, although they can be dangerous, they produce some of the most fertile soil, rich in nutrients.

It is a useful metaphor: while an argument with your ex can be extremely distressing, done well, it can create a foundation to nourish more mutually beneficial interactions in the future.

Because, divorce or not, it is likely that you will be in a relationship with them in the future, albeit a very different one.

There will be social events where you are both invited, weddings, christenings and the like. And it is just so much easier if you can be civil.

To achieve this, the groundwork needs to be there.

Avoid a win/lose/avoid mentality

The mistake that most people make is to have a “win at all costs” attitude, or an “avoid for an easier life” attitude.

Neither are helpful when you are trying to resolve issues and only serve to create distance, resentment and conflict.

This can make a bad situation worse.

So, a different approach is needed.

One that allows both sides to be heard and for a dialogue to begin that encourages greater understanding.

Most people confuse communication with being heard.

But I notice that what is really happening the majority of the time is that each party is working out their own response – often a barbed riposte.

This may feel satisfying to the person giving it – it can feel like a release of tension.

It may also give a feeling of one-upmanship.

But the effect is very short-term as it is like adding fuel to an already raging fire.

Soon, the argument reaches volcanic proportions and both are left wondering what happened.

A person can also respond with silence – this can be a sign of stuckness or passive-aggression but what it isn’t a sign of is resolution.

Seven tips to ease conflict with your ex

So, here are seven quick tips to help you manage conflict with your ex.

  • Consider what your shared values are. They may be things like fairness, or spending as little as possible on legal fees so you have more for living well beyond divorce, they may be to make your children feel safe and loved. Working out your shared values gives you common ground.
  • Acknowledge that you can’t reason with people if they are tired, hungry or drunk – choosing the time is important.
  • Think in terms of the big picture: choosing your battles so that you have a better chance of winning the important ones – this means you are more likely to be listened to.
  • Look at things from the other person’s point of view first before communicating your own “I know you feel frustrated that I can’t take care of the kids this weekend” is much better than “I can’t look after the kids this weekend. You’ll just have to accept it”. The second example invalidates the feelings your ex might have about the matter and is more likely to fuel tensions, as well as encourage retaliations.

  • Come up with ways together to find a solution to meet both needs. In the example given, it might be “I know you are frustrated that I am not around for the kids this weekend as we previously agreed. It’s a work situation I just can’t get out of. If you can do this weekend, I am happy to take them to the dentist on Tuesday for you. Would that help? And I will pay for you all to have a pizza together as a thank you: I really appreciate it.” You are offering a solution and asking if they are OK with it which means they are involved in the solution too. Showing your appreciation means they are less likely to feel they are taken for granted. They will be much more likely to accommodate you. And if they won’t, you can always say that you will get a friend to cover if they prefer. That gives them the power of choice and shows you are willing to compromise. It makes it much more likely that they will work with you rather than against you. However, if you are constantly changing the goal posts, you will doubtless achieve more resistance so do your level best to fulfil all the commitments you make to gain trust.
  • If the other person is invalidating towards you, or rude, there is a structure that can be used that helps to open up discussions in a much more constructive way. “When you …. It makes me feel ….” This is borrowed from the work of Marshall Rosenberg and Non-Violent Communication. An example is “When you shout at me it makes it really difficult to keep things civil. I’d really like us to have a respectful relationship, even though we are no longer together. I know you are still angry with me for leaving you and I understand that. But also understand that I really want things to be as OK as possible between us even so.” This is more likely to bring about a more collaborative response. A softening around the hard edges of conflict. A possibility to make a cup of tea to commiserate and find a way through the challenge.
  • If you find that your ex is bad-mouthing you to friends and family, a gracious way of dealing with it is to avoid any counter-attacks, but simply say something along the lines of “That’s a shame s/he said that. It isn’t how I remember it.” Said in a kindly tone, with a gentle change of subject will help to diffuse a potential contentious scenario and the dreaded taking sides dilemma.

A final thought …

Remember though that you can’t reason with the unreasonable.

Some people thrive on conflict, or want to “punish” you. That requires an entirely different approach.

But, for most people, the above should really help you to smooth those times when you do need to communicate with your ex.

Tricia Woolfrey is an integrative coach, therapist and author with practices in Byfleet Village and Harley Street, London.


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