In the last couple of weeks I have been thinking a lot about child custody issues especially focusing on how things can go so woefully wrong even when both parties are committed to being responsible co-parents. Most of the time, disputes about child custody have absolutely nothing to do with the children. Far too much of the time, the parents are using child custody & parenting issues as a convenient platform to keep verbally slugging out their divorce long after the legal system is through with them. Other times it has to do with monetary pressures that come with a divorce & child support. Unfortunately it is the rare divorced couple who sees things for what they are & has the ability to amicably discuss the matters that are truly at issue. Most of the time this is NOT the case & the ones who suffer of course are the children.
It’s Not About 'What The Speaker Says'
Obviously there are times where there is a clear difference of opinion or a difference in values. However far too many times the problem lies in how the parties communicate with each other. In checking out GOP pollster & corporate consultant Frank Luntz's new book "Win" he talks about something that I think really speaks to the core of the problem. According to Luntz, in business & in politics, "it's not about what the speaker says, it's about what the listener hears." His point is that this is pretty much the case between any speaker & listener. In the case of divorced parents, what the speaker says & what the listener hears are frequently different. When you tack on the emotional & financial pressures of divorce & child-rearing, you have a recipe for ongoing miscommunication between two divorced co-parents. This of course leads to ongoing battles which are anything but “in the best interest of the children.”
Five Changes You Can Try
If this sounds familiar, you don't have to remain in such a dysfunctional pattern. Here are 5 things you can try:
· Take a "time out" the moment the temperature increases to the point
where one or both of you are no longer "hearing" each other
· Do not assume [bad intent]. People are capable of changing; unlike
the politicians, do not automatically assume "the past is prologue"
· Check in for clarification-too many times we assume we understand what
the other person is saying when we are really getting it wrong
For example Parent B says to Parent A “here's the check for the utility bills.” When Parent A sees the amount they become fearful because all the bills will not be covered. Instead of pointing out that the amount doesn’t cover ALL the utility bills & asking if there was a misunderstanding, they may immediately jump to conclusions in an accusatory way; ex. "are you trying to cheat me; what about the cable bill?" Maybe Parent B doesn't view cable as a utility or for reasons known only to Parent B, a separate check may have been written for the cable bill. Now however, all that's heard is that they are being called a cheater [or lying or being irresponsible], themes probably heard during their marriage. Suddenly the bills don't matter anymore & they busy fighting over what was essentially a misunderstanding that has now taken on a life of its own.
· Speak for yourself only-use “I statements” & reflect back what you believe
the other person is saying so that you are truly speaking for yourself
In the example above, as an alternative try, “I am hearing you say this is for all the outstanding bills this month?” First, you are clearly taking responsibility for what you heard [which may or may not be different from what was said]. Plus you are doing it in a non-inflammatory way. The act of "reflecting back" or "mirroring" gives the other parent the chance to say in an equally calm fashion, “No, here is another check for cable which I separated this month; it's coming from a different account.” There is instant clarification & no fight. Sometimes in any relationship [but especially in a failed one], people persist in using [dysfunctional] habits of communication that are exclusive to that one person. Ask any adult that visits their parents in their home of origin. Unconsciously, parents tend to treat their adult children like teenagers & grown adults unconsciously slip into the role of teenagers. It's typically only when one party notices what's going on & points it out that patterns change.
Discard Unsuccessful Strategies
Clearly that sort of thing is tougher to correct between divorced co-parents, especially in the early years when there are so many other pressures to manage. The bottom line is that when one pattern of communication is not working, don’t keep using it expecting that things will change. You are more likely to be successful when you try to change how you communicate. Also you don’t have to navigate this minefield alone. Family mediators &/or parenting classes can teach & model better ways to communicate for you.
**Note: While every attempt to provide accurate & up to date information has been made, nothing in this post is meant to replace, be construed, or should be taken as "legal advice or therapy" If you have any questions or concerns, it is always best to seek the advice of 'face-to face professionals' before taking any action.
Ellen Gunty, M.A. is the founding owner of Means to an End, a company providing HR consulting and mediation [including domestic mediation] to businesses large and small as well to individuals. For more information, please go to www.meanstoanendca.com