How to communicate with an angry ex

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If you’re in the middle of a not-so-pretty divorce, brace yourself for the not-so-expert opinions of nearly everyone you know about how to manage the most intimate details of the break-up, why you’re not co-parenting correctly, and how they know someone who was married to someone who had an amicable split, so surely you can, too. And if you find yourself in arguments, raging text wars and possibly even courtroom brawls with the person you’re divorcing, all that judgment by others that you two just need to get along will be even more maddening.

As much as you can, set aside what they say (until you’re tucked away in the privacy of your own journal or kickboxing class). Instead, hone in on what you’re saying, how you’re saying it and finding your way to calmer, clearer and confident communication with your ex. Even if your former partner stays flaming angry, you have complete control of your own words and the boundaries you place around your conversations.

1. Mind the Business of Raising a Child

A huge shift came for me in my own divorce when I realized that I no longer needed my ex for validation or support or to like me. What I wanted most (more than his apology or kindness) was to communicate with him about the business of raising our child like we would with a pediatrician or a teacher. I asked him to join me in this new way of interacting. Of course, we cannot control whether the other parent buys this new “business” relationship, but we can still use the approach ourselves and model language that is concise, respectful and kid-centered. If your ex zig-zags through conversation with commentary on the kind of mother or woman or wife you are, stay in your lane and steer right back to facts and arrangements – like homework, annual eye exams and the soccer schedule.

2. Focus on the Agreements

Your entire dissolution of marriage document is a list of understandings made to divide assets, share time with kids and even that you no longer choose each other. This is not a failure. It is a triumph of compromise. Approach your interactions with your ex in the same way, leading with what you’ve already agreed upon. If you go into the discussion thinking, “He’s never going to say yes,” you are already setting the situation up to go sideways. If remind yourself that you’ve found that precious middle ground in the past and can make your way there again – “I know it is a priority to us both that the kids stay in the same school, so I am calling with an idea about how to handle…” – then (go, you!) you are less likely to veer off the path to defensiveness and rage-making. When it doesn’t work, pull out that paperwork to remind yourself it is worth trying again. Agreements beget agreements, and the number of small alliances might eventually outweigh the altercations.

3. Make it Public

If you are worn down from being belittled or yelled at, or if you do not trust yourself to keep a cool head, set up a provision to only communicate with your ex in public. Meet at a neutral place that has no connection to your romantic time together, where decorum dictates that you’ll speak quietly and where you will steer clear emotion-bungling booze – a library, museum or coffee shop. Come with a manageable agenda to cover, or consider meeting up regularly if you have kid, pet or other ongoing items to resolve. Also, set a time limit (and your cell phone alarm) so no one is tempted to ramble off-topic. This is important: If you truly fear for your safety, consult the police, your attorney, a nonprofit that serves survivors of all kinds of abuse (the NCADV has a very helpful personality safety plan and resources here) or a professional who can help you.

4. Document Everything by Email or a Co-Parenting Site

It is very easy to slip and slide through a text conversation into the mud and muck of an argument with an ex. If you find yourself entangled with that angry person often, opt out of texts and instead correspond by email. Email gives us the opportunity to take a break in between reading and responding. It also acts as an archive, which might be important to you in upholding agreements and for your divorce proceedings. If that’s not enough, consider Our Family Wizard or similar apps that manage visitation schedules, expenses and messaging between co-parents. Because messages can’t be edited later, you will always have an accurate representation of your conversations. Some sites even offer advice on tone as a virtual third-party mediator. Don’t have kids but still have divorce stuff that requires you to be in touch? Consider Cozi or another life organization app for calendaring and to-dos, and Dropbox or Google Docs for document sharing.

5. Get Professional Intervention

If you’ve given your all to every strategy you can think of and you’re still not getting anywhere, it is absolutely OK to ask for help. This is why professionally trained mediators exist. A therapist who specializes in communication might also be a help. I am personally and professionally very impressed by the fantastic books and workshops produced by the experts at the High Conflict Institute. The hope here is that a professional will not only help the two of you communicate effectively, but will help you each learn skills for talking to the other person. You all win. Securing this kind of support is an act of self-love for you.

And while you’re at it, if you’re in this place, give yourself a little more balance by enrolling in a yoga class, committing to a meditation app or getting your own therapist.