Q. I have tried to talk to my children’s mother about some concerns I have, but she immediately gets defensive. It turns into a shouting match and nothing gets accomplished. Now, she is reluctant to tell me anything about the kids when they are with her because it ends in a fight. How can we change this? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. I like that you are looking for solutions instead of blaming everything on your ex. Words like “reluctant” acknowledges her uncertainty without being accusatory, and that means there’s hope. You also ask, “How can WE change this?” In the world of good ex-etiquette, although you may not see it, just understanding that you both play a role in the disagreements means you are way ahead of the game.
I find when couples disagree — and this includes ex-couples — it’s not what they say as much as how they say it. The words they use hit a nerve, and rather than listen to the message, they respond to the language used and that starts a vicious blame cycle of “No, I don’t!” “Yes, you do!” “No, I don’t!” You end up fighting about fighting rather than looking for a solution.
For example, a common problem for exes is they hate each other to be late when dropping off or picking up the kids. So, if you say, “You’re always late and it really ticks me off!”, the use of “always” or “never” are subconsciously accusatory and immediately puts people on the defense. So that’s strike one.
Next, she’s feels blamed, so that’s strike two. Her natural response will be to respond to the blame, not to how you are telling her you feel. So, she’ll come back with, “No I’m not!” That’s strike three, you’re out. That’s the Blame Cycle plain and simple.
Try this simple four-step approach next time you attempt to problem solve with your ex
1. State your feeling first
2. State the offending behavior
3. State with the effect it has on you
4. State the behavior you would like to see
This approach keeps the conversation focused and eliminates the “No, I don’t/Yes, you do” Blame Cycle.
I feel (state the feeling) when you (state the behavior) because (state the effect it has on you). (State the behavior you would like to see.)
It looks like this in a sentence: “I feel angry when you are late because then it makes me late and people are waiting for me, too. Please be on time.”
I know this sounds simple, but it works. Unfortunately, people get used to disagreeing, so it does take some time to break the cycle, especially if you have been caught in it for years. But stick to the formula, and you will BOTH see a positive turnaround. That’s good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com.