Q. My ex is very angry how our break-up came about, and it makes talking very difficult. Each time I try to talk to her about how the kids are doing or try to coordinate efforts she brings up the past. We end up yelling at each other. I know we have to talk, but we both hate the interaction. What do you suggest? What's good ex-etiquette?
A. I often say that shared custody asks parents to be superhuman. It goes against human nature to immediately forget all the bad stuff that went on and "be friends." Sometimes it's impossible, especially if there has been infidelity or abuse of some sort or one or both are struggling with addiction.
Most of the time when former couples disagree they attempt to solve problems just like they did when they were together. That didn't work then, and it won't work now. You have to approach negotiation with an ex from a different point of view – and never forget that you do share a mutual interest, your children.
Perhaps the most important thing co-parents must do is have some sort of forum for conflict resolution in place – a formal plan you both agree on to solve problems when you face a disagreement. If you were in my office, I would sit down with you and personalize a strategy – something to the effect of, "When we disagree, first we will do this, then this, and the last thing on the list is "go back to court." Sign it, just like any other contract. When anger or resentment sets it, grit your teeth and follow the plan. (Ex-etiquette for Parents rules No. 5 and 6, "Don't be spiteful," and "Don't hold grudges." It works and takes all the stress out of the negotiation.
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An important component of any negotiation is to have an idea of what you want and a suggestion for how you will get there. You know the problem – come to the table with how you suggest you should solve it. That gives you a place to start. It also helps to keep Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 7 in mind, "Use empathy when problem-solving." In other words, put yourself in their shoes. Are you being fair? Would you consider what you're asking your co-parent to do? If the answer is no, change your approach.
Finally, sometimes things are just too fresh and trying to negotiate seems impossible. Just last week I worked with divorced parents who were so angry with each other they could barely sit in the same room. As we spoke, it became apparent that both were struggling with the hurt of the break-up and they couldn't get past it to negotiate in the best interest of their kids. It's times like this when you really have to just stop – nothing either of you can do will get the other back enough for the hurt they have inflicted, and if you keep up the conflict the ones that are truly hurt are your children. Stop hashing it over. Make a pact – from this point on; it's ONLY about our kids. Period. That's good ex-etiquette.
(Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website www.exetiquette.com at email@example.com.)