As the next installment in my series of tips for surviving a high conflict divorce, I want to focus on the issue of reactivity—or perhaps better said, over-reactivity.
Here is an email exchange that is very typical:
Email #1: Susie, I was hoping to take little Johnny to visit my mother in Montana for a week during the summer. As you know, my mom has been ailing a lot lately. She is only expected to get worse and I was just hoping to take Johnny to get to know her before she gets worse.
Email #2: Jim, your mother has done nothing but ruin our lives. We moved to California to get away from her and I don’t know why you would want to take our son around her. Besides, your father drinks and you know how I feel about that. Will you please think about what is in the best interests of our son instead of involving him in your twisted relationship with your parents?
Email #3: Why are you trying to involve my folks in our divorce. You always hated them. You are so selfish, which is one of the reasons we are divorcing. My father doesn’t drink any more than anyone else—certainly less than your drug addicted sister. I already talked to Johnny and he wants to visit his grandparents. You should follow his wishes! Why are you trying to get between him and his grandmother?
Email #4: You son of a $%#@! Why are you involving our son in this? You never cared about him. You are just using him as a pawn. I will go to court and do whatever I can do to stop you if you even think of taking him to see your abusive parents. I just told Johnny that he doesn’t have to go with you to Montana if he doesn’t want to go. He is already signed up for camp anyway and can’t go.
Email #5: F%&@ you! This is parental alienation and I am tired of it! I just retained a very tough attorney and she tells me that if you keep this up I will get sole custody and you will only be able to see Johnny with a supervisor. And don’t even think about keeping the house. My attorney tells me that you will have to pay my attorneys’ fees. Don’t even think of asking for support either. I will quit my job if you do!
I wish I could say that an email exchange like this is rare in my observations. Sadly, it’s quite common. Often times in high conflict cases, the parties have a tendency to feed off of each other. Negative energy has a way of creating more negative energy. We, as human beings, have a tendency to react strongly if we feel we are being attacked or if we are scared. Fear and anger are huge motivators. “Fight or flight” instincts kick in. Often these instincts lead us to involve the children inappropriately in adult business.
My advice is to resist the urge to pile on. We are not computers. This means that if our so-called “buttons are pushed,” we need not react in a prescribed fashion. For instance, my spouse speaking ill of my parents does not mean that I will then launch into a tirade of obscenities. Emails are an excellent way of measuring how high the conflict in situation can be because it is all there in print. However, most of the high conflict communications happen elsewhere. The same concepts apply though.
Here are some tips to be measured in your responses:
1. Court may not help. I can’t tell you how many times something bad happens in a case and the initial response of the wronged party is to file motions at court. I have to admit that early in my career, I was far more likely to have knee-jerk reactions to give ex parte notice and demand all sorts of remedies at court for every little perceived wrong. I learned quickly, though, that this rarely helps. Judges hate the tit-for-tat games being played out in their courtroom. If unchecked, dueling court motions can turn the courtroom into a forum for very bad and aggressive behavior. People write terrible, blistering affidavits full of he-said-she-said accusations that are rarely helpful to the court in making a decision. The judges become overwhelmed with the negativity and usually develop very bad opinions of both parties. I have also experienced that the most negative person at court is viewed the most negatively by the judge.
There are other options to resolve problems besides court. Mediators or mental health professionals can go a long way to diffuse problems and they can often do it faster. I just filed a motion in court the other day for a routine issue. It was set for four months away. You can often resolve problems with the help of ADR professionals and/or mental health professionals in a fraction of the time.
I am definitely not saying that Court should never be used. Sometimes, it’s the only way. But it should be used sparingly as a last resort. I generally don’t like to go to court unless I know I am going to win. Otherwise, my client should seriously consider keeping her powder dry.
2. First listen, carefully, THEN respond. Often times one party expresses a concern that causes them anxiety. Perhaps the person doesn’t say it carefully, especially if the person is upset. Often what the other party hears is only the portions that make him the most angry or fearful. In the email example above, Jim asked if he could take the kids to see his family. But all Susie heard was her own reaction relating to her bad experiences with Jim’s family. Jim, for his part, didn’t hear some of the legitimate concerns that Susie had about his parents and reacted only to what caused him anxiety. Rather than take the time to really ponder and think about addressing Susie’s concerns, he flew off the handle. Naturally, the conversation deteriorated because the couple was reacting instead of listening.
I frequently coach my clients to listen carefully first to what the other person is saying. I ask them to avoid getting caught up in the “background noise.” As in many divorces, communications can be accompanied by the emotions of hurt, fear and anger. Language can be unintentionally combative. Sometimes the language is quite deliberately combative. But if a person listens carefully and isolates the core concern that is driving the emotion and responds to the concern rather than the emotion, the communication can be less combative and thereby more effective. Here’s an example,
Jared: I am going to take the kids to see a ballgame with Linda and me.
Nancy: I can’t believe you’re taking the kids out with your girlfriend! She is why we are getting divorced! You are so selfish and disrespectful. She shouldn’t even be around our kids let alone taking them to a ballgame!
Now, at this point, Jared has a choice to make. First, he could fly off the handle and react to a perceived attack on his new love interest by his ex as follows:
Jared: I can’t believe you are so petty! The kids like Linda! You are just jealous. I wish you could get over that we are divorced and move on! You just want to ruin things for me and Linda!
If this were his reaction, I am sure you can see how unproductive the discussion will be. Perhaps what Jared should do in this situation is stop a minute and think hard about what Linda is telling him. Perhaps, after some careful thought and reflection, his response could be more like this:
Jared: Oh, I didn’t realize that you were uncomfortable with the kids being around Linda. Linda is really a nice person. But, I want you to know that she can never replace you as the kids’ mother. It is important to me that the kids eventually have a relationship with Linda because she is an important part of my life. Do you think there is anything that you and I can do to help the kids with the transition of my having a new relationship? This could help us in the future as well if you should ever start dating again.
Perhaps the second more careful reaction could be more effective. Jared recognized the concern that Nancy was having about introducing the children to his new love interest. Instead of attacking her back, he moved the discussion away from conflict towards a search for productive solutions.
3. Be careful about emails. The same concept applies to emails. A good friend and colleague, Bill Eddy, J.D., LCSW and co-founder of The High Conflict Institute, wrote a great article about Responding to Hostile Emails using the “B.I.F.F.” method. “B.I.F.F.” is short for “Brief, Informative, Firm and Friendly.” Rather than simply reacting to hostile email with a tirade of your own, Mr. Eddy suggests writing a carefully crafted response (if a response is even needed) to the angry email. You reduce the chances of a prolonged and angry dialogue by keeping the response brief and to the point. By focusing on providing the facts in a clear and concise way the email can be informative and thereby less inflammatory, you can make an effective communication without escalating the conflict further. By maintaining a friendly and courteous tone even when tempted to respond with anger, you deprive the other person of a reason to get defensive and keep responding. Finally, by clearly stating your position in a firm but non-threatening way you can effectively communicate your position. Again the goal here is to shut down the back and forth with clear and effective communication devoid of threatening and angry language. (For more information, see Bill Eddy’s book, BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People.)
In summary, avoid reacting emotionally and reactively. Listen carefully to what is being said and try to discover the concern being expressed. Then, rather than attack back, turn the conversation towards possible solutions. This doesn’t work every time, but with patience, it can help. Remember, while sometimes necessary, court is rarely the best answer to resolve a problem. Try to work it out and when in need of help, seek professional assistance from a mediator or mental health professional.
Humans are an emotional species and much of divorce litigation is driven purely by emotion. Take time to review your own thought processes and reactions to challenges during your divorce. Ask yourself, often, if you are reacting out of emotion or out of thought. While emotions are a part of who you are, if left unchecked, they can block out reason and lead to sad and terrible outcomes. Don’t hesitate to seek out a mental health professional for coaching. It can be the difference between an expensive, high-conflict divorce or a financially and emotionally less costly, amicable divorce.
For more information and guidance on dealing with your high conflict divorce, contact Shawn Weber at 858-345-1616 for a free telephone consulation or visit www.BraveWeberMack.com .