When separating, trying to come to an understanding with ex partners can be challenging, particularly if the separation was not mutually agreed or where one or both parties feel hurt by the other. How you negotiate with your ex can make a huge difference to the outcomes of what is agreed privately or through family courts.
Most people are not skilled negotiators. Even if they are, when deeply personal concerns and anxieties are present, such skills are sometimes not used or people assume that matters are better resolved with lawyers and courts. The reality is that the more effective you are at negotiating with your ex the less likely you are to end up in court and the better the outcome is likely to be whether you do or don't.
What types of communication difficulties may I face?
Difficulties around communications can come in many forms. They often depend on the severity of your breakup. For example:
- Your ex is living in the past and constantly refers to events that have no bearing on the conversation.
- Your ex doesn’t trust you and makes many detailed and complex demands on you as a precondition for seeing your kids.
- Your ex emotionally blackmails you by using the children.
- Your ex tells you the children don’t want to see you.
- Your ex books events for the children to attend when it is your contact time.
- All communications have ceased despite your reasonable efforts.
- You are being disrespected on social media.
- Your ex uses friends or relatives to communicate with you on her behalf.
- You are being intimidated or threatened by friends or relatives of your ex.
General rules about communication with a difficult ex.
- There is no future is deciding you don’t want anything to do with your ex in the future and just want to see our kids irrespective of how badly you have been treated. This is because it is the last thing your kids want and it would be cruel if you didn’t make every effort. Your kids don’t ask for much. They want to feel safe, they don’t want the two people they love the most to argue around them or with each other, they don’t want you to say nasty things about their other parent, they want to know what’s going on.
- Every communication you have with your ex should be respectful, responsible, and consistent despite what your ex may say or do. This will eventually encourage them to reply in the same manner. This is not just a single email or letter to see if it works, this is a long-term strategy to transform your relationship for the benefit of your child/ren.
- Do not reply to arguments about the past, who said or did what, who is to blame, threats or blackmail. Simply don’t reply or refer to them.
- Don’t send any text/letter or email that you would not be happy for a Judge to read out loud in court. You want him/her to be impressed with how reasonable you are being… usually in contrast with the communications of your ex.
- Never send an email/text in anger. Always park it in drafts for a day. You often find it was not worth sending it after all. Angry emails are often regretted later.
- If you ex fails to respond to your communications do not bombard them with requests for a reply. They may report you to the police for harassment. This is a criminal offence. Two/three emails a week is a maximum. If your ex tells you to stop then do so, immediately.
- How do I stop my ex constantly referring to past events without dealing with current problems?
- If a communication is about past events that do not affect the future, then do not engage in any communication about it. You may wish to acknowledge it… “Thanks for the email…. I’ll bear it in mind.”, but discussing the content will send you up a maze of dead ends and non-resolvable arguments which can result in a text firestorm and an end to all communication.
- If a communication is about both past events and the future, only refer to the future events and positive elements in your reply. This helps you set the agenda for future communications and will encourage more a purposeful response.
- This strategy is not a one-off response to see if it works. It is a long-term plan to transform your relationship to one of mistrust to trust. Every communication should follow this plan and be child centred.
- The plan is not for your defence (although it helps psychologically) but for the long-term stability and happiness of your children.
How do I stop my ex planning my parenting time?
You will at some stage need to make it clear to each other that micromanagement of your parenting time is not in the best interests of the kids, because they need a relationship with both adults as parents not one parent and a childminder. This is effectively achieved through the agreement of a Parenting Plan negotiated together. To some extent children like to make decisions, at least be consulted, about how they spend their parent time and they can always change at the last minute. See our advice on Parenting Plans.
How do I encourage my ex to trust me with the kids?
You must become immune to negativity and criticism while at the same time taking on board her/his concerns. Here is a list of things of concern to parents, Mums in particular, during and after contact.
- Cuts, grazes and bruises.
- Getting lost.
- Being left with unknown adults.
- Exposure to adult computer games or films.
- Staying up late.
- Being taken to the pub.
- Car seats.
- Returning home dirty.
- Strange diets or takeaway foods.
- Time spent with relatives they don’t trust.
- Using new partners as replacement mum/dads.
There are many more you could add to this list of course. I am sure you would be worried if the boot were on the other foot and your child came home reporting these things to you. But to regain trust you will need to ensure the above list is forefront in your mind when planning your activities with your child/ren and don’t let them happen. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to get the children to keep secrets. It will never work. Your children will want to tell their Mum (or Dad) what a great time they had with their Dad (or Mum) and that can only enhance your relationship with them and your ex. Encouraging secrets puts stress on the children and encourages mistrust at every level.
Despite the presentation, her (or his) negativity and complaining reflects their genuine concerns about the children. In a strange way you should be pleased she/he is so protective and caring.
But why do I have to make all the effort?
This is a common question asked by most parents at one time or another. Both tend to believe the other one is the lazy inconsiderate parent. The answer isn’t as complex as it may seem. The reason is because it’s what your kids want and need. You don’t make all this effort for an ungrateful ex it's because you want your children to grow up experiencing a parent who thinks of others, makes an effort to please, has a clear idea of right and wrong, has a good sense of humour is happy and supportive, and always available in their hour of need. That way they will grow up to be like you.
How do I negotiate a Parenting Plan
Even if your ex is reluctant to discuss future parenting plans it's probably not wise to put them under too much pressure. They will be anxious about your intentions, and when you are with your child still mistrust your parenting skills. Consistency, reliability and reassurance are the key to helping things settle. Even though arrangements may be a bit chaotic at first always be upbeat and positive. Keep the conversation about your child and be excited about how he/she is developing. This will lay the groundwork for your future plan.
While things adjust, start to write down your plans and aspirations for your child. A bit of blue sky thinking at this stage will help you not only start to think about your child's future but help you come to terms with your new situation and the future relations with your ex.
Do not dump all your plans on your ex in one go. This is more likely to increase your ex's anxiety than reassure them. During conversations introduce some of your ideas and ask their opinion eg "What shall we do with Ella's documents, if I look after the passports would you like to look after the birth certificates, school work and medical stuff?", "Shall we start a savings account for when Ella is 18 and wants to go to Uni?"."Let me know if I can be of any help with taking Ella to school, I have Friday mornings free?"
This gradually introduces the idea of a plan and helps your ex come to terms with the new arrangements. He/she may not be as far advanced in their thinking as you are so be gentle. When the time comes all you need do is collect the discussions into a document along with the already agreed arrangements e.g., diet, bedtime, contact with relatives etc. In addition to some general principles and the first stages of a Parenting Plan have been agreed.
Just in case, keep good records of your communications – what, when, who, how, etc.
What if my ex is refusing to allow me any contact.
There is not one simple solution to this and the negotiating skills of a mediator may be required but keeping up contact by email or letter are essential, even if you get no reply. For that reason a WhatsApp message is useful for it gives you the two blue tick indicator that the message has been read. Other email packages have the same option called Read Receipts or Read Confirmation and can be turned off and on. The first letter is very important to set the right scene and tone for the future. Here are some themes that should feature.
- Express your regret for how things have turned out (use the word sorry).
- Say you love the kids and miss them terribly.
- Say you are determined to be a loving and supportive dad/mum despite your separation.
- Say you love the time you spend with the children and they thoroughly enjoy it.
- Say you want to support your ex with the children to give them time off and contribute equally to family life.
If your reply is angry and bitter, full of blame and recriminations do not reply to it even if the communication you receive makes outrageous allegations with no basis in truth. Send in reply a similar letter to the one above. Say in addition, you will need to meet at some stage to sort out the other family matters but let's put first things first and make sure the kids are happy and protected from our separation.
If it is a mixture of good and bad, only reply to the good, keeping positive and child oriented. Do not discuss past problems but remain committed to a harmonious future. Eventually you will be able to establish from the content of any replies, the mood of your ex and their likely cooperation with a contact/parenting plan.
Future letters, if no contact has been established, can include some of the points below.
- Re-confirm your commitment to the kids.
- Say you miss them dreadfully and will always love them.
- Describe something you saw or somewhere you went that the kids would have loved.
- Suggest a date, time and location when you would like to pick them up, describe in reasonable detail what you plan to do and the return time. Say whether the kids will be fed on return and any special items they will need e.g. wellies, swimming gear, etc.
- Ask her to reply ASAP so you can prepare.
- Say you will attend the pickup place above if she does not reply.
During the process of achieving contact your ex may not be at the same stage of grief as you are. S/he may remain angry with you and still vengeful. For the kids' sake you will need to tread carefully. This process is not to teach your ex a lesson, to put them in their place or expose their past behaviour. It's to ensure your kids are protected and happy despite the separation of the two adults they love more than anything in the world.
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