Changing Relationships and The Holidays
So you have initiated a divorce, or are bracing yourself for a divorce that’s been initiated by your spouse. While you sort out how to proceed legally, you’ve been overwhelmed by emotional conflicts that arise between you. You are treating every discussion like an argument waiting to happen. The holiday season is upon you and you need to negotiate a parenting schedule for the children’s most important day of the year, Christmas Day. With family arriving from far and wide, your children deserve to spend time with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. You are fighting over gift giving (and sharing same), equal time with both sides of the family, pick up and drop off, age appropriate screen time (TV, tablets, phones), bedtime, etc.
It is not easy to change the way you communicate; you have perfected the art of pushing each other’s buttons. You find yourself clenching your hands, gritting your teeth, standing rigidly, crossing your arms. Perhaps you are feeling tightness in your chest or face? You acknowledge your anger to yourself, trying to understand how your ex-spouse can still set you off emotionally.
Learning to break out of old patterns (which clearly aren’t working) is part of adapting to your new independent life. Learn to distinguish when you are just irritated or annoyed from when you are furious. Try to think before you enter into another cycle of endless arguing. Ask yourself whether you are making a mountain out of a molehill, or if this is an important argument. Are you considering your spouse’s point of view?
Think about all the indirect ways you express anger that leads to arguments; you may get aggressive and try to hurt your spouse’s feelings with words; you may get quiet and let your spouse know you are very unhappy. Being silent is an attempt to grab and control all the power.
Try to avoid speaking only when you are bringing up something you are unhappy about. You know when your buttons are being pushed. Instead of reacting, take a deep breath and tell yourself, “S/he is not shouting at me; the anger expressed is fear of not being heard or understood; what am I not hearing or understanding?”
Before you engage in an unproductive discussion with your spouse, know what you want to say and what you want to get out of a conversation. prepare yourself ahead of time. Don’t just blow off steam. Keep your discussions and arguments private; try to keep the children and others around you from becoming uncomfortably aware of your problems. You do not need affirmation that you are right, nor do you need others to see what a jerk your spouse is being.
Practice the art of fighting fair. Talk about the problem, not the other person. Make your discussions focus on an issue, not a personality. Practice being assertive and direct with each other: brief, informative, friendly and firm. Be firm without provoking the other through sarcasm, raising your voice, angry body language (such as rolling your eyes), or calling an hour later than you said you would.
Look at your spouse, speaking calmly and slowly, without wild hand gestures. Listen when your spouse is talking. Ask questions before you jump to conclusions. Repeat what you heard your spouse say in your own words and ask if you understood correctly. State clearly what is bothering you, what you need and want.
Here are some practical steps you can follow:
Encourage: Can you say more about what you mean?
Clarify: Remind me, when did I do that?
Empathize: I can tell you are very upset with me.
Summarize: Let me check back what I heard you say…. Did I miss something?
Validate: I guess I do act helpless in front of the children because I am hoping they’ll see how you treat me. I can see how that would feel demeaning to you.
Affirm: So, to you, I was inflexible when I suggested my preferred Christmas Day schedule for the kids.
- Acknowledge that you hear and understand what the other spouse is saying.
- Admit to your share of the problem; tell your spouse you recognize where and how you are part of the problem, and that you want to be part of the solution.
- Stress the legitimate benefits of resolving this together. Offer a few options that could be win-win. These proposals can be accepted, declined or thought about for a day. They open the door for counter-proposals and perhaps a middle-of-the-road solution.
If still no agreement can be reached, some basic steps toward conflict resolution are
- The first spouse tells his/her side of the story by describing what “I think, feel, want.” Begin with the word “I …” and speak from the “I” perspective (not what “you are doing to [me]”; avoid blaming.)
- The second spouse listens and restates what he/she has heard, the content and the feeling underlying it.
- Steps 1 and 2 are repeated, now with the second spouse telling his/her story and the other spouse rephrasing what’s been communicated.
- Both spouses suggest possible solutions, considering the pluses and minuses; and the need(s) a particular solution will satisfy (i.e., fairness).
- Both agree to try one of the proposed solutions (i.e., alternating Christmas Day morning-and-afternoon parenting time bi-annually).
- Keep any agreements made, and if they are not working, make changes through renegotiation. Resist taking unilateral actions.
If you try these measures to change the dynamics of your arguments, you will soon be able to focus your energy on the positives of your future: rebuilding your life, your new home, assets, career, and friendships rather than the arguments and failures of your past relationship. And in the short-term, you will save Christmas!