One of the things you hear as a mediator is something that sounds like one of the following:
- My ex won’t come to mediation
- My ex won’t co-operate
- My ex isn’t listening to me
- I don’t think he/she/they will………
- We don’t communicate
- We can’t communicate
Is that you?
From a mediator’s perspective there can be a multitude of reasons for this and many of them are not permanent but temporary issues. Since it’s something that crops up a lot it seemed to be helpful to write a blog about this and to go over some of the reasons for this.
The grieving and recovery process
If you are a follower of this blog then you might be familiar with this already. There is a specific blog all about this. For those not familiar with this issue the graphic below may be helpful. It sets out a visual representation of the healing or recovery process and the emotions that those travelling it will go through. The top line tends to be followed where somebody met someone else, but someone (in my experience) can follow this line where they feel guilt about ending the relationship even if they are not in a new relationship. The bottom line is followed where the person hasn’t formed a new relationship. But separation is not one size fits all so people don’t always follow it exactly: they may yo yo between lines, or they may take two steps forward and one back, or even skip an emotion. You can download your own copy of this by clicking on the link below.
It is enormously common for the two parties involved in the separation to be at very different stages in this process and that in itself can mean you feel like you are not talking the same language. In fact it was once described to me by an experienced and well respected mediator as though each person speaks a different language at each emotional stage. You can imagine that if one person is speaking Japanese (for example the anger phase) and one person is speaking French (the acceptance phase) this is unlikely to be a fruitful or productive conversation.
Picture this: one person has felt unhappy in the relationship for some time. This often manifested itself as just not feeling quite right, and a bit lost. But they felt they needed to focus on their children and it wasn’t bad all the time so they tried to forget about the negative feelings. They did suggest relationship counselling to their partner but the partner felt they didn’t need this and suggested it was just the loss of their dad and they would feel differently once they had grieved. Over time they found the feelings coming back more and more until eventually, after a long period of soul searching and worrying if they were doing the right thing, they came to the conclusion that the marriage was over. At this point they communicated to their partner that they wanted to separate, and at this point they may have already hit the acceptance phase. The other person in the relationship recognised that there had been difficult moments in the relationship but put this down to the fact that all relationships have their ups and downs. Plus it was difficult when the children were younger juggling both jobs and the multitude of activities. They also felt their partner was hard hit by the loss of their dad and that was bound to upset things. They thought things had been better lately and had been happy and felt very in love. They are shocked and devastated that the other person wants to end the relationship. They’re hoping it’s just a period of upset and that counselling will get them back on track.
Sometimes the person who is at the acceptance phase wants to move on quickly. They have put their life on hold for too long and now they want to start the next phase. But the other person cannot make rational decisions or even accept the breakdown of the relationship. They are still shocked and in denial about what has happened. They often still believe the feelings won’t be permanent and they will be able to reconcile.
You can see here why each party might think the other is on a completely different page.
Each party talking a different language for reasons set out above, can be a major factor in communication problems and each party feeling that if they say black the other says white. Separating couples often describe one of the following scenarios:
- All civilised discussions ending in an argument despite their best intentions
- Having discussions that feel constructive but then each party walking away with different conclusions or take aways which cause problems later
- Being stone walled by the other party who won’t listen or talk to them
These difficulties can be as a result of being at different phases in the recovery process. They can also be that both parties don’t have the skills to communicate with the other. So many clients have told me that they are good at their jobs and really good at communicating at work (they may even work in communications or other such profession that relies on good communication skills) but they describe not being able to communicate with their partner. There can be a number of reasons for this and here are a few:
- Talking more than you’re listening. So many people tell us they have spent a lot of time telling their partner how they see the problem without trying to understand how their partner sees or perceives the issues.
- Different communication styles. This can be the differences between being a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner. It can be that one person is very loud and gesticulates a lot when talking and the other person is more introverted and finds this overwhelming; because they feel a sensory overload during conversations they can’t take in what is said.
- Having different fundamental values. It’s surprising how often two partners have very different views on things and very different values. Whilst opposites can attract and this can be an exciting discovery at the start of the relationship trying to parent children together from very different points can be a challenge that both parties struggle to overcome. Both parties feel undermined by the other and frustrated by their different parenting styles. This causes numerous arguments which they struggle to resolve because their fundamentally different values are at the core of this.
- Childhood or adolescent trauma can also play a big role in this. If it wasn’t safe for you to express your views as a child then this habit is often taken into adulthood meaning you shy away from potential conflict or situations where you perceive somebody is disagreeing with you. Anger can feel unsafe to some people so if your partner is getting angry (which is a natural human reaction to frustrations) then this can trigger the fight or flight response and make you want to retreat. This can then have the effect of increasing your partner’s frustrations because they feel unable to have a conversation and the whole cycle continues and often becomes exacerbated. Equally you can be triggered by not feeling heard or feeling that you aren’t being understood and this can make you react angrily which can be confusing for your partner who thought you were just trying to discuss your differences. If you feel your reactions stem from childhood experiences then this can be something worth taking a deeper look at. A counsellor or therapist can help you to unpick this in a safe space.
- Being able to name feelings and talk about them is a skill that is usually acquired through childhood. But it’s important to remember that not everyone acquires this skill. For some people feelings are not something that are ever talked about in their family and so you may never have been taught to pay attention to how you feel. There is a much greater emphasis on subjects like this in school but let us not forget that there has been a perception in our society that for many men it was seen as weak to acknowledge or talk about your feelings. If you are not talk to be aware of and understand your feelings as a child (or are taught that it is unsafe or wrong to do so) then how can you be expected to be an adult that talks about such things.
Does this give you some idea as to what might be causing the difficulties between you and your partner? Do you recognise either of yourself in the points above? Understanding the difficulty behind your communication problems is key to putting them right. There is a saying that has been attributed to Albert Einstein, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. If you keep approaching conversations in the same way and saying the same things and not getting a productive response then maybe you need to rethink your approach to this. Here are some things you might want to try:
- Use of language is really important in disputes between separating couples. Simple things like saying “my” children instead of “our” children can derail a productive conversation. Many fathers particularly talk about how it feels like they have to ask permission to see their children rather than it being an equal discussion between two parents as to when children will be with mum and when they will be with dad.
- The blame game can often shut down any conversation. Being made to feel responsible for how another person feels, or bad stuff that’s happening for them can be a trigger for many of us. It can be helpful to explain how you feel without putting the blame squarely at the other person’s door (even though you may feel it is their fault). “I feel really angry at the moment because I am having to look at a different life to the one I envisaged” is a different conversation starter to “you’ve made me so angry ruining my life”. It’s also a subtle shift in taking responsibility for your own world and actions and emotions and not passively being the victim of circumstances. This shift can be a dramatic change in how things move forward, as well as changing how you talk to your ex-partner.
- Space. If one person is struggling to come to terms with the breakdown of their relationship then they may need time and space to adjust to what has happened and too grieve the loss of the life they thought they were going to have. You asking them every day if you can now talk about what happens next is unlikely to make things any better and is more likely to cause them counter productive stress. If there are things you need to talk about then it can be helpful to explain what you think you need to immediately look at and explain that you think these things need some urgent attention and that you can leave other things until later. Give the person a little time to process this and then ask if you can have a conversation purely about these things and how might it be helpful for them to manage this.
- Listen to understand. So often we listen so we can just reply back with what we think. You may profoundly disagree with your ex partner on many things but if you can fully understand and appreciate their views, objectives, priorities and fears then you are far more likely to be able to find a mutually acceptable solution.
- Try family mediation. One of the main benefits of family mediation is bringing together a separating couple in a safe space so that they can start to understand how each other feel and work together to shape what happens next. Having a knowledgeable, experienced and professional third person there can be helpful to ensure discussions remain on track.
- Consider what outside pressures are adding to your burdens right now. If you find one friend has a strong perspective on what you should do and you find that draining then consider whether hearing this is helpful for you right now. Families are sometimes brilliant in offering impartial support and being a neutral person for your children to confide in but sometimes they draw the battle lines and amplify already difficult feelings. Don’t be sucked in to other people’s drama and be aware of what feels good to you right now and what doesn’t. Think also about what feels constructive and how you feel afterwards. It may feel cathartic to bash your ex partner to your mum for a couple of hours but if your mum then shout at them when she sees them it may not help harmonious relationships going forward.
- Seek professional assistance at the earliest stage. Months of arguments are much harder to undo than just a couple. Years of arguments and feeling stuck can have a disastrous effect on your ability to co-parent and to work things out amicably.
As always I will be live later in the week in the Soulful Separation Support group talking about this issue and answering questions. This is a closed Facebook group for those going through a separation to find help and support from each other and from professionals like Louisa Whitney. You can also sign up to the free LKW Family Mediation mailing list to get help and support in managing your separation as peacefully as possible.