When you separate from a partner the thought of continuing to have a relationship with the other person may be something that causes you upset, discomfort or stress. But if you have children that is the reality of the situation. You will need to talk about any issues that crop up to do with their schooling, their health, their behaviour or anything else significant. It may also be important to your children that you are both able to attend ‘big’ events like sports days, school plays, graduations, weddings and christenings (or other religious ceremonies). This may feel like a mountain to climb especially if you feel very let down by your ex-partner’s behaviour.
Getting to the point where you can have a rationale discussion which doesn’t lead to an argument or unpleasant words, or blame being apportioned can feel like a very remote possibility. You may feel you would like to have as little to do with your children’s other parent as humanly possible. This would certainly be a way of minimising conflict between you but what effect might this have on your child? The relationship between a child’s parents is one of their earliest experiences of adult relationships. Modelling behaviour you wish your child to exhibit is part of being a parent. It’s very difficult to tell your children not to stand on the table if you do this, or not to scream and shout if they see you doing this. One of the hardest things about being a parent is looking at your children’s behaviour and having to take a really honest look at yourself to see whether your child is copying you. My son has recently got his first mobile phone and nothing makes you look at how much you use the mobile in your hand as much as when you’re discussing phone boundaries with your child!
Modelling the right choices can be significantly harder during a separation. You may feel crushed and devastated by your partner’s decision to end the relationship. You may feel so angry you want to punch a wall. You may be awake for large periods of time at night wondering what will happen and where you will live and how you will make ends meet. Trying to be a model parent during this time can be a very hard ask indeed. The good news is that we all make mistakes and getting something wrong a few times rarely ever means you have got it wrong forever.
Good communication is key to improving a difficult relationship and helping your children to deal with their parents’ separation and to ensure the effects on them are as minimal as possible. A crucial part of communication is listening. It’s sometimes easy to fall into the trap of telling the other person what’s going wrong over and over again and becoming frustrated that they aren’t taking things on board. But if you’re not also listening then you’re not communicating effectively. It’s an old adage and a cliché but we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
You may not agree with the other person’s take on things but unless you understand how they feel it will be difficult to move forward. You may find it hard to understand how they feel but at least acknowledge that they are angry/upset/sad/hurt and accept that whilst you find it to be a different reaction to what yours would be that is how the other person feels.
Take ownership of your feelings too. Making someone else responsible for your feelings is often unhelpful in trying to improve communication. Consider how you might feel if someone said these two different statements:
1. You make me so angry. I can never understand what it is you’re trying to say.
2. I feel angry. I don’t feel I properly understand your point of view.
Statement one may make you want to shout back or throw your arms up in disgust whereas statement 2 may make you feel more inclined to explain your point of view in a different way.
Make time to talk about issues in a calm place where you are as free from stress as possible. Running in from work after a stressful day and trying to talk about things whilst also making your children dinner is unlikely to result in a calm and constructive discussion. Give each other time to talk and try hard not to interrupt. Really try to understand what it is the other person is saying even when you don’t agree with it.
It can be helpful to make suggestions rather than say “this is what we need to do”. It sounds simple but saying “I wonder whether this might help” or “how do you feel about trying this” rather than “you need to stop that” or making other demands of the other person. The language we use can often make a considerable difference to whether a conversation feels like a collaboration or a series of orders.
Don’t forget we’ll be going live to talk about this in more detail on Friday 21st September at the earlier time of 11 a.m. Please join us on Facebook If you’d like to access all our free resources for separation couples then sign up to our free mailing list If you’re a professional working with separating couples then we have another list to enable you to access our resources for your clients.