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Communication Tips for Divorce—Even If Communication Failed in Marriage

Communication holds marriages together. It's different when you divorce.

Key points

  • Respectful, affectionate, and easy communication is the glue that holds spouses together.
  • When divorcing, communication should aim to be brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
  • Communication that avoids argument, conflict, and fighting can protect children from the damage that divorce sometimes causes.

Lisa and Max tell me that they’re divorcing because they "can’t communicate." It is one of the most common reasons for divorce that I hear from my clients. Couples who go to therapy will often say, “We need to learn to communicate.” Communication during your marriage is different after a separation or divorce in some ways, but not all. Let's look at both.

What is communication in a marriage?

One definition of communication is the transferring or exchanging of news, information, or feelings between two or more people. In a marriage, respectful, affectionate, and easy communication is the glue that holds spouses together. The goal is usually to connect, to feel close, to be understood, and to feel esteem from your partner.

Communication is always both verbal and nonverbal.

Photo by August de Richelieu/pexels
In a marriage, respectful, affectionate, and easy communication is the glue that holds spouses together.
Source: Photo by August de Richelieu/pexels

Verbal communication has to do with the words you choose. Are your words articulate, accurate, and respectful? Are you saying directly what you want to say, or are you vague, avoiding being honest by “beating around the bush”? Austin wants to spend more time with his wife, but instead, he complains about how much time she spends with her friends. When he tells me this, I offer, “I’d like to find ways to spend more time together. Can we agree that Sundays are our days to get out and do things together?” Austin groans, “She’ll probably complain about that!” But, to his surprise, she agreed with his idea at once.

Nonverbal communication, which is often unconscious and very powerful, has to do with your behavior or facial and body expressions. For example, stepping back, arms crossed, and turning away from your partner tells her that you are feeling defensive or guarded. It may also suggest that you are not listening, not taking in the message she is trying to convey. Avoiding eye contact, posture, blushing, eye-rolling, nodding, and deep sighs all convey messages nonverbally. Some people say that communication is much more nonverbal than verbal, but most of us are unaware of the nonverbal messages we are sending. Pay attention to your body position, posture, eye contact, and facial expressions when you are speaking with your partner.

There is no such thing as not communicating

Not communicating is also communicating. It sends an important message to the other. Not responding to your partner is a response. John Gottman calls the intentional ignoring or giving someone the cold shoulder “stonewalling.” Stonewalling is one of the predictors of divorce that Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Another nonverbal communication “tool” is listening. This isn’t as easy as you’d think! Listening attentively is active, not passive. You communicate your attention and interest by making eye contact, nodding, or making small sounds such as “hmmm.” Listening actively suggests that you are NOT simultaneously thinking up your rebuttal to what your partner is saying. You give your partner all the time they need to express or say what they want to say, and you may ask clarifying questions or say back what you understand from their communication. Listening is often more important than speaking.

Turns and bids

John Gottman writes about “bids” and “turns.” According to Gottman, all communications are bids for connection, attention, or validation. A simple comment, such as, “Nice weather today” is a bid for a response.

Every response you make to your partner’s “bid” is what Gottman calls a “turn.” There are three types of responses or “turns”: Turning toward, turning away, and turning against. Turning toward would be, for example, “Good day for a walk,” and a turn away could be missing the bid entirely, not looking up from your phone. A turn against is more aggressive, such as “Can’t you see I’m busy?” Gottman believes that missing the bid can be more devastating than rejecting it by turning against it because when you turn against it, at least there is an interaction.

The acronym THINK can help you communicate more effectively

T: Is it TRUE? Be clear about whether you are sharing a fact, a feeling, a question, or an opinion.

H: Is it HELPFUL? Use your words in a constructive way, to repair, or improve the situation.

I: Is it INSPIRING? Does it make your partner want to listen, pay attention, and respond?

N: Is it NECESSARY? What makes what you are saying important? Does it need to be said?

K: Is it KIND? Is your delivery respectful, warm, affectionate, or humorous?

Communication after separation or divorce

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels
Communication during and after divorce can be seen as business-like transactions.
Source: Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Communication during and after divorce can be seen as business-like transactions. You are no longer seeking to resolve past hurts, clear up old misunderstandings, sharing grievances or personal experiences. The sheer amount of communication decreases and is limited to what needs to be shared to navigate your divorce or share parenting time.

You are partners in the business of unwinding your marriage, and/or raising your children. Elsewhere I have written about using BIFF as your standard when sending texts or emails, or even voicemails. Developed by Bill Eddy, BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. Double-check your communications using BIFF as your standard. before hitting “send” and your communication will be much less stressful.

Good enough communication during and after divorce is essential, especially when you have children. The goal is respectful communication that stays on point and is brief, solution-focused, or problem-solving. Sharing information about your children will protect your children from feeling caught in the middle. They need to know that their parents communicate with each other—this makes them feel safe, secure and loved. Communication that avoids argument, conflict, and fighting protects your children from the long-term damage that divorce can cause.

Communication and response time during and after divorce can look like this:

Text messages for urgent or logistics issues: “I’m running 15 minutes late,” or “I’m taking Lilly to the doctor because she has a fever.” Or “Check your email, I just sent you Lilly’s drama rehearsal schedule.”

Responding within three hours is a good rule of thumb. The response can be as simple as “Got it” to acknowledge receipt of the information.

Voicemail messages can be used for non-urgent or more substantive issues. Because there is no written record, I recommend that voicemail not be used for time-sensitive issues or new agreements. A response within 12 hours to follow up ideally would be written, in an email, such as “I got your message about the birthday party this weekend. Yes, I can bring some drinks, and I will arrive not before 2:00 PM.”

Email is best for non-urgent, informational communication or requests. For example, “I have a work trip next week and wonder if you can keep Lilly overnight on Monday. If you’re open to it, I’d like to swap a day in the following week, so I don’t miss time with Lilly. Let me know what works for you. I’d appreciate a response by tomorrow so I can ask my mother to step in if you’re not available.” The new agreement will then be documented by email which avoids misunderstandings later. Any agreements you make should be documented in an email for later reference. A response should be sent within 24 hours, even if you cannot answer all the questions, such as “I got your email and I’d be happy to take Lilly on Monday. I need to see if I can rearrange a work meeting. I will get back to you by afternoon tomorrow. Will that work?”

Note that all of these examples demonstrate BIFF: the communication is Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm.

Good communication is a skill that you can cultivate, with some awareness and focused effort. You may find that your relationships with partners, children, friends, and family all improve as your communication improves.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022


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