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How to Talk to an Ex

2 expert tips for navigating treacherous terrain.

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My almost-ex and I were sitting at a café a few blocks from the ocean, working on our divorce papers. Not the ones to file in court, but a separate document of intentions and goals as co-parents for life. We wanted a blueprint for our future unwed—between us—something I'd seen other couples do to help hold themselves to their highest standards, without involving the court. What would happen, for example, if one of us wanted to move out of state? Or, how would we handle the discrepancy in our lifestyles if one of us became a millionaire while the other struggled to pay the rent? On that topic, my husband made a comment suggesting that unless I started working harder, in two years he’d be rich while I'd be barely scraping by.

Here’s one reason filing for divorce can be so hard: The process can recall old disagreements and grievances from the marriage—in our case, issues around work and money.

I took a sip of my coffee, managed not to react, and remembered two positive communication skills I’ve learned in divorce.

Communication Skill #1: Interrupt a difficult topic with an easy one.

It’s tempting to continue focusing on a point of contention, hammering away at it, believing you must work it out now. "I am working plenty hard!" I might have said. "I'm tired of being criticized by your crazed Calvinistic work ethic on overdrive!"

A better route? Switch to a topic of more agreement. Beth Henson, a mediator at the Resource Center for Separating & Divorcing Families in Denver, says that when couples hit an area of high conflict in mediation, she’ll suggest tabling that discussion, and moving on to something they can agree about quickly. “When they have success agreeing about one thing, that makes it easier for them to come back and agree about the other. Sometimes mediators will ‘push through’ the area of conflict. I’ve found it much better to avoid it—and then come back to it.”

I loved this idea. It reminded me of something from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the notion of strategizing to win a battle with ease, like water running down a mountain, rather than like a boulder being pushed up a hill. As Sun Tzu wrote, “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” I don't consider a former spouse an enemy, but pushing past resistance without fighting is a good approach in any relationship.

“Well, we can discuss our careers later,” I said, proud of my restraint. “Why don’t we talk about what he might want to study in college?”

Communication Skill #2: Keep It Short

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As in, make any complaint or concern you have last no longer than five minutes in the telling. This suggestion comes from Mordecai Finley, PhD, a rabbi who does counseling and leads Congregation Ohr HaTorah in Venice, California. His idea is that we often repeat our complaints to the detriment of the relationship. We rephrase them, refining our expression of dissatisfaction again and again, thinking if we just articulate it more precisely, the point will stick and our partner will change. But criticism rarely leads to positive reassessment and evolution. Instead, Finley suggests, say it once. Drop it. And move on.

In our case, we started talking about how our son remains more attached to me than to his dad. There are any number of reasons this might be true: Little boys love their mommies; I’m emotionally attentive while his father...well, I found my husband too spottily present when we were married. The gap in our desire for emotional intimacy was one reason for our divorce.

I brought up my own long-standing complaint about his emotionally cool style. He defended himself, of course, probably as tired of this line of discussion as I was about the work-ethic debate. My almost-ex’s emotional style is none of my business, now that we’re no longer together. But I did wonder if our son experiences him as remote. It's very hard to be impartial about the issues that drove you apart in the first place. This is a perfect example of a time to use the Keep It Short rule.

“I know you’re a good father,” I said. “And he is always happier when you’re around. But why don’t you just make a note to pay attention to this, and see if there is any way in which you might be not as attentive as you’d like to be when you're together?”

And then I dropped it. But I never dropped it while married. I harped on it again and again.

These were both difficult topics, probably the main issues that drove us apart. But as I mentioned in a previous post about why some people get along better, post-marriage, I found that good communication became far easier, once we split. I was no longer confronting these incompatibilities in my home, on a daily basis. I could avoid what marriage researcher John Gottman has called “The Four Horseman of Apocalypse"—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Many others I’ve spoken to said something similar: Being out of an unhappy marriage opened up a new ability to practice some of the good communication skills marriage counselors always stress. These are two easy ones to try.