Effective communications


Communicating with a separated partner can be difficult. Learning new ways to communicate effectively can save energy and stress. It can also help in getting the best results from negotiations and mediation.

How communications can go wrong

Separated spouses almost always have poor communications. Poor communications probably contributed to the relationship breakdown. Paradoxically, separated spouses often continue to use their old faulty communication techniques (which led to the separation) to try to resolve important issues arising from the separation. By doing so, they commonly deepen disputes and acrimony. The human brain (especially in times of stress) causes us to respond to conflict by “fight or flight” – neither are good ways to resolve the issues that arise from separation.

Spouses generally go through the separation process at different speeds, and this can complicate communications. One spouse has commonly been contemplating separation (and experiencing a cycle of emotions including sadness, depression, anger, hope) for some time without the other spouse realising. They tell the second spouse who then experiences the same cycle of emotions whilst the first spouse has moved on to start planning for the future and dealing with concrete issues including children, property, finances and divorce. The second spouse who is still dealing with the emotional consequences of separation may become confused and upset by the first spouse being focused on practical issues and seemingly not caring about the relationship breakdown.

In the emotional pain of separation, spouses will often try to simplify issues. This can lead to common communication problems including:

  • Overgeneralizations – “all he cares about is money”.
  • Absolute statements – “she always spends all the money”.
  • Incomplete comments – “I’m confused”. This does not help the other person understand why or be able to respond constructively. You need to explain what you are confused about and why.
  • Linking cause and effect – “you make me feel sad” vs “I am sad.” The mistake is to assume because someone’s actions or words make you feel a certain way, that they intended to make you feel that way.
  • Mind reading – “please do not be mad at me.” The other person may not be feeling mad about the speaker – their mood may be caused by something else. The flipside is we incorrectly presume the other person knows what we are thinking. Psychological research shows that people are often mistaken in their assumptions as to what other people think or know. This is especially so when emotions are heightened.
  • Thinking the other person has the same knowledge and experiences as you do and if they do not share your views it is because they are mad or bad. Everyone has different knowledge, life experiences and needs which cause them to have different opinions. It is common for two rational, well-meaning people to have different views on the same issues.
  • Focusing on recent or negative events rather than looking at the complete history of the relationship including the positive qualities of the relationship and the other person. Separated spouses can form overly critical views of the other person by only recalling recent negative interactions.

The importance of good communications

In almost all separations, both spouses need to keep communicating. This is commonly because they have children. Even if they do not have children, there are normally legal and financial issues that need to be resolved together. Separated spouses generally remain interdependent on each other as they each need different things from each other. This can cause frustration for both as neither can move on entirely independently or autonomously of each other. This problem is not the fault of either person but rather the poor relationship (which has let the spouses down) and the complexity of the situation. It is better to focus on the joint problems and shared situation rather than the personality of the other person.

How to communicate effectively

  • Wait for the right time

Do not try to communicate if you (or the other person) is not capable at the time. There is little point having important conversations if either person is in “fight or flight” mode.

  • Pick the right time, place and method

Be wary about phone, text or email communication. See our page on Effective Electronic Communications. They are not good for exchanging views on complex or important issues. Let the other person know in advance you want to talk about some important issues. Get their agreement to talk rather than forcing it on them. Ensure neither of you will be disturbed by children, family, colleagues or calls. A good mediator can ensure a safe, focused environment to discuss important issues.

  • Think carefully beforehand

What are the issues you want to discuss and what can you realistically expect the other person to do about them? How do you feel about the issues? It can be easy to underestimate the complexity of your emotions (and the other persons.) People often think they are feeling only one emotion (the strongest one) when they actually have a number of complex feelings. For example, anger (which can be manifested as threats) is often a secondary emotion covering feelings of hurt, powerlessness and fear (often of being abandoned or ignored). It is more productive to discuss the underlying causes of the anger than merely express the anger.

  • Listen to the other person

Listening carefully to the other person is the cheapest thing you can give them. Listening does not mean you agree. It will make them more likely to listen to you. Show them you have listened by repeating what they have said or asking questions to check you have understood them.

Listening is more than verbal – 85% of communication is non-verbal. Be aware of facial expressions, tone of voice and body language of both yourself and the other person. Be careful of text and email where non-verbal communications are lost.

  •  Slow down

Take time to carefully explain your views to the other person. They will be more likely to listen to you, if you have already listened carefully to them. Invite them to ask you questions if they do not understand you. Take care in dealing with your strong emotions. Explain how you feel and why – but avoid venting (see the discussion of “I statements” below). Acting emotionally (as opposed to describing your feelings) will reduce you ability to focus and will cause the other person to stop listening to you.

  • Avoid criticising or belittling the other person

Instead explain how their actions make you feel. Use “I statements.” These involve describing how your emotions arise out of their behaviour. The statement is therefore about you and the problem rather than an attack on the other person. Here are some examples.

Do not say

  • “You are so inconsiderate when you always return the children late. You just do it to annoy me.”

Instead say

  • “I feel stressed …when you are late delivering the children… because I can’t then get them to school on time.”

Do not say

  • “You are a bastard”

Instead say

  • “I feel sad/lonely/upset when you fail to let me have the children because I miss them.”

Do not say

  • “you are a greedy so-and-so who wants to suck me dry.’

Instead say

  • “I feel sad you fail to recognize my father’s generosity during the marriage when you say you want 50/50.”

Do not say

  • “You have ruined our marriage by having an affair. Why did you want to hurt me so much?” This will cause the other person to deny any intention to hurt (and be able to ignore your feelings).

Instead say

  • “I feel devastated by you having an affair”.

What if the other person is unable or unwilling to try these communication techniques?

There is no point giving up and responding with similarly bad communications. Consider terminating the discussion temporarily. Alternatively, ask them what good is served by their attacks. Or use a third party such as a mediator or family dispute resolution practitioner to help.

When people are in dispute, effective communication is difficult but essential to come to good agreements. Here are some tips about communicating effectively.



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