Season's greetings, everyone!
Since the last blog post, I received a letter from one divorced reader who is struggling with a question frequently seen in my therapy practice, not only among separated or divorced individuals, but with married and single people as well: "how do I communicate effectively with a 'slow-or-no' responder"?
Slow-or-no responders are folks who take an unusually long amount of time to reply to emails, texts, or phone calls (if they reply at all), even when the issue at hand requires their input.
If you've ever tried to make plans with a slow-or-no responder, this reader's frustration will sound familiar.
Fear not! The suggested tips below are a sure fire way to free yourself from the slow-to-no response trap.
Enjoy and happy holidays!
Dear Dr. Jill,
I have a communication-related question.
My ex and I have been living apart for almost three years. We have three children. They are 6, 8, and 11. For the most part, we see eye-to-eye. We usually keep it cordial and civil.
Because we have three children, there are lots of details to keep track of. Two kids in soccer and one in piano. When we were married, I was the one who took the kids to their medical appointments, practices, recitals, and such.
Since we separated, the one place we struggle most is with communication. Between the two of us, I have the more flexible work schedule. This means I am on the front lines with pick ups and drop offs, appointment scheduling, etc. Sometimes this coordination requires her consent and/or her participation. That is where we clang heads.
When I make a request, it takes days—even a week—to hear back from her. Sometimes I get no response. One time, our oldest son missed an important school outing because my ex didn’t get back to me in time.
Our parenting plan says that all major decisions will be jointly made. So I'm kind of stuck here.
I’ve tried to talk with her about this issue. She usually either gets defensive or says she’s working on it and promises to do better. With one or two exceptions, things have stayed status quo.
I’m wondering if this is something you’ve helped clients with and, if so, can you give me some pointers for how to deal with it?
Sounds like this experience has neatly nestled you, right between a rock and a hard place! Making joint decisions with someone who won't decide, can be frustrating. Knowing and communicating boundaries is the most effective way to free yourself from what I like to call the "slow-to-no response trap."
When coordinating with someone who is slow to respond (or who doesn't respond at all), with each request, it is important to communicate three things: the ask, the expected response time, and what you will plan to do if you do not hear anything back from her.
Here is an example of what this kind of communication looks or sounds like:
I just received notice of a mandatory work meeting that is scheduled to take place tomorrow evening, when the kids are scheduled to be with me. I am wondering if you would be willing to pick the kids up from aftercare and keep them until I can pick them up at 8:00 p.m.? If you would please let me know by 6:00 tonight, that would be great. If I don't hear anything back by then, I will find an alternate arrangement.
By communicating a clear time frame and a pre-determined backup plan, any potential for Jim to feel burdened by slow-or-no response is removed.
Differences like the one described in your letter are common among divorced co-parents. It is for precisely this reason that some parenting plans include a clause which stipulates that, after a written request is sent, the responding party must provide an answer within a pre-specified amount of time, after which, if no response is received, the requesting party is free to make a decision. Ideally, the parenting plan would also stipulate different response times for matters that are considered urgent (e.g., medical emergencies, school-related activities, important deadlines, etc.).
If your parenting plan contains this language, I suggest calmly reminding your ex (by phone if possible—the tone of email can easily get misinterpreted) of the agreed upon timeline(s). Once you’ve referenced the agreement, it is up to you to abide by its terms. In so doing, any future disregard for the documented timeline, by either party, will be construed as permission to proceed.
If your parenting document does not include the aforementioned clause, I recommend including it, ad hoc. Though you can choose to do this via the legal system, if you and your ex are pretty good about adhering to agreements, legal intervention may not be necessary.
Let your ex know that you would like to work with her to come up with a response timeline that each of you will follow, for both urgent and non-urgent situations. Once this agreement is in place, write it down. Keep a copy for yourself and provide your ex with a copy to refer to in the future.
After the agreement is in place, stick to it. When solo decisions are made, send a courtesy follow up email so your ex is in the loop.
One final tip. Though it won't always be possible, whenever you see an opportunity to free yourself of the slow-or-no-response game, take it. Try to minimize the number of appointments, activities, and events that require cross-coordinate between you and your ex. One way to do this is to schedule kid-related activities only on your own residential time.
Hopefully these tips will help free you up to do more of what you do best: love your children. Good luck!
Yours In Health,
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers divorce consultation, co-parenting support, grief therapy, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Struggling to communicate with an ex? Schedule a free consultation to see how divorce counseling and co-parent support can help you create the co-parenting relationship your children deserve.
Compartmentalization is the psychological curtain that slides closed when our feelings get too messy, uncomfortable, or inconvenient. Find compartmentalization and you will often find judgment--for the CEO who delivers inspirational speeches to shareholders from whom he is bilking millions. For the spouse who kisses her unsuspecting husband goodnight before heading downstairs to check the Tinder account. It’s easy to judge compartmentalization when it is used to facilitate subpar behavior.
But every card has two sides.
When used appropriately, compartmentalization can help divorcing spouses build and maintain a constructive co-parenting relationship.
Figuring out how to divide time with children, financial resources, and possessions can be a Herculean task, especially when one person neither asked for nor wanted the divorce. It's common for exes to become triggers or targets for anger--sometimes even rage.
Anger, like all dark emotions, serves a specific purpose.
In divorce, anger can help us forge the distance needed to heal the wounds of loss. Furthermore, when channeled appropriately, anger can fuel the rocket ship that propels us toward a new, post-divorce life.
But here’s where things get tricky.
The most reliable predictor of children’s post-divorce adjustment is how well they are (and continue to be) protected from adult feelings and conflicts.
In other words, the anger we need to feel in order to heal is the very emotion we must filter away from our children and out of our co-parenting relationship. Here's where compartmentalization comes in handy.
When adults can appropriately contain their acrimony, kids are freer to work through their own divorce-related feelings, without worrying about burdened by ours.
If this sounds confusing or difficult, that's because it is. To help divorcing spouses better understand healthy compartmentalization, I use the following metaphor. Imagine your brain is like Hogwarts, where each thought and feeling must be sorted into three empty boxes: the marital box, the parenting box, and the in-between box.
What follows is a description of all three boxes, along with a few tips for how to create them.
The Marital Box. Negative sentiments about the relationship, the divorce, and/or your ex belong in the marital box. This box should be stored high on a shelf where only you (not your ex or your children) can access it.
In the early stages of separation, it is likely your marital box will be quite full--even overflowing. This is completely normal.
Set a goal to reduce the size of your marital box by carefully working through its contents. Do this on your own, with a therapist, or with other trusted adults in your life. Reassure yourself that, with time and appropriate resourcing, the size of this box will eventually shrink (It will. I promise).
Helpful hint: Tempting though it may be, avoid sorting through your marital box with your ex. Your former spouse cannot help you get over him or her. Conversely, should your ex attempt to enlist you in sorting through his or her martial box, it’s okay to respectfully disengage. A brief “I’m sorry I cannot help you.” will suffice.
Trust that, if you and your former spouse could resolve your differences, you would have by now. That time has come and gone.
The Parenting Box. You and your ex share this box. Unlike the marital box, the parenting box should be void of emotion. It contains only information pertinent to raising healthy kids smoothly in two households (i.e., residential schedules, school events, extracurricular activities, medical appointments, etc.). Any text, email, or phone call between you and your ex should be brief and pertain only to the business of raising your children.
Growing up, my father used to say, “Never wrestle with a pig. You’ll just get dirty...and the pig likes it.” This was his colorful, Southern way of saying that acting out of anger isn't productive.
Insight and anger are inversely correlated. When one runs high the other runs low. The angrier we are, the easier it is to get the marital and parenting boxes mixed up.
Helpful hint: It's normal to get worked up on occasion. Keep yourself out of the mud by taking the time needed to calm yourself before engaging with or responding to your ex. Additionally, before responding, I recommend sending emails and texts to a neutral third party (e.g., trusted friend, divorce coach, etc.) to make sure they are 'washed clean' of negative emotion.
Helpful hint: It's always better to lead by example than to get in a mud-slinging contest with your ex. If your ex lashes out at you, resist all urges to fight back or defend yourself. Staying within the confines of the parenting box does not make you a pushover. It makes you an example of the mature, stable co-parent your child needs you to be.
Helpful hint: Determine ahead of time your goal for any communication with your ex. Include in your communication only the facts that serve this goal. For instance, if you are hoping to swap weekends, with sufficient notice (which should be stipulated by your parenting plan), provide in writing the dates you would like to swap. Your ex does not need to know the reason for the swap. Just the dates in question will suffice.
The In-between Box. The in-between box is a place for neutral-positive sentiments related to your fellow co-parent. This box is meant to be shared freely with your child and, on occasion, with your ex in front of your child.
Here are a few examples. Let’s say your ex is a fabulous cook and your child expresses interest in learning to cook. This is a great time to say, “You know, your Mom is an excellent chef. How lucky you are to learn from the best!”
Perhaps your ex is a musician and your child has taken up an instrument. Upon leaving a school concert together, in front of your child, it's okay to say to your fellow co-parent something like, “I can see Tim has inherited your musical abilities. It’s great to see him share his love of music with you.”
I cannot overemphasize how much this means to your kiddos.
Your child’s developing ego cannot easily distinguish itself from others. Thus, when you say positive things about and to the other parent, you are actively bolstering your child's self-esteem.
Helpful hints: If you are struggling to fill your in-between box, it may be useful to remind yourself that no one is either all good or all bad. To assume the latter about your marriage or your ex is to discount the positive attributes that brought you together, the most important of which was the fate of becoming your children's parents. Even if your marital box is overflowing, look for ways to encourage your child to have a positive relationship with his or her other parent.
Even when it is the right decision, divorce is rarely easy. The clarity needed to compartmentalize feelings appropriately can elude us when we are in pain. Let this be your motivation to seek support from others. Find people who have successfully weathered divorce. Ask them for tips about what worked, what didn’t, etc. Find a therapist in your area who specializes in working with divorcing co-parents. No one should have to do this alone.
Finally, remember that, while pain is temporary, parenting is forever. Committing the time and energy it takes to build and maintain a constructive co-parenting relationship with your ex is one of the best investments you can make--for yourself and, most importantly, for your children.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers divorce consultation, co-parenting support, grief therapy, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. If you need help sorting through divorce-related feelings, schedule a free consultation to see how divorce counseling and co-parent support can help you create the co-parenting relationship your children deserve.
Just over half of marriages or domestic partnerships will end in separation or divorce. Though couples may struggle to reach consensus on numerous issues, most separating spouses can agree that protecting the child or children's best interest should be top priority. This sounds pretty straight forward yet, when adults posses intense feelings toward one another, it is anything but simple.
If you and your soon-to-be ex are confused or struggling with how best to talk with your children about divorce, here are a few tips for keeping things on track:
It is normal for separating spouses to posses some degree of negative feelings about the other. This is particularly true in cases where one spouse did not have a choice about the divorce. Thus, I encourage both partners to lean into their adult support systems (friends, family, support groups, therapists or counselors, etc.). When the adults care for themselves and each other appropriately, everyone benefits, including and especially, the children.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, divorce therapist, and grief counselor in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle. If you have questions about how to nurture your children through divorce, help is just a click away. Schedule a free consultation to see how divorce counseling and co-parent support can help you and your children thrive after divorce.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.