In my work as a mediator, I’ve yet to hear a client tell me they want their kids involved in their divorce. However, when divorcing parents avoid talking about what needs talking about, the outstanding issues lead to future conversations that are more challenging than they need to be, more complicated than they need to be, and more likely to affect the kids.
“I don’t want to stir the pot. I’d prefer to keep things calm,” a client recently told me. While his divorce was proceeding amicably, there were unaddressed issues and lingering uncertainties – which can become problematic post-divorce. And when these issues do resurface, what are the odds that you and your ex will have the time and patience to work through them?
Big changes deserve big conversations. I encourage my clients to get as much clarity as they can as soon as they can – even if the divorce is going well.
For the sake of peace in the future and to avoid stress on their children, spouses should ask each other these questions during the divorce process:
- What impact is our divorce having on our kid/s?
- What commitments do we want to make to mitigate and prevent this?
- In their interest, what commitments do we want to make to each other around communication?
- What challenges should we be ready for in our co-parenting? How do we want to approach them?
- How are we going to make decisions together now that we’re divorced?
If you intend to have this conversation without the support of a third party, try to keep two things in mind:
1. Ask questions
By focusing your energy on asking open-ended questions, you will create space for your spouse to feel heard (which will enable them to do a better job hearing you) and you will gather valuable information about how to proceed in the least painful, least costly ways for all involved. Use the questions above if they feel helpful or prepare your own in advance. You can check to see if your question is a good one by asking yourself: “Does this question sincerely invite my spouse to share their ideas, concerns, or feelings?” If the answer is no, keep working on the question. It’s natural for our agendas, our grievances, and our hopes to try and sneak aboard our questions before we embark on an important conversation. Check for stowaways before you set sail.
2. Listen without thinking about solutions
My clients are often rightfully confused by this instruction. Aren’t we interested above all else in solutions? In compromises that enable us to move forward? Yes, but not during the listening.
If you intend to have this conversation without a facilitator, you’ll need to monitor this for yourself. Listen as though you are on a tight rope. Imagine that it requires that much care and focus. It does.
In a difficult conversation, listening can be hard. It feels endless and we become impatient. But listening well in these moments is the most productive and efficient thing you can be doing.
While you need to be listening, thoughts like “what if my spouse gets everything they want and I get none of what I need?” are like a tight rope walker paying too much attention to the ground.
For your listening to be effective, your spouse must never gain the impression that you are distracted or impatient – in the same way, that a tight rope walker must never check their watch or think ahead to the press conference while suspended in the air.
That’s the kind of careful, focused balance we should look for in these conversations. It sounds hard – maybe it even sounds impossible – but it’s actually easier. When we relieve ourselves of the multi-tasking and the stressful distractedness of listening-with-an-agenda we start to hear the other. Really hear them. And they can tell when that happens – it’s unmistakable.
Listening to this well doesn’t magically resolve the outstanding questions at hand. It does something even more important. In the context of a divorce, listening in this way allows each spouse to be less clenched and more curious, to shift from anticipating struggle to assuming good intentions.
When divorce is the right decision it deserves the right conversation. It’s not “looking for trouble” to ask what might be difficult in the future. With all the changes divorce brings, asking big questions can create a more stable foundation for the future you want to build.