Communication - why having boundaries and intentions matters

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Communication with your ex is one of the hottest topics I am asked about in my coaching practice.  How do I communicate effectively with this person, now that we’re going through a divorce?  We have children, so we’ll need to continue to communicate for years to come, and there will be family events to navigate – weddings, christenings, birthdays, graduations - how will that work?

The short answer is that once you have cut the emotional ties that bind you to your ex, so that you no longer feel any emotion (whatever that may be - anger, guilt, relief, hurt, pain) when their name pops into your inbox or you hear their voice, communication becomes much easier. This takes time, but there are things you can do and questions you can ask yourself to make the process easier.

Set some boundaries

Decide on your boundaries, communicate them clearly, and decide in advance what you will do if a particular boundary is crossed.  Then let your actions speak for you.

Decide on your boundaries, communicate them clearly, and decide in advance what you will do if a particular boundary is crossed.  Then let your actions speak for you.

Ask yourself:

·        what do you want the relationship to look like in 6 months/a year/a decade’s time?

·        what are you willing to accept from your ex?

·        what will you do if that boundary is crossed?

·        How do you want to communicate with your ex?

I knew that I would need to communicate with my ex for many years to come, as we had two boys who were only 3 and 1 when he left.  I knew that I wanted a future relationship with him that would mean we could both be there for our children at family events.  I never want our children to have to choose between us when planning a wedding seating plan.  I was determined that they would not become collateral damage in our split.  I wanted to have, at the very least, a civil relationship with him.

I made a conscious decision to be as dignified as possible in my communication with him.  In the beginning, it was hard, almost impossible, and many of our exchanges were fraught and accusatory.  I once shouted and swore at him in the street – not my proudest moment, and one that left me feeling shamed and embarrassed.  After that, I decided that I could walk away rather than shout and scream.  It takes two people to argue…

I decided that I would never reply to any angry or upsetting email/text from him without first leaving myself at least 24 hours to decide exactly what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to respond.  This gave me time to breathe, to calm down, and to think logically instead of reacting emotionally.

Everyone’s boundaries will be different, and will depend on the circumstances.  However, I found that once I knew what I would accept, and I communicated that, things did get much easier.  Once I had set those boundaries, his communication with me also changed, for the better.  I understood that, whilst I couldn't change him, I could change my own responses and behaviours, and that was likely to give me a different outcome.  

If you have a particularly difficult or bullying ex, setting boundaries is vital, and you must stick to them.  This may mean holding your nerve and keeping your cool.  The first time you establish and enforce a boundary may be challenging.  It may mean hanging up the phone, or walking away to enforce it, and you may have to do this more than once, especially if your ex is used to you behaving or responding in a certain way.  

Setting a boundary may also involve giving a deadline, and sticking to it.  Take my client, B, for example.  For months, B had been asking her ex to collect his golf clubs and other sporting equipment from the garage, to no avail.  B emailed her ex, to ask one last time that he collect his possessions.  She stated that if he did not collect them by the end of the month, she was going to take them to the charity shop.  Her ex had collected his items before the end of the following week.

Be clear about your intentions

When you’re about to fire off that angry email or shout back in anger, take a moment to pause, and ask yourself what your intention is.  Does it fit with your long-term goals?  Pause, be honest with yourself, and be clear about what it is you want to achieve.  Is your intention to move towards resolution?  Is it to punish?  Is it to stoke the fire of disagreement?  Or something else? 

I find it useful to ask clients to imagine that they are an independent 3rd party, looking on with love – what would that third party see?  What would they advise you to do? 

Or imagine yourself looking back in ten years’ time.  How would you want to see yourself acting if you could look back?

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Ask yourself how important this is, in the grand scheme of things

If you could imagine your life as a time line, from beginning to end, how important is this moment?  Will it pass?  What will happen if this issue is not resolved right now?  Sometimes, the issue can wait. 

Other times, it really does need to be addressed now, so ask yourself what will help you achieve the outcome you want?  What choices do you have?  Are you able to talk reasonably?  If negotiation isn’t possible between you, could you bring in a 3rd party to help you – a mediator, or your lawyer perhaps?

Speak from the “I”

Do you often find yourself starting sentences with, “you always……”, or “you never…..”?

Do you make assumptions about your ex’s intentions, thinking that s/he’s just out to hurt you, or punish you, or just wants to make life difficult?  When you do this, it often results in a defensive reaction, and the conversation slides quickly into conflict.  When you trigger someone’s defence mechanism, it becomes almost impossible for them to hear the real message behind your words.

What would happen if, instead of assuming their intention, you acted as if they had positive intentions?  Would the way you approached them change?

Consider the difference between:

“You never bring the kids home on time.  You are always late. You just want to be in control!”,


“When you are late bringing the kids home, I feel anxious.  I would like you to let me know if you are running late”.

The second option, which makes no assumptions, is far more likely to get you heard and result in a productive discussion than the first, which is likely to lead to a defensive reaction, rather than any understanding of your perspective. 

Plan ahead for challenging conversations

If you know you have to broach a difficult or challenging issue with your ex, then prepare carefully.  Ask yourself what your ideal outcome is, and what you want to achieve, so that you are clear what your goal is. 

It can also be helpful to consider how your ideal outcome will look to your ex.  What might their ideal outcome look like?  Is there a compromise position that would be acceptable to you, that would still enable you to reach your ideal outcome?

I often work with clients to look at challenging issues from three perspectives – theirs, their ex’s, and that of an independent 3rd party looking in without judgement.  If you can take a helicopter view of the issue, and see it from all angles, you’ll be able to enter the discussion with increased understanding of all perspectives.  This can help to keep you calm and focused, and increase the likelihood of you reaching a place that is acceptable to you both.

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Claire Black