Constructive Conversations: How to De-Escalate High-Conflict Exchanges With Your Co-Parent

Constructive Conversations: How to De-Escalate High-Conflict Exchanges With Your Co-Parent

At Fayr, our goal is to facilitate a kind, fair relationship between co-parents for the good of the children.  

We also know that maintaining a conflict-free relationship is not always simple or easy.

Sometimes, divorce or separation is precipitated by a high level of conflict that carries over into the initial separation period.  Other times, the actual separation might be relatively conflict-free, only for disagreements to arise during a different, challenging period of co-parenting.  This makes sense -- the task of constantly communicating and interacting with an ex over the course of years (possibly decades of your kids' childhoods) is daunting for even the most even-tempered and zen among us.  

Unfortunately, in the field of developmental psychology "there is no debate that continued, ongoing, unresolved high conflict is harmful to children of divorce." (1)  

Which means that periods of high conflict are not just inconvenient, they're urgent to resolve.  

If you identify as being in or can recall a time of high conflict, the following questions might feel familiar:

 
  • How do I continue to communicate with my co-parent when they the exact person I'd most like to not deal with?  
  • How do I continue to look out for my children and their well-being when I feel personally attacked?  
  • How do I ensure that a necessary conversation can stay positive and productive when it seems like we don't see eye-to-eye on anything? 
 

To answer these questions, we enlisted the help of Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Robin Maddox to give us tips for how to turn a high-conflict situation into a constructive conversation.

7 Tools for Constructive Co-parenting Conversations:

  1. Request a conversation.  If you know the topic is tricky or has been a source of high conflict in the past, it's good to allow yourself and your co-parent time and space to prepare to enter the conversation calmly and removed from unrelated external stressors. Try messaging: "I want to talk about {Johnny's summer vacation schedule}. Is now a good time to talk?" Your co-parent might be available at that time, but they can suggest another time in the next 24 hours to talk.

  2. Stay on track. The quickest way to escalate an already tense conversation is to bring in other areas of conflict.  Honor the requested topic and speak directly to the conversation at hand only.  If other topics arise, note them and request to tackle those areas later, in a separate conversation.  

  3. Don't respond with your own aggressiveness.  Arguments escalate most rapidly when both parties feel attacked or go on the attack.  Do your best (within reason and appropriate boundaries) to ignore your co-parent's aggressiveness and answer calmly rather that responding with your own anger.  

  4. Name your experience.  This might seem counterintuitive, but naming your experience can help you gain objectivity and increase empathy in your co-parent.  It can be as simple and straightforward as this: "I'm feeling pretty overwhelmed and reactive right now. This is a really hard topic for me."  

  5. Count to three before you respond.  A classic and universally applicable technique, taking even a few moments to breath and process before responding to your co-parent helps decrease your own reactivity and pauses the escalating pace of an argument. 

  6. Take a time out.  If a conversation feels too escalated, call a time out. Tell your co-parent in an even tone (e.g.:: no slamming down the phone or storming off if you're in person) that you need a break, but confirm that within the next 24 hours that you'll return to the conversation. 

  7. Get a third party involved.  If you are struggling to make progress and feel instead that each conversation is only adding fuel to the fire, it's wise to involve an objective third party such as a family psychologist or legal counsel.  If you've been using the Fayr app, you'll have a clear, inalterable record of your message exchanges which you can print out as a PDF report to share with your counselor.

 

1. E. Kruk, Ph.D., "Co-Parenting and High Conflict," Psychology Today (2012).