Toxic communication can be a concern when going through a separation and divorce. No matter what has occurred previously in a relationship, the way in which one or both people communicate during the separation and divorce process can lead to complications when it comes to finalising family law matters.
It is not always possible to have no communication during separation, especially when children are involved. In our work we find it is quite common for some people to find communication worrisome post-separation, especially when one person feels that the other’s words are meant to be hurtful or are made maliciously.
Toxic communication can be one-way or two-way. It can also start one-way and draw the other person in. Importantly, there are ways to avoid this and manage the frustration and/or trauma that comes with toxic communication. To help you manage communication after separation, we explore below what to do to protect and help yourself, and if you have children, help and protect them as well. This may, hopefully, lead to better outcomes when resolving the family law issues arising from your separation.
1. Tap Into Your Support Network
Whenever I first meet with a client, one of the first questions I ask them is:
‘Who do you have in your network of support?’
I encourage them to think of someone who can be honest and truthful with them. Someone who they will be able to rely on and call on for an objective opinion. For many of our clients, a lot of the time that will be us as their family lawyers, to give them advice and guidance, but I have seen many instances where a client has tapped into an objective friend or relative who can help give them perspective about how to respond to the communications they are receiving. This must, however, be given careful thought as some people in your network of support may not be as helpful as you think and may in fact, only add to the conflict.
Having a ‘voice of reason’ to reach out to is ideal when an inflammatory email or text message comes in. When they seek counsel on the communication that has been received, instead of reacting emotionally, that person can assist in providing perspective and may even suggest they take a step back or hold off on responding to any challenging communications for a day or two, or until they get legal advice. With some issues, we of course appreciate that they will need the reassurance that only a family lawyer can give. However, I see that it is invaluable to have that person in mind, to reach out to and check in with when we may not be available.
2. Methods For Communication After Separation
If you and your former spouse or partner are not communicating well, or there is a tendency for conversations to escalate, we recommend avoiding telephone or face-to-face contact if you can. When you are having challenges in your communications, face-to face-discussions and telephone calls can easily spiral and such forms of communication are unpredictable and often off-the-record. Then, often, the damage is almost always done. If you find yourself in situations where things can become heated or challenging, you may be unable to recover from anything you might say (that may harm your case) and there are often additional costs involved as lawyers need to be involved to help in recovering from these issues.
If you do not have any parenting issues, you do not necessarily need to speak on the phone or meet to negotiate the terms of your property settlement. However, if you are communicating amicably and communication subsequently becomes toxic, writing letters, emails or sending text messages will be a better option. It is also advisable to have had the benefit of some legal advice before you start negotiating or making commitments in your direct discussions as initial expectations which may be set as a result are difficult to shift.
For parenting matters, it is obviously more complicated because you will need to communicate more urgently or frequently about matters relating to your children. Whilst direct contact is best and shows a commitment to positive co-parenting, where appropriate, as you co-parent your children, if you are facing toxic communication, it is best to primarily communicate by email and or text message - even if only for a short period of time to minimise potential risks to yourself and your children. Apps like Our Family Wizard can also assist in helping co-parents communicate more effectively. The use of such apps is recommended frequently by professionals working in the co-parenting space.
While you are communicating in this way, it is important to always consider what you write between yourselves and on social media. Anything in emails, text messages, social media communications or in posts are often used against the other parent in court proceedings. So, it is almost always better to just switch off your phone or email rather than writing something that may later be used against you, or even to paint you in a bad light.
The Court is one of impression and if your matter ever ends up in Court, whatever is written may not necessarily be a matter of fact, but simply of impression. This can have a significant impact on the outcome of your family law matters.
3. Focus On What You Can Control
Another valuable step is to recognise – and this is hard to do – that you cannot control every part of the situation unfolding before you. Instead, focus on what you can control.
You may find yourself thinking, “Why did they say that?” or “What is their reasoning for doing that?”
In most cases, it probably doesn’t matter. It might end up being a rabbit hole that you find yourself in, chasing information that may not ultimately make any difference in your matter, other than to cause you significant stress and anxiety.
You cannot control what your ex does or says. Instead, do everything you can to put that time and energy into any immediate needs or issues that need to be addressed in relation to your parenting matters and financial needs and goals. Goal orientation, in my view, helps focus your behaviour and communication to improve the outcome.
4. Avoid The Blame Game
If your relationship breakdown was due to an affair, or financial issues, for instance, those facts are important and you can and should acknowledge what has happened. Experiences like these are going to have an emotional impact. This background is helpful for your family lawyer to understand when making recommendations about how you may approach a situation and the possible triggers and or timing of the communication.
As hard as it may be however, it is essential not to let the contributing factors of the relationship breakdown influence the communication you have post-separation. Wherever you can, avoid playing the blame game. It only incites conflict.
The best way forward is to think about what needs to be addressed. Identify what the urgent issues are and for your own benefit, focus any communication you have on practical issues rather than emotional issues. It helps to ease the development of toxic communication. If you are on the receiving end of toxic communications, reduce communications as much as possible and limit them to urgent messages.
Whatever the reason for your relationship breakdown, these types of issues are best addressed by working with a psychologist or counsellor. Bringing up blame is very unlikely to help anyone move out of the situation you are currently experiencing.
5. Seek Professional Support
If you are on the receiving end of toxic communication or find yourself engaging in unhelpful or toxic dialogue, consider seeing a psychologist. There is nothing wrong with seeking help with any issue that you are facing, including managing communication with your ex.
Sometimes clients will ask us what they should say in response to a message or email, or start talking to me about how they are feeling, and, while that is very common and I wish to show respect for the feelings they are struggling with, I tell them that as much as I would like to help them with that issue, I am not the best placed person to talk through the emotional side of their separation and how that impacts on their wellbeing.
In my view, the best way I can serve my clients is to guide them through the legal issues, provide advice on how to approach and respond to negotiations and give perspective about how the Court will respond to specific elements of their matter. The second way I can best serve my clients is to provide them with a tailored referral to a psychologist, counsellor or other professionals who can best support the specific issues they are facing.
Some clients will say to me, ‘I don't need to see a psychologist’, ‘I have done nothing wrong’, or ‘I don't have any emotions that need to be processed.’ In those situations I often recommend that they attend an initial consultation to get a sense of whether they will benefit from that assistance, or not. In my view, the key driver in toxic communication is the emotional element of the separation, so if not for themselves, they can benefit from the insights that the psychologist or counsellor can offer as to why their former spouse or partner is communicating in the way they are.
A psychologist or counsellor can prove very helpful during what can be a highly challenging time in your life. They can provide a sense of perspective that only people with that expertise can bring. By taking this step you will be truly approaching this toxic communication issue from multiple angles.
Toxic Communication Where You Have Children
Generally speaking, parents should not be speaking in front of children about any adult issues so if you have concerns about children experiencing or witnessing toxic communication, requests can be made through your lawyer to request for this behaviour to cease.
If the toxic communication appears in circumstances of co-parenting, it is not uncommon for us to recommend a parenting program that is tailored towards positive co-parenting and improving communication.
I often suggest that both parents participate in parenting programs, even if you are not a participant in any toxic communication. Parenting programs assist in many ways including when you cannot understand why your former spouse or partner is behaving in a particular way. These programs can help improve communication and ultimately the way you both co-parent, and it is your children that benefit. Even if the other parent does not choose to participate, it is still highly recommended where there is toxic communication.
Just as with yourself, if your children are experiencing, or are witnesses to toxic communication, referrals to child psychologists and social workers can prove highly beneficial as you work through this process. They will provide practical steps to help protect the mental health of you and your children. You should however, where possible and/or practicable, consult with the other parent about your child/ren attending upon a child psychologist or social worker.
If you are fearful for your immediate safety or the safety of your children as a result of toxic communication, such as where threats are made, you should phone 000 immediately. Too often people believe that because the threats are from their former spouse or partner, and they are going through the family law process, that the police do not need to be involved. You always have the option to phone 000. In my experience, if the circumstances warrant a situation where the police do need to be called out, which happens more often than most people might imagine, their involvement may assist to diffuse a situation or communications which would otherwise get out of hand, without such intervention.
What To Do About Ongoing Toxic Communication
There are times when communication during separation becomes too hard or when toxic communication persists. It may not be possible to repair communications and in these instances you should remove yourself from the conflict as much as possible. If it is not improving and it is preventing a resolution for issues that are important for you to move on, it is time to seek a different level of support to, at a minimum, get you through the negotiation processes involved in any property or parenting matters you have in progress.
Creating a barrier between you, by having your family lawyer manage communications on your behalf, can be very helpful in managing your own mental health and general wellbeing. In fact, this can be helpful for both parties. It gives you the time and space that you each need and removes the stress that often comes with the anticipation of receiving phone calls or emails that could appear at any time of the day or night.
In short, if you find that your efforts to effectively communicate with your ex is not working, stop trying to fix it. Remove yourself from the conflict entirely, get on the front foot and seek the support of a specialist family lawyer as soon as possible. In our work, we find that when a person decides to engage the support of a family lawyer as the barrier, they are able to think more clearly and more broadly about a resolution and their future.
You can direct your former spouse or partner to forward all communications to your lawyer. Then, your family lawyer can control the flow of information and communication to you. They will notify you of any urgent issues and generally keep in contact with you to keep your matters moving forward, while allowing you to breathe more easily and make any decisions with a clearer mind.
Related Articles: Processes to get to an agreement after separation: property and finances
Phillips Family Law is an award-winning Family Law practice serving clients across Australia and abroad. Regardless of where you are in your decision-making process, we can make you aware of your options. To discuss your situation confidentially, phone (07) 3007 9898 or secure a time by filling in our confidential form here.
Disclaimer: The content in this article provides general information however it does not substitute legal advice or opinion. Information is best used in conjunction with legal advice from an experienced member of our team.