Written by: Antonella Sanderson (Principal Solicitor)
It’s normal to experience changes in behaviour during emotive and stressful times. All of a sudden your ex might be behaving in ways you’ve never encountered – it might seem like they come from a different planet! But you can get through it – the important part is learning how to manage that change – you know, using this change for good – not evil. It does take some co-operation by you both, but it might take you making the start before your ex can move forward from their disrespectful behaviour into a more healthy space.
Every time children change over between their parents, it’s rubbing into their face that their parents are separated. How you manage these changeovers helps the children either cope with the separation, or deteriorate into the abyss of stress surrounding their parents. This is important … these are times the children will remember, these are behaviours that have an affect on them. Ultimately, you’re setting a precedent for them about how to deal with conflict.
I remember vividly during my own separation feeling like my ex was completely disrespectful. I found it so hurtful when we met for changeover and he threw our daughter’s backpack at my feet, or totally ignored me as if I didn’t exist. I didn’t understand why he was acting like this. Our daughter, who was only 2 at the time, noticed this change in her dad’s behaviour and the changeover time started upsetting her too. It was such a difficult time, I didn’t know how we’d ever come out of it.
Now I appreciate that not all situations are the same – where there’s serious risk issues or a history of domestic violence we’re talking about an entirely different kettle of fish – but for majority of parents experiencing separation there’s a situational distress and heightened emotional response, they’re the ones I’m talking to in this post.
Here are some tips on how you can start working together to build respect back into your dealings with each other, for the sake of your children.
Responsibility takes strength and self-awareness. During separation, it’s easy to blame the other person for everything that has gone wrong.
It’s much harder to navel-gaze and identify what contribution you made to this situation too.
No matter what your situation, there are always choices that you have made which contribute to the final outcome – maybe it’s a significant choice to take some action, maybe it was a more subtle “easy” choice not to take action sooner.
It takes two to tango – and it’s about taking responsibility for your part in this dance. Taking responsibility for your part doesn’t diminish the other person’s role in what went wrong – it means you’re ready to forgive yourself and learn a lesson from what happened.
Next time, you’ll be ready to identify the same pattern and take a different course of action – and enjoy a different result. Once you take responsibility for your part in what has come undone, you start building your own self-respect.
Emotions are plentiful at separation and it’s completely normal to feel upset, anger, grief – this roller-coaster of feelings is expected.
The brain works in mysterious ways when we fall into emotional responsiveness, it clouds our ability to see things from a logical perspective and make reasoned decisions.
So before you “shoot from the hip” with an emotive response (which we see happen a great deal with text messages), pause to take a breath and think about whether this response is the best approach – if not, then let yourself walk away and respond at a later time. It’s amazing what clarity you can feel by giving yourself time to just breathe. This is how you can develop respectful communications with your ex.
Separation is a tough time – we can all do with a little extra support during this time. This applies to your ex as well! Sometimes it’s hard to be sympathetic to them, especially if you hold them responsible for what went wrong in your relationship (in which case you really need to go back and read the Responsibility section again!)
You will find yourself almost in a Ghandi moment, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” How much respect can you build if you offered support to your ex?
For example, if your ex needs help picking up the children because they’re running late – can you offer support? Even if that support isn’t coming back your way right now, remember these things take time. Mutual respect like this is built in baby steps.
Physical Separation / Space
Physical separation from your ex-partner can sometimes be difficult. However, the more physical space you can leave between you, the better chance of rebuilding a respectful relationship.
When meeting face to face, be mindful that sometimes a certain touch or hovering too close may send the wrong message – in so many ways. This can be confusing, and lead to mixed messages. At worst, it can be perceived as someone getting “in your face”, and “in your space”. Not great for trying to build a working relationship as you navigate through this new journey. While you’re both learning to fly solo, keep some space between you.
Ethical behaviour can sometimes fly out the window in a separation. However, keeping secrets, telling fibs and hiding assets is a sure-fire way to destroy the respectful relationship between you in future.
For example, a secret bank account can be uncovered with not too much difficulty – but imagine the hurt, the mistrust and the disrespect your ex will feel when they discover this during the negotiations for property settlement.
This type of discovery can topple the trust, abandon the settlement deal and possibly have your ex walking away from the negotiation table altogether.
Even if you manage getting away with the secret, you run a risk after the settlement is all over – if that information comes out somewhere, somehow, the whole deal could be overturned.
Being ethical applies to parenting situations too – if your child falls over and hurts themselves, and you tell them “Don’t tell your mum, she’ll go bananas”, or “Don’t tell dad, he’ll get angry”. To start with, the child is put in a horrible position of having to keep secrets from the one of the two most important people in their lives – at the instruction of the other! But when the injury is then discovered (bruising can’t be hidden, broken bones need mending, or children just slip up with the truth) there’s a whole lot of trust that that is toppled – the failure to be upfront about the injury, and then add on top of that the instruction to the child to lie.
Is it really worth the risk of seriously harming the chance of reaching a respectful relationship moving forward?
Cooperation is key to a respectful relationship. If you want to show your kids that you have a respectful, strong co-parenting relationship with your ex, then you need to be flexible and be able to liaise with them to make joint decisions.
Try not let pride or stubbornness get in the way of cooperation! If your ex is asking for help, take a moment to consider the benefits of cooperating, for example showing your kids that break ups do not have to be aggressive or mean.
The classic opportunity to build co-operation is when one parent makes a request for extra time on the occasion of a special event – a birthday party or a family gathering. There’s always going to be times like these, on both sides, where parents need to be flexible. You could negotiate an agreement for the extra time your ex requests, and at the same time agree for a future plan for an event you know might be coming up. You should document these out of the ordinary requests, because it’s easy to forget about these times that don’t happen in the usual schedule.
Remember, cooperation is a two-way street and you need to give a little to your ex, in order to get a lot in the long run.
Trusting others can be a challenge after separation, especially if that person is your ex.
But trust is essential after separation for many reasons, for example you have to trust your ex with your kids, to stick to agreements and to turn up on time.
At the moment, it may seem that any and all trust of your ex is long gone, but in most cases trust can be rebuilt.
Taking baby steps and doing the little things are important foundations for this type of trust – turn up on time, bring the children’s belongings back if they’ve left them at your place, if you promised you’d help finish a school project over the weekend with the kids then make sure that’s completed. When you demonstrate you can be trusted, your ex will feel much more confident. And vice versa too – when your ex starts showing you their commitment to showing up and doing the right thing, this will allow you to let your guard down and trust them too.
It won’t be easy at first to trust your ex – in fact I’m sure it will be challenging! But with baby steps and a little respect – you’ll get there.