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Crucial Conversations QA

Finding Respect for Your Ex

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a recently divorced Dad. I have been trying to restore a civil and respectful relationship with my ex-wife, especially for our four wonderful children. However, she seems to respond to every effort with bitterness, sometimes in front of our young children. We both seem to be struggling to establish safety and mutual respect. How can I begin to rebuild safety and mutual respect with my ex-wife, when it is so hard to find and establish?

Divorced and Distressed Dad

Dear Dad,

When I read your question, I did what I sometimes do when I get a question (like yours) that requires some specialized knowledge. I panicked.

Then I called my dear friends Elaine and Michael Shimberg, co-authors of The Complete Single Father—a terrific book that I highly recommend. Here’s their advice:

“It’s normal in the first months and years after a divorce for former spouses to react fearfully to each other as they try to establish a new sense of safety and mutual respect in the new arrangement. One of the best ways to begin building trust is to do all you can to gain agreement to one ground rule: ‘We will not disagree or show disrespect to the other in front of our children. We will protect them. Just as I am their father, you are their mother. We will respect those positions.’

“It seems his ex is still very angry. Whatever the situation was that caused his divorce, if he wants to have a better relationship he needs to apologize that things didn’t work (whether it was his fault or not), tell her their kids deserve a mother and father who can get along amicably, and that every time either criticizes the other in front of the kids, the kids take it as a criticism against half of them—whether consciously or unconsciously.

“Most divorcees don’t realize the direct effect criticizing their ex-spouse has on their kids. If he makes an agreement to her that he will not talk poorly about her in front of the kids (a concern that is probably fueling her fear) and communicate either by e-mail or in person about anything going on in their lives, it may help rebuild that trust and respect. However, if it doesn’t happen right off the bat, he needs to keep trying as it may take time to get her on board.”

I think this advice is right on target. For many, a divorce feels like a loud and clear message that, “I don’t respect you.” So it shouldn’t be a surprise that both parties can feel self-protective and defensive in the raw months after the traumatic separation—especially if they’re concerned their former partner is saying things to damage their children’s respect for them.

The physics of building—or rebuilding—trust is simple: Trust grows as we generate data that demonstrates trustworthiness. Trust will never exceed the cumulative data to date.

I love Elaine and Michael’s suggestion that you focus on one simple ground rule in your crucial conversation: We will never, never, never do anything that would undermine a child’s respect or loyalty to a parent. If you make that commitment unilaterally, then do your best to intentionally generate data that shows you are acting consistently with the agreement. Doing so will begin to help your ex-wife feel she does not need to go on a preemptive strike against you with the children.

For example, you may want to praise your wife in front of your children for any accommodating action she takes. If your children mention fun things they have done with your ex-wife, go out of your way to encourage them to show appreciation to her. These private actions will likely bubble up publicly at some point in a natural way and will help her know you are keeping your promise. Trust will grow. And she may feel safer laying down her sword and shield.

In addition, you need a remediation ground rule. Given the emotional sensitivity of these months and the increased physical and psychological distance between you and her, it is inevitable that some ambiguous event will occur that she will interpret as you criticizing her in front of the kids. The kids will say something or she’ll hear something from a mutual friend and conclude you’ve violated the agreement—even if you haven’t. Create an easy way to clear the air with her when this occurs or it will inevitably fester and obliterate the fragile trust you’re working so hard to establish.

I salute you for putting your children first and for being willing to take a first step in creating a livable and respectful situation for all.

Best wishes,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

11 thoughts on “Finding Respect for Your Ex”

  1. A friend sent me your article “Finding Respect for Your Ex”. I have been separated for 7 years and divorced for 5. My ex and I were able to be respectful towards each other until about a year ago when he met someone else. My daughter – 16 at the time – lived with him and I went to see her before a football as I always did. My ex’s new girlfriend was there and my ex wouldn’t look at me or respond to anything I said from that point forward. He knew this new person for 6 weeks before he proposed. My daughter had met her twice. My daughter decided to live with me. My husband was very ugly to my daughter and when I would try to talk to him all he would do is berate me and bully me. My daughter disrespects him because of what he has done. My trying to help him gain her respect is futile because of his attitude in thinking he has done nothing wrong. I was told not to contact him again. I feel very bad for my daughter because all medical bills etc have to go through her to him and there is always a battle and stress. I can’t talk to him for the bulling and berating and his new wife, by the way she is a Child Protective Services Social Worker, doesn’t see things any differently than he does so she is of no help. If you have advice for me I would greatly appreciate it!

  2. What a painful situation, Stacy. I’m sorry you and your daughter are having to deal with that.
    I think the advice I offer in the article is the most realistic I can give. It may well be that he is so concerned about your judgments for his actions that he is defensively cutting himself off as a self-protective measure. Your best hope is to be honorable and gracious yourself for long enough (if you can get yourself to do that even with all the legitimate hurt you feel) that you can create a modicum of safety within which to have the ground rules discussion with him. The goal is to create a safe enough space that you can just discuss your clear mutual purpose in creating a nurturing environment for your daughter.
    I hope you can. Best wishes, Stacy!

    BTW – you may find value in one of my previous columns on http://www.crucialskills.com/2011/09/getting-over-the-hurt/

  3. Mr. Grenny, I found such “wisdom and common sense” in your article, Finding Respect for Your Ex. I am not (yet) separated or divorced from my husband of 15 years, but found if can “plant, nourish and harvest” some of the seeds” from your article, I may never be. Turbulent times are at hand for us and many options are being considered. Emotions are high and on edge. Respect seems to have flown out the window and fear of what may lie ahead has created a chaotic situation. I heard someone say that “HURT PEOPLE, hurt people” and we’re both hurting. HURT is such a strong and FULL emotion it turns wisdom into foolishness, common sense into two cents and clouds judgment. It’s extremely hard for me to get over the hurtful things, because I believe people say what they mean when they are hurt. How do I overcome this strong emotion so I can use this logic to begin healing our relationship? Thank You Sharon

  4. I just wanted to comment on the “Respecting your Ex” article. My ex-husband and I had a troubles marriage for 19 years, and 4 children by the time it was over. When we decided to divorce, we first set ground rules that we loved our children and put them first – above the hurt we both felt. We have been apart for 9 years now, and have managed to keep a healthy relationship with each other and our children, because we decided to be adults and remember that the children were most important. I have seen so many cases where the “adults” were so wrapped up in their own hurt that they couldn’t see what was most important, or refused to let stuff go. Even if the other party doesn’t always keep the agreement to be civil about you to your children, you always have to be – take the high road, and it will pay off in the long run! The ex may never want to let go of the hurt, but if you do, and if you behave with respect, it will help you and your children.

  5. A friend of mine wrote an amazing book: Co-Parenting Works!: Helping Your Children Thrive after Divorce —
    Tammy G Daughtry. The first time I heard her speak on this approach to co-parenting I was shocked. As a child my parents’ divorce was very bitter. The ideas she was suggesting felt crazy. Have pictures on the fridge that (separately) show both parents and even stepparents?? After I moved past that initial emotional surge, I realized I was feeling sad. I did feel torn apart by my parents’ hatred when I was younger. I am still walking a tightrope between them 30 years later. All of this to say: It’s a great book [note, there are Christian themes woven in.]

  6. @Cheryl Thank you for sharing! I’m sure “Divorced and Distressed Dad” will love to hear your story and know that it’s possible to rebuild safety and mutual purpose with his ex.

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