8 Simple Keys to Resolving Conflicts With Your Ex: No Cooperation Required

This is a guest article here on the Attachment Parenting Blog…
You can work a little magic and learn to resolve almost any conflict with your co-parent even any cooperation. That’s difficult to believe, I know, but when you change your own behavior and response to arguments, others’ behavior in response changes automatically. It’s like magic but it’s simple yet not easy. Like poker, though, it’s a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.
You can get started with 8 simple keys:

  1. Be hard on the problem, but easy on the people. “Winter break is always such a hectic time since the kids aren’t in school. How do you want to rearrange the parenting plan to adjust for that?” gets a better response than “You never help with childcare over winter break so I’m taking the kids to my parents’ and that’s that.” People will help you solve a problem if they don’t feel attacked.

  1. Listening isn’t the same as obeying. The first step is to listen to your co-parent’s requests and concerns. You don’t have to agree or even pretend to agree. Ask questions to make sure you understand. No one will change their mind without feeling heard, but when they feel heard, they may actually consider your opinion or perspective. “Let me make sure I understand what you’re asking: You want to take the kids the entire winter break so we don’t have to worry about childcare, and your parents have offered to let the kids stay with them. Is that right?” and then “I’d like to take a couple of days to think about that before I say yes or no. Would that be okay?” You haven’t agreed to let the kids go. You’ve simply agreed to think about it. This lets your co-parent that you’re considering (and not just dismissing) what they want and you’re treating it seriously.
  2. Use “I” statements. “I would feel more comfortable if you told me yourself when Colin gets another ear infection rather than relying on him to tell me,” goes over a lot better than “You always put our child in the middle and the fact he gets ear infections is your fault since your house is so disgusting.” “I” statements make requests much easier to honor.
  3. Give your co-parent the benefit of the doubt. You don’t need to take everything personally, because it probably isn’t about you anyway. When your co-parent is late for a pick up or drop off, are they deliberately trying to inconvenience you, or did something else go wrong, making them late? Chronic offenders are one thing, of course. Sometimes, however, it’s as simple as having to catch an escaped hamster or a line at the post office.
  4. Have the inevitable awkward conversations right away, before things get worse and before your co-parent hears it from another source. Even small resentments can build up over time–so you’re better off clearing the air when things come up instead of waiting and keeping score or until the damage is done. “I know you’d really miss the kids if I took them to visit my parents this winter break, but I am totally out of ideas for childcare and I am under the gun at work. How do you think we should handle this?” is a very different conversation than “We see your family all the time at the holidays so this year the kids are spending the break with my parents.”
  5. Life is a dialogue. The problem is that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s “I don’t care.” And we care about our co-parent, if nothing else than that we’re invested in maintaining a halfway decent relationship for the sake of the children. Because you certainly care about that, even if you’re over the separation and breakup. We only get into conflict with people we care about or over issues we care about. If we didn’t care about the person or issue, we wouldn’t care about the fight. As a result, conflict with co-parents is inevitable. It’s how you deal with and resolve the conflict that matters. Keep the conversation going.
  6. Choose your battles. Would you rather be happy, or right? Would you rather fight and prove your point, or keep the peace? For any given issue, ask yourself: Is it really that important? If it is, set aside time to have a serious discussion about the issue, in private, and remember to be hard on the issue and not on the people. If it’s not that important, let it go. Make it easy to be nice to you. Think of Suzy Welch’s 10-10-10 rule from her book 10-10-10: A Fast and Powerful Way to Get Unstuck in Love, At Work and With Your Family. How will your actions feel in 10 minutes? 10 months? 10 years? You may feel some smugness at your snappy retort or revenge in 10 minutes, but 10 months later you may not feel so confident that you acted maturely and responsibly. 10 years later you may be downright ashamed.
  7. Be easy to talk to. If you go berserk each time your co-parent tells you about a problem or issue, eventually they’ll stop coming to you and telling you things you really want to know. Make it safe to talk to you, so people can be honest with you, even when it’s embarrassing or intimidating. Don’t make them so worried about your reaction that they don’t share important information with you. “Thanks for letting me know that Jennifer’s teacher is concerned about her behavior in class before I heard it at back to school night. How do you think we should address it?” Or “Thank you for being honest about your DUI. I’m glad I heard it from you and not the police blotter in the paper. Let’s figure out how we’re going to work the parenting plan around your new AA meetings.”

I know, these tips sound conveniently simplistic. Everyone knows it’s harder than it sounds to put this sort of thing into practice. It’s so easy to get sucked into an argument, especially when it is a familiar pattern in a relationship. If things have been conflicted between you and your co-parent for awhile, it’s going to take time to change the dynamic and practice these tips.
But they really work.
Once you start to implement them, however, you’ll see how well they work. Remember, practice makes perfect. The change these 8 simple keys will make in your life is remarkable. Petty fights will become a thing of the past, and when you really need to talk about something important you’ll be speak honestly and from the heart. When you speak from the heart, people respond in a more respectful and constructive way.

Diana Mercer is the founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services. She is the co-author of Making Divorce Works: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Perigee 2010) and Your Divorce Advisor (Fireside 2001).

4 comments on “8 Simple Keys to Resolving Conflicts With Your Ex: No Cooperation Required

  1. Hi Dave,
    I have been separated from my husband for a few years now, our son is 6. My ex and I are still friends and have moved to different countries together multiple times while separated. We are now living in India together and his new partner is here also. People often ask, ‘How do you do this? It’s so far from the norm.’ …Yes, my ex drives me nuts, at times I’m enraged, and all those other intense feelings, but what it comes down to for me (As well as the 8 things that you mention) is bottom line: My son is more important to me than my own ‘stuff,’ ‘patterns’ and emotional drama. Each time I feel like reacting, every time I want to scream or get upset, I know that this one moment of self indulgence is not worth the deep impact on my little one. I hold in my heart that my love for my son is greater than my feelings and emotions in the moment. That one thought has managed to not only keep the peace for us, but to allow us to live a happy life co-operating together. I understand it isn’t easy, but I do know from experience that it is possible. I truly believe that marriages can end, but families don’t have to…Thanks for sharing the 8!
    (And to be clear…I don’t meditate at or attend NVC groups =) ha!)

  2. These are great for resolving any type of conflict. I don’t have an ex but family members can certainly resemble the hostility sometimes felt towards an ex.
    I have been really enjoying reading your blog.

  3. Those are some really nice tips, resolving conflicts has always been a painful task, it is important to stay calm and think about the source of conflict carefully before starting to blaming each other.

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