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
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.