How to Detox Co-Parenting Conversations
Co-parenting is hard, there is no doubt about that, but it doesn’t have to be toxic! It is impossible to completely eliminate disagreements between two people trying to work together in any situation, but disagreement should not always lead to disaster. The key to co-parenting is learning to have healthy, respectful and productive conflict discussions. Today we are going to talk about how you and your co-parent can learn to detoxify conflict and have healthy conversations by removing the four most destructive conversation patterns.
Not all disagreements are equal
There are certain types of negativity that are so toxic that they bring chaos and frustration to all parties involved. This post is not about how to avoid fighting & disagreement; it is about learning how to fight in a healthy way! John Gottman is a family and marriage therapy expert and one of the leading researchers in studying what makes communication patterns healthy or unhealthy in relationships. Although his focus has been on committed relationships, his findings from over 40 years of research have been successfully applied to parenting, co-parenting, leadership and management. John Gottman discovered that there are four patterns of communication that destroy healthy, and productive conflict discussions. He called these the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.” It is nearly impossible to completely eliminate the Four Horsemen, but by learning to identify these toxic patterns of communication you’ll be better able to avoid unhealthy arguments and implement healthy and productive conversation alternatives.
One of the hardest things to remember in the midst of a co-parenting disagreement is that ultimately the disagreement is not about you and it is not about who is right or wrong. It is about your child (or children). When you don’t have healthy communication with your co-parent, your child is the one who is hurt the most. Learning how to healthily approach disagreements and disputes with your co-parent directly benefits your child! Not only do they learn that they are loved, but they will also learn that adults can have disagreements and still be civil and respectful. When disagreements between co-parents get out of hand, your child loses every time! Learning to be a better co-parent is about helping your child (or children) and providing them with a safe and nurturing environment. Now let’s get into the nuts and bolts of healthy and unhealthy conflict discussions.
What are the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are patterns that lead to unproductive conflict management, they are Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Learning to identify each Horsemen means you’ll be able to avoid them and replace them with healthy antidotes! John Gottman has produced some the best resources on conflict management. We have adapted one of his guides to be relevant to you as a co-parent! It is important to be on the same page as each other, so after reading this guide, consider sharing it with your co-parent to establish the same ground rules for conversations.
Horseman No. 1: CRITICISM
Criticism involves bringing up an issue in a way that focuses on your co-parent’s character or personality flaws rather than on what you need them to do differently. Criticism implies there is something wrong with your co-parent, that he or she is defective or broken. The problem with this approach is that if you treat them like they are defective or broken, there is no room for growth as co-parents. Criticism may include blame, name-calling and a general character assassination. Criticizing your co-parent is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. Remember, a criticism is an attack.
Here is an example to help you distinguish between the two:
Criticism: “You never think about how your behavior is affecting other people. You’re just selfish!”
Complaint: “I was frustrated when you were running late for our drop off and didn’t call me. We had agreed that we would communicate if one of us got held up.”
Antidote to Criticism: Use a Soft Start-up and Ask for Specific Behavior Change
The antidote to criticism is to use a soft start-up to ask your co-parent to change their behavior in some specific way.
Steps for a Gentle Start Up
- I Feel…
Begin statements with “I” instead of “You” to avoid blame. State how you feel.
Example: “I feel frustrated . . .”
- About What…
Describe the situation and not your co-parent.
Example: “I feel frustrated that you put our son into a sports league that plays on my weekdays without asking me about it.”
- I Need…
Let your co-parent know what you want (versus what you don’t want.) If you could wave a magic wand and get what you need, what would things be like? Instead of hoping your co-parent will guess what you need, or read your mind, tell him or her specifically what you would like.
Example: “I feel frustrated that you put our son into a sports league that plays on my weekdays without asking me about it. I would appreciate it if you would please communicate with me about activities that will affect my time before you commit to them.”
- Be Civil
Make requests civilly, adding phrases such as “I would appreciate it if…”
- Give appreciations for Parenting.
Notice what your co-parent is doing right and tell him or her. If your co-parent has done what you wanted in the past, state that you appreciated it and ask if he or she would be willing to do it again.
Examples of Criticism:
“You’re such an idiot.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You are so selfish!”
Antidote: “I was proud of us as co-parents at our child’s baseball game last weekend and I would really appreciate it if you would please communicate with me in advance about the commitments you are making so that we can continue to both show our child our support.”
Horseman No. 2: DEFENSIVENESS
Defensiveness is an attempt to protect yourself, to defend your innocence, and to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized. Research shows that defensiveness rarely has the desired effect of improving the situation. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your co-parent. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so destructive. There are two ways to be defensive: to counterattack or to whine (playing the innocent victim). Some people can do both at the same time.
Antidote to Defensiveness: Take Responsibility
The antidote to defensiveness is to take some responsibility for even a small part of the problem. By doing this, you can quickly reduce tension and prevent conflict from escalating. This helps your co-parent believe they are heard and understood.
Examples of Defensiveness: Your co-parent complains that you are often late to pick-up’s.
Criticism: “I am really tired of you losing track of time and being late to our pick-ups. You’re always late and I have other things I need to do!”
Defensive Counter-attack: “Can’t you get over it?! You always find something to be mad about. I’m never that late. Besides, you were the one who was late last time.”
Defensive Innocent Victim: “I wasn’t late on purpose. I had a meeting that ran over. You’re always picking out every mistake I make. No matter when I get there, it’s never early enough. I can’t do anything right.”
Antidote: “You’re right, I’m sorry for being late to the pick-up. I’ll try harder to be more aware of the time.”
Horseman No. 3: CONTEMPT
To be contemptuous is to put your co-parent down or to speak with scorn. It happens when you feel and act superior. It’s putting oneself on a higher plane, looking down from a position of authority with an attitude of, “I’m better/smarter/neater/cleaner/ more punctual, etc. than you.”
Contempt stems from a negative habit of mind, in which you scan the environment looking for your co-parent’s mistakes, rather than what you can appreciate about him or her as a parent. Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt, and so is name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt is the most damaging of the Four Horsemen and is poisonous to a co-parenting relationship. It is virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your co-parent is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her as a parent. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict. Contempt is the single best predictor of unproductive disagreements and relationship toxicity.
Antidote to Contempt: Describe Your Feelings and Needs & Build a Culture of Parenting Appreciation
Underneath contempt is a need or want. In any type of teamwork, if these needs are not met over time it will become contemptuous. The antidote to contempt is to describe your own feelings and needs by using “I” statements. For examples, see “Steps for a Soft Start Up” in the Criticism section “I Feel….”, “About What…”, “I Need…”!
Building a culture of parenting appreciation is the all-encompassing antidote to contempt. When you feel valued and appreciated as a parent you are able to access positive feelings for your co-parent and are less likely to act contemptuous when you have a difference of opinion.
Building a Culture of Appreciation Includes:
- Expressing Appreciation: “I appreciate you taking the time to communicate about our child’s issues on the bus.”
- Expressing Thanks: “Thank you for making time to discuss how we can communicate better as co-parents.”
- Expressing Respect for Co-Parenting skills: “Even though we disagree I know that you want what is best for our child, and I respect your dedication to becoming better co-parents.”
Contempt Example: Your co-parent criticizes that you don’t compromise enough.
Contempt: “You never compromise with me about anything! I’ve made so many sacrifices for our son even so that he can spend time with your family! I moved my vacation around so that he would be able to visit with your family when they came into town! Now when I ask to change a weekend you won’t budge! All you think about is yourself!”
Antidote: “I feel frustrated about how we have tried to come to compromises in the past. I would like to take some time to talk about finding a better way to compromise. I want to be able to be more flexible, and trust that you will be willing to be flexible too.”
Horseman No. 4: STONEWALLING
Stonewalling occurs when you withdraw from the interaction while staying physically present. Essentially, this means not giving cues that you’re listening or paying attention; for instance, by avoiding eye contact and crossing your arms.
The pattern goes like this: The more you feel criticized, the more you turn away. The more you turn away (give cues to the speaker that you are not paying attention), the more your co-parent attacks. You feel your heart rate climbing and you’re afraid to say anything for fear of making things worse; however, by withdrawing and turning away from your co-parent you perpetuate a negative spiral in your communication and the issue remains unresolved.
In addition, research shows that stonewalling elevates your heart rate and releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. When this happens, it is nearly impossible to listen, think creatively and solve the problem constructively.
Antidote to Stonewalling: Self-Soothing Break, Then Re-connect
The antidote to stonewalling is to take a self-soothing break for at least 20 minutes and then re-engage with your co-parent when you feel calmer and are able to constructively express your views.
Imagine arriving to pick up your child and being met with a barrage of critical statements and demands such as, “You’re late again” and, “Why isn’t our daughter dressed appropriately for the weather, where is her jacked?!” You think to yourself, “This is never going to end. I don’t need this. If I tell her what I think, she’ll really explode. It’s not worth it. If I say anything it will just make it worse. Just keep your mouth shut.”
Self-soothe. You recognize that you can’t think clearly, are getting stressed, and you need to calm down. You tell your co-parent that you hear his frustration, but you need a break and will be available later in the day to return to the issue. After taking a break in which, you avoid negative thoughts and do something stress-reducing, like taking a walk or playing your favorite music, return to the conversation (or call) and listen to your co-parent’s concerns. This time, your co-parent is careful to bring up the topic in a soft way and you engage in a constructive discussion.
When taking a break, it is important that you communicate that you need to take a break and that you would like to return to the conversation. Try to let the break be at least 20 minutes, but not longer than 2 days. This gives your mind and body a chance to calm down. It is essential to communicate and follow through with a commitment to finish the conversation at a later time or day! If not, issues will go unresolved and will be more likely to pile on to a disagreement later on.
Remember your Co-Parent is Just your Co-parent
The Four Horseman have been consistently shown by research to destroy relationships. While it might not matter to you if you get along with your co-parent or not, it does matter to your child (or children)! Your ability or inability to have healthy disagreements with your co-parent has a direct result on your child whether you realize it or not! By learning to recognize the Four Horseman you can avoid their toxicity and embrace healthy substitutes! In order to employ the conversation techniques, we have just mentioned the first step is to ensure that your focus is on parenting. It is all too easy to become emotionally reactive and get drawn in by memories, past hurts, and frustrations, especially if you have had any type of extended history with your co-parent. If this happens you will lose focus and get pulled into the past. Remember that your conversations should not be about you or your co-parent as a people in general, they should be about you both as co-parents! Co-parenting conversations should be focused on the present issues and the future needs of your child! A helpful way to learn this approach is to reframe your perspective on how you view your co-parent. Try to look at them as just a parent, rather than an ex or someone with whom you’ve had a history. This is extremely difficult to do, but also extremely productive. Try to remind yourself a few times in your head before your conversations, “This is just my co-parent, the focus of our conversation should be on parenting.” Finally, one of the most important and difficult attitudes to embrace is that people can change. You can change, they can change, and your communication patterns can change! It may take time, and perhaps even some co-parenting therapy, but by applying these techniques and consistently remembering that your focus should be on parenting you can learn to be more balanced and have healthier and more productive interactions.
*The information in this post has been adapted from “Avoid the Four Horsemen” a handout created by The Gottman Institute*
By: John Paul Dombrowski Counseling Intern and Therapist at Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh in Canonsburg