Communicating with Those You Hate, or Who Hate You
Communication Tips (For Divorcing and Conflicted Parties)
Many of my custody cases, at least initially, involve significant conflicts between the parties. This conflict can show up as a difficulty communicating, a lack of trust, hostility because of past abuse, or even selfishness or immaturity. We have a number of techniques to try to overcome these problems. This information sheet is designed to provide you some “food for thought”. Remember, it is not tailored to your case but is provided for general information:
1. Since I want my clients to conduct themselves according to the highest standards, I insist they sign up promptly for the mandatory two hour “parenting training”, in accordance with the Court’s instructions, at their earliest opportunity. The circuit clerk will provide details on how to sign up for the class.
2. Some counselors will accept the children as patients, using available insurance, but focus on “conflict counseling” with the battling parents. With the right counselor, this is an invaluable resource.
3. The following books cover the range of parental conflict, with the first book being substantially the same information as you will learn in your “parenting class”. I urge you to read one or more of these as appropriate and to maintain a record or journal with a brief summary of every chapter you read so that I can show the Court that you are trying to reduce the conflict: Caught in the Middle, Protecting the Children of High-Conflict Divorce, by Carla B. Garrity and Mitchell A. Barris; Cooperative Parenting and Divorce “Shielding your child from Conflict” A Parent Guide to Effective Co-Parenting, by Susan Boyan, M.Ed., L.M.F.T., and Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., L.P.C; and Divorce Casualties Protecting Your Children From Parental Alienation, by Douglas Darnall, Ph.D. Ironically, since Dr. Laura Schlesinger just resigned her show for using the “N” word, I find all of her books helpful for conflicted parties.
4. Some people simply cannot communicate in person or by telephone without fighting. To those persons I suggest the following tools:
a. E-mail and Texting. Keep in mind when you write or receive e-mail that this communication can be printed out and shown to the Court. Accordingly, try not to be accusatory, profane, or threatening. Save any communications you get from the other side. Using the books and the course set out above, make your written communications concise, helpful, thoughtful, and fully consistent with your children’s best interests.
b. You can give away information to your child’s other parent about your children’s best interests without the slightest loss to you or the child. Even a controlling or abusive parent can benefit by having such information about their child. If they doubt you, give them the phone number and name of your child’s teacher, doctor, coach or Sunday School teacher.
c. Communicating by Journal. Any good bookstore sells, often at
half price, bound journals. A bound journal helps to make sure that neither
side can tear out pages which they do not want the Court to see. Still, you
should photocopy the journal pages periodically so that you have a complete
set. If you are the primary caretaking parent or even if you are not, start the
journal as if you were writing a baby book: the child’s social security number
and date of birth, make a list of the child’s health conditions, (asthma, ADD,
etc.); list of the child’s immunizations; list of any allergies, all medications,
dosages, medication schedule, etc.; the name, address, telephone number, and
e-mail address of any homeroom teacher, counselor, coach, music teacher, boy
scout leader, pediatrician, care providers, close relatives, any other relevant
persons, etc.; and use this journal to keep the child’s other parent informed of
extracurricular activities, church activities, problems at school,
accomplishments, illnesses, medical appointments, dental appointments,
counseling appointments, any other fact of which you would like to be kept
informed if the other parent were the “custodial parent”, etc.
d. Of course, you can insert information that might have actual or implied criticism of the other parent. For example, you can tell the other parent if the child is having nightmares because of something you believe happened at that parent’s house, but keep in mind the more tactful you can word such concerns, the more likely the other side will respond constructively. I realize that in suggesting a technique such as this I am assuming the other parent will show some level of reasonable behavior. This is not always true, but even when it is not true, it is best for you to do everything in your power to demonstrate how reasonable you are.
e.Record your telephone conversations?!? Throughout my career, parties have repeatedly attempted to record the other party sometimes over the telephone and sometimes in person. Strangely, they try to do so secretively. But, when you want to use the recording in Court, the main thing the Court learns is what a “sneak” you are. No matter how bad the behavior of the other side, the Court will assume that you have “baited” the other side into the bad behavior. I learned from a family court judge a simple idea. Feel free to record such conversations, but always announce “on the record” that you are making the recording and that you are doing so in order that the parties will treat each other politely. Then, when you get the stream of obscenities and abuse, you can safely use that recording. More often, the other party will realize that their statements can be used against them and they will “pretend” to be polite. It is uncanny how parties who “pretend” to be polite through a period of weeks or months actually become polite. “Practice makes perfect”. You can record those call at a cost of less than $50. With the increase in cell phones, the technical problems are increasing, but they can be solved where telephone communication is otherwise useless.
f. Keep in mind the “mutual respect” paragraph. Perhaps you can even give the other side a copy of the paragraph and promise to abide by it. It is:
g. Sometimes a major problem is the other party intruding on telephone calls with the child. Using the “recordings” as described above is one solution. A more “high tech” solution which I have recently begun using with our own infant granddaughter is to communicate with a “web cam”. As long as each side has broadband internet and a “web cam”, less than one hundred dollars ($100.00), you can communicate with your child “face-to-face”. You can even set up your camcorder to record your end of the conversation. The computer screen has your face and the child’s. That way, if the other parent intrudes, you will have it on video. Never forget to announce at the beginning of these recordings that you are doing so in order to keep everybody polite and honest. The webcam is a wonderful way for a distant parent to visit their child.
h. Of course, you can still communicate by “snail mail”, greeting cards, “normal” telephone conversations, etc. Failure to do so shows a disinterested parent.
h. Honk orders. Sometimes one or both parties use the transfer of the children as a time to raise extraneous issues: “You haven’t paid my child support you SOB.”, “Why were you late at the last visit?”, or “I don’t want you having that child around that ‘slut’ or ‘child abuser’.” The transfer is not the time to talk about such things since the children inevitably hear you. Where you do not feel comfortable with the direct exchange, I suggest a “honk” agreement. The receiving parent stops and parks either in the driveway or down by the public road and honks. The delivering parent stays inside the house. If the child is old enough to go by himself or herself, the parent sends the child with appropriate clothing to the other parent’s car. Where the child is small, have a responsible adult capable of avoiding conflict and contentious conversations with the other party escort the child to the car. The one parent stays with the car, and the other parent stays inside, so that they cannot even see each other to gesture. Eventually this will not be necessary, but it can be a “godsend” for people who are fighting constantly during the transfers.
i. Visitation Center: If you cannot exchange your children in a civil manner, the Court is likely to impose a requirement that you utilize the “Visitation Center”, some of which cost $25 per visit. In “high conflict” or “abuse situations”, the visitation center is highly valuable. However, every transfer takes approximately an extra one half hour, and visitations at the center can be quite awkward. Nevertheless, it is a tool that is available in the more contentious cases and a tool likely to be imposed upon you if you and your former partner cannot put aside your differences sufficiently to make the transfers work without it.
Please send me any ideas you think can help facilitate communication, and any scenarios or questions I can respond to. jbh.
This post was written by Burton Hunter