Barbara Rothberg, DSW, LCSW

Therapy, Coaching, Mediation and Parent Coordination


Language Matters

W ords are important. The language you use when speaking to your ex can make or break a conversation.

The major way people communicate is through words. Language matters. There is a language of love and a language of anger. Specific words can make or break a conversation. There are angry and agressive words and sweet and compassionate ones. There are neutral words that seek informations and ask questions. People react to the words that they hear. And sometimes, even benign words can be triggers for a person based on their history, and couples know each others' triggers.

Couples who are spliting up are angry with each other. That's a given. It's a very difficult time in life. But the words people use can inflame or tame a conversation. For example, I was talking with two parents who are frequently hostile with one another. She asked him if he'd pick up their children in the afternoon. He responded with fury. "you're never clear, you're awful to deal with", and then added a few curses and veiled threats. Not surpriseingly, she responded with equal fury, that he is so difficult to deal with and began a tirade of his bad behavior, which ended with them hanging up on one another and the question of whether he'd pick up the kids was never answered. She then complained to me that he is not cooperative and doesn't want to help her out with transitioning the children.

Knowing that the communication between them is difficult, and that their relationship is extremely fragile, it would be important to be crystal clear. I coached her to ask her question very specifically. "Will you be able to pick the kids up this afternoon from my house about 4pm ?" She does know that he likes precise information, and asking this way would alleviate any ambiguity. He could then respond with a yes or no, or possibily let her know at what time he would be able to get the kids. Both people are encouraged to talk only about facts and not feelings. If they stay on topic, ask questions that need to be asked, and answer succinctly, communication will be better and they will avoid arguments.

Setting rules about language can be helpful. Cursing one another is obviously unacceptable, as is calling each other names or yelling at each other. Not being provacative is also extremely helpful. For example, ex couples know each other well, and they know each other's hot spots. When a man tells his ex wife that she is behaving exactly like her mother (when he knows that will infuriate her) he gets that result. She becomes infuriated! And conversely, when an ex wife tells her ex husband that he is lazy just like his father (something he is very sensitive about) he will become enraged. And when he does, she says, "you're always angry!" The result of this kind of interaction is that whatever the two were discussing falls apart and they are only arguing about how they are talking to one another. This issues never never get solved. 

Learning to speak to your ex in a kind and compassionate way takes work. It means that self control is necessary and sometimes negative feelings need to be put aside. Sometimes it's helpful to get some coaching from a parent coordinator. If you really want to be a good co-parent and feel like your children's interests are primary, you can do it!