Co-Parenting with Less Drama: 3 Respectful Communication Formulas for Divorced Couples

All divorcing couples struggle in their own unique ways, but their universal characteristic is a breakdown in communication. This leads to more arguments, blocking the possibility of resolving issues in ways that both people feel respected and valued.

The good news is that there are proven communication techniques I’ve used in my therapy practice for years that can help you more peacefully resolve common co-parenting issues, promote a greater sense of collaboration and cooperation, and – perhaps most importantly – model respectful communication for your children.

First, a brief disclaimer: at first glance, a guide on how to communicate effectively, calmly, and respectfully with someone who has profoundly hurt you and may not be “playing fair” themselves could seem downright insulting. And chances are, you’re probably quite capable of communicating this way in other parts of your life. But who among us, when we feel hurt and attacked and are being hijacked by our fight-or-flight response behaves at their best? None of us.

So, please know that this guide is not meant to patronize you. Rather, it is a guide that, once you have decided to interact respectfully (yup, this is the first step!), can give you the ideal approach to communicating with your ex in a specific way to get to a specific end that serves everyone as you and your family move through this transformation. Use this as your “cheat sheet” to help you reach the ultimate goal of creating a respectful, warm, and effective co-parenting relationship. Because even when your spouse is behaving badly, you can learn to be your best self.

Be sure to scroll to the end of the post to download a free printable Communication Cheat Sheet for Divorced Couples for quick reference.

Respectful Communication Formula #1: Complaints vs. Criticism

A complaint is different from criticism. When your co-parent has messed up, of course you need to address it. But how you do that can make all the difference.

Here’s what a criticism disguised as a complaint might sound like:

“What is your problem? Why can’t you even be on time for your kids?! You never respected my time, of course, but the least you can do is show up for your kids. Fine! They know which parent loves them more!”

By contrast, a complaint focuses on the facts of the situation: calmly identifying the other person’s problematic actions, providing a concrete example of how it affected you and/or your children, and stating your request or suggestion to address the issue moving forward.

Respectful Complaint-Making Formula

Let’s break it down step-by-step:

    • Label problematic behavior: “When you are late picking up the kids…”

    • Label the negative effect on you: “it makes me feel anxious and stressed about time…”

    • Name any additional consequences on the larger system or family: “…which makes me get snappy with you and the kids and leads to a more stressful evening for everyone.”

    • Request a better action: “It would work best for all of us if you could make a conscious effort to be on time moving forward.”

    • BONUS POINTS: Give the other person the benefit of the doubt and assume there is a good reason for the problem behavior (I know, I know, this part is hard. It’s OK if you can’t do this every time. That’s why it’s a bonus!): “Do the times we agreed on still work for you? If not, why don’t we look at the schedule and see if we can come up with something that works better?”

Respectful Communication Formula #2: Requests vs. Demands or Threats

You can probably see where this is going now, right? Just as complaints are qualitatively different from criticisms, making a request of your former spouse feels different than making a demand… especially when that demand comes with a threat or ultimatum. When someone feels threatened, they tend to get defensive — and that makes them a lot less likely to work with you towards a solution.

Here’s an example of an unhelpful demand (with a threat thrown in for good measure):

“If you let our kids see your new boyfriend again, I’ll go for full custody so fast it’ll make your head spin! See how far you get without my child support payments!”

Oof. This is just setting you up for future conflict with your ex without resolving the real issue – a very valid concern about the best time to introduce the kids to new partners.

Respectful Request-Making Formula

Instead of making demands and threats that put your ex on defense, try focusing on the reasons for your concerns, understanding where the other person is coming from, and calmly requesting that your co-parent handle the situation differently:

    • State your need clearly and softly: “It seems important that the kids have time to adjust to the divorce before meeting our new partners.”

    • State desired request: “I would appreciate it if you would wait a bit longer before introducing the kids to your new boyfriend.”

    • Share the motive(s)/reasoning behind your request: “The kids are still adjusting to all these changes, and I’m worried they aren’t ready to meet the new people we’re dating yet. I also feel that we shouldn’t introduce the kids to new people until we’ve been dating them for at least a few months.”

    • Clarify and assume pure intent/motives by all: “I know how important our kids’ adjustment is to both of us.”

    • Offer to help: “If you like, I could set up a call with our family therapist to get her advice on when and how to introduce the kids to our new partners. It might be helpful for all of us!”

Respectful Communication Formula #3: Repairing vs. Avoiding Responsibility

Finally, learning how to effectively repair after one of you does mess up (as we all do sometimes) may be the single most important communication skill to practice with your ex. Our minds want to protect us from criticism because it’s painful, and avoiding responsibility by making excuses or deflecting blame onto the other person is one of the most common defense mechanisms.

But when you can instead take a deep breath and acknowledge the harm you caused the other person (even if it was unintentional, and even if they’ve done the same to you in the past!), provide an honest explanation (not an excuse), share how you’ll avoid making the same mistake in the future, and apologize, a minor conflict can be defused instead of blowing up into a stressful battle.

Avoiding responsibility might sound like this:

“Fine, so I was late picking up the kids this one time. One time in 15 years – compared to the countless times YOU were late for their baseball games!”

I’m sure you can imagine where that conversation would go next, and it’s not anywhere good.

Respectful Repair-Making Formula

    • Describe the ineffective or hurtful behavior: “When I was late picking up the kids…”

    • Label the injury to the other person: “It made you feel like I didn’t respect your time and made you late for work…”

    • Label any secondary effects on the family / larger system: “…and caused extra stress for the kids, too.”

    • Give an explanation (not an excuse): “I’ve been really overwhelmed at work lately and lost track of time.”

    • Acknowledge, take responsibility, and apologize: “I should have been there on time. Consistency is important to the kids and it isn’t fair to you to be late. I’m sorry.”

    • Create a corrective action plan: “From now on, I’m going to set alarms on my phone to make sure I leave on time.”

Why Respectful Communication With Your Ex Matters

You’re already divorced, so it can be tempting to think, “What does it matter if we’re nice to each other anymore?” But there are so many benefits to trying to have more respectful communication with your co-parent:

    • Modeling respectful communication and conflict resolution for your kids and, in doing so, reassuring them that their parents are still working together even if they’re no longer married is the number one reason to work on these skills. Your kids are always watching and soaking up everything you say and do like little sponges.

    • You will enjoy a smoother, less stressful atmosphere all around.

    • You’ll feel relieved and proud that you have truly, finally put your marital conflicts in the past!

    • Practicing these new skills will actually make you more likely to succeed in your next relationships.

    • Eventually, you might even be able to savor the ability to connect with your co-parent—the only other person in the world who adores your children as much as you do—over the wonders that are your children. And you’ll finally begin to truly heal and rebuild.

Final Thoughts 

Something to keep in mind: even when these formulas are used perfectly, people may not always get the result they want. However, communication and collaboration are not zero-sum, win-lose games.

The ultimate goal is to move towards areas of mutual ground, and we exponentially increase our odds of doing so when at least one of us brings our best selves to each interaction. Deciding to do so allows you to feel clear and confident in your own motives and actions.

Free Download: Respectful Communication Cheat Sheet 

Keep this printable guide handy to help you practice these 3 proven formulas for less stressful interactions with your ex.

Need more support? I work with divorced and blended families to heal old wounds and build communication skills for more effective, less stressful co-parenting. Contact me to schedule a free 15-minute consultation to see if I'm the right fit for your family.

For Further Reading

The following books are excellent resources on healing through better communication:

Why Won't You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.

So, What's Your Proposal?: Shifting High-Conflict People from Blaming to Problem-Solving in 30 Seconds, by Bill Eddy, LCSW



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A licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience, I’ve helped hundreds of couples and families navigate life's bumps and find the way forward.