Communication between two people who have separated is often challenging. When there has been abuse, it will almost certainly be a challenge and may create safety concerns. You may find that your ex-partner is using contact with you as a way to continue the abusive power dynamic that you are trying to leave behind. Your situation is unique, and only you know what is best for you.
Below are some guiding principles to help you.
First, take care of yourself. Prioritize safety for you and your kids. Pull together your support networks around you. Work on your healing. You need to be strong and healthy to take care of yourself and your children. This will help you to see things more clearly, including ways to safely navigate communication with your abusive ex-partner.
Second, remember that you have choices. You cannot choose the way your ex-partner acts towards you or the way they communicate with you. But you do have a choice about how you respond, and that can never be taken away from you. Try to stay focused on the choices you have and the places where you have control, and let go of the things that you cannot control.
Third, keep learning about abuse. Keep unravelling the patterns of abuse from your relationship and learning what triggers you. The better you are able to recognize the traps that your ex is setting to lure you into an emotional war—the put-downs, gaslighting, stonewalling, use of intimidation, lying, shaming, blaming and ongoing threats—the better you will be able to detach yourself and react neutrally and less emotionally.
Fourth, know that it is about your ex-partner’s need for control. Before beginning any conversation, know that the hurtful things your ex may say to you are about your ex and not you. Through their communication with you, they are trying to recreate the control they had over you while you were together.
Fifth, things will get better. Even if it seems like this will never end, things will improve. You will get stronger and be able to move forward with your life. Remind yourself of this when communication with your ex is especially difficult.
Last, and most importantly, believe in yourself. You took the brave step to leave a harmful relationship. That took courage and willpower. You sought help when you needed it and made yourself and your children safe. You are a survivor. Always remember that.
Strategies for communicating
- BREATHE: Begin every communication (face-to-face conversation/email or letter/phone call) by taking a deep breath with a long, slow exhale. Find something to ground yourself—maybe hold onto an object that makes you feel safe. Take a break to clear your head. As you speak/write to your ex, continue to breathe and remind yourself that you are safe.
- BE NEUTRAL: Communicating with an abusive ex-partner can be triggering and traumatic. Set realistic goals for the communication ahead of time that take into account any difficult behaviours you anticipate. This may help to minimize your emotional reaction if they do happen, and you can maintain a calm neutrality in your communication, avoiding triggers and staying focused on what you want to get out of the exchange.
- BE AS NON-JUDGMENTAL AS POSSIBLE: Avoid labelling. Stick to descriptions of facts or observations without judgment (e.g., “As you know from Sam’s doctor, Sam’s asthma is triggered by cigarette smoke”). Focus on the children’s needs and not your ex’s rights or your rights. Remember that communication is about body language and not just words. Keep a pleasantly neutral facial expression and a non-judgmental tone.
- BE CONCISE: Use as few words—verbal or written—as possible. Avoid language or details that could be twisted and used against you in court or other legal settings. Every word can be taken out of context, so write and speak carefully and briefly.
- BE CLEAR: Make sure your language is clear. State your reasons for writing or needing to talk. If there are time-sensitive needs, be clear about timing. Be clear and honest about your expectations and objectives.
- KEEP A RECORD: Record anything they say or write to you. Document everything, and try to get evidence of any ongoing abuse by your ex-partner.
- PROJECT CALM CONFIDENCE: Remember your strength. Abusers thrive on projecting weakness onto you. They enjoy knowing they are getting under your skin and making you feel bad about yourself. Don’t give them the impression they have rattled you, even when they have. Believe in you. Your self-worth is the best armour you can have against their ongoing criticisms and belittling behaviour.
- REFRAME: If your discussions are at a standstill, try to frame the discussion in a different way, maybe one that aligns with your ex’s goals or self-image. If there are any points of agreement, focus on them.
- CREATE ALTERNATIVES: When thinking about alternatives, think about them on a scale that ranges from the best possible outcome to what you could live with to the minimum you are willing to accept. Do not go below that.
- BE SAFE: Choose public venues for communication. Never meet for discussions in either of your homes.
- USE THE 24-HOUR RULE: Unless it is an urgent matter (e.g., it concerns the immediate safety of your children), don’t respond until 24 hours has passed. This allows your emotions to settle. You can better plan your response with a clear head after you have slept on it.
- BE MINDFUL OF YOUR CHILDREN: Do your best to avoid any difficult conversations while your children are within earshot. This is not always easy if you are living in tight quarters with little privacy. Try to schedule these talks for times when the children are asleep, fully occupied or away from the house.
- MAINTAIN BOUNDARIES: Even if your ex continues to disrespect boundaries, maintain them whenever possible. Agree on a method of communication, and then stick to it. Set healthy boundaries and expectations.
- FIND SUPPORT: If direct communication remains too toxic or dangerous, you may need to find some support. This should not be family or friends and should never be your children. Seek help where possible from Family Court Support Workers or women’s legal support workers, lawyers or therapists. You can have a friend screen your emails, but only if you absolutely trust them to make the right call and to respect your privacy.
For more information, including more tips for effective communication check out our resource: The Law and Parenting Arrangements After Separation.