When I meet with family law clients during a particularly challenging divorce, I stress that behaving with civility is closely tied to taking better care of yourself. You set the tone for the relationships you have with others. People will match the energy you give off. That includes your ex. When you have a difficult ex, you may feel compelled to act difficult, too. After all, this person has caused you quite a lot of grief, so why should you not give that troublemaker a taste of his or her own medicine?
If you are combative, you are likely to receive a combative response. If you act civilly, however, you are more likely to receive a civil response than if you act like a jerk right out of the gate, though you have no guarantee.
So why bother trying at all? Because in my experience as a family and matrimonial lawyer, I have found that even if your ex persists in being a jerk despite your refusal to engage, it is still possible to enjoy an amicable relationship. But for that to happen, the change in your relationship must begin with you.
An amicable post-divorce relationship requires you to modify your energy. Put simply, be nice. And no, I am not telling you to be nice for the benefit of your ex. I am telling you to be nice for you. Responding with cooperation instead of conflict will not only improve your life and your ex’s, it will also improve the lives of your children.
Research and just plain old experience show that children do not respond well to conflict at home. When parents fight, in addition to feeling uncomfortable in the place they should feel safest, children act out. When you are a happy parent, you foster an environment with positive energy, which means your children are more apt to be positive, too. By working with instead of against your ex, your ex will be happier, making life a lot more pleasant for everyone.
As a parent, you are responsible for offering your children the best possible environment for them to grow up in, so stop blaming your ex for everything. Instead, take the lead. Begin by working on your cooperation skills. Be proactive and the one to engender civility with your ex. If you are not sure how or think your relationship is too far gone, here are a few practices to get you started.
Change Your Diet
Not all calories are created equal. Keeping a natural diet will improve your mental health. When your body receives the correct balance of the nutrients it craves, you will feel better about yourself. When you feel good, you will feel less stressed and bitter, leading to an atmosphere that is more conducive to a productive and cooperative relationship with your ex. Everyone wins.
The food you eat, your children will likely eat, too. Remember, we lead best when we lead by example. If your children are happy and healthy, then your ex is more likely to be happy with you because your parenting style benefits your children. Happy, healthy children also tend to behave better because they have more natural energy and are less irritable.
Get Out into Nature
When you are cooped up indoors all day, every day, a form of cabin fever will slowly build up within your psyche. You may feel angry and sickly because you are not getting the fresh air you need, ironically making you want to go out even less. Because you spend so much time indoors, you may not realize that the last thing you want to do, venturing outdoors, is the cure within your reach. It is easy to forget that humans survived for thousands of years outdoors as nomads and then as farmers. It is not natural for us to spend all our time inside.
I am not saying you should never spend time indoors, but I am saying to spend more time than you currently are outdoors. Go for a hike. If hiking is not for you, try swimming. Walk with your friends or by yourself. Do whatever is necessary for you to receive the vitamin D and fresh air you need. When you get in touch with nature, you will feel more at peace and rested, giving you the strength you need not only to deal with your ex but to cooperate. It sure beats feeling tired and crabby before you even engage with one another. No good can come of that.
Lovingly Move Your Body
You don’t need to do grueling labor at the gym for 90 minutes a day, every day, to lead an active lifestyle. There are countless ways to get your body moving and not make it a chore. As I mentioned above, you could swim, hike, or walk with friends. If that is not for you, garden, bike, walk the dog, or accompany the kids on their walk to school.
There are countless benefits to exercise, including the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a hormone that essentially makes you feel happier. When you feel happier and healthier, you will be less inclined to argue and more amenable to getting along. Again, your happiness will make your relationship with your ex more amicable, additionally benefiting your children. An added plus to exercising more is that physical activity is a pastime you can share with your children, giving them the release they need. Less irritable children put Mom and Dad in a better mood, making them less interested in conflict. See a cycle yet?
When you are juggling your career with raising a family, you may believe sleep is for the weak. There are only so many hours in the day. Since we already spend about a third of our lives asleep, you may think you have no choice but to cut down on your Zs to maintain order. In actuality, not sleeping makes us weak and feel out of control. When we go to sleep, our minds recharge so that we become mentally equipped to handle the demanding tasks of tomorrow.
Many people believe that sleep and stress counteract each other: if you feel stressed, it is impossible to fall asleep. But I have found that this is not the case. I like to take stress naps, meaning that when I am overwhelmed, I press the pause button and close my eyes. When I wake up, I feel better. Once my mind has been refreshed, I next address the source of my stress, hopefully preventing the stressful situation from turning into an ongoing one.
I tell my clients that education is empowering. It is logical that if you are going through a financially and emotionally stressful process such as a divorce, you should try to understand it as best as you can. This means researching the best practices for going through the divorce process and living as a divorced person afterward. Learn co-parenting techniques and discover ways to adjust to raising children as a single parent. Read relevant books and blogs. Speak to other divorced parents who are already past the process and listen to the advice they offer.
It is useful to be informed about divorce when you are going through one. When you know what is going on in your life and why, you can face obstacles and, more importantly, overcome them. The quantity of educational material available online about divorce should serve as a reminder that many people have survived what you are going through, there are support systems available to help you, and you will survive, too.
The goal is to take care of yourself and your children, if applicable, to the best of your ability. Being married or a married parent is not the same as being divorced or a divorced parent, so you will need to learn about life post-divorce and adjust to the new landscape. Being educated enables you to achieve independence; you will not have to rely on others, emotionally or logistically.
When you have reached this state, you won’t feel afraid. And as we all know, it is often fear that causes us to behave in ways we wouldn’t usually, including fighting with our ex over trivial matters.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Especially after a stressful event such as a divorce, you may feel tempted to focus on everything that is going wrong in your life. Pessimistic thinking will trickle down into the way you present yourself to others, including your ex, who will pick up on your negative vibe and shoot it right back to you. Instead, be optimistic and do not focus on what is wrong. Focus instead on what is right. Be thankful for the smaller things. And, so that you can visualize every positive aspect of your life and reinforce optimism in your life, write every day about what you are grateful for in a gratitude journal.
Recently, my ex found a toy engine for my son on Craigslist, and the only time they could see it was at night. At first, I was annoyed because of the late hour that my ex scheduled for the appointment. But after I thought about it for a few minutes, I realized that because they were going out, I would be able to go to sleep early. As good a night as I was planning on having, I knew my son would have a better one spending quality time with his father. If you look, you will see there is an upside to everything. The key is to find that upside and then allow it to turn you into a happier person. Trust me, it takes a lot more energy to stay angry, and I, for one, love a good night’s sleep.
If you want to lead a happy life, it makes perfect sense that you need to do things that make you happy. And no, that doesn’t make you selfish. It is okay to treat yourself well for the sole sake of your mental and physical health. Go to dinner, spend time with friends, sit down, and watch a movie—do whatever you like. You deserve happiness as much as anyone else. The best part is, when you radiate joy, you will receive joy in return, especially when it comes from the one you thought took it from you.
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 3, October 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.