"After my wife and I separated, we had a lot to figure out. When we tried talking, it usually ended up in a yelling match. It wasn’t good for us or for the kids. My counsellor gave me some tips to communicate better. It helped my ex and I turn things around, and we can now co-parent pretty well together. I’m glad for the kids’ sake."
– Danilo, Ladner, BC
Separation isn’t easy. For many, transitioning from being a couple to being single — or a single parent — is painful, frustrating, and scary. There are many things you and your ex need to talk through — some more difficult than others. Here’s how to have those difficult conversations.
What you should know
Separating from your spouse may be one of the hardest decisions you’ve ever had to make. It’s an emotional time, and the last thing you likely want to do is talk to your ex about anything.
But when you separate, you’ll need to work through difficult issues, such as how to divide up your property and debts, how any support arrangements will work, and (if you have children) your parenting arrangements. Figuring out how to communicate effectively will seriously improve your chances of a good outcome. It’ll also save you time and costs, and reduce your stress.
Effective communication is especially important if you and your ex have children. There are critical decisions to be made now. And as the children grow older, you’ll all be involved in important life events like birthdays, graduations, and weddings. With good communication, you and your ex will be able to make decisions that are in the children’s best interests, and they’ll have a better chance at a healthier and happier upbringing.
Communication patterns that lead to a couple separating can continue afterwards — especially since emotions are running high. Unless you fix them.
So how is this actually done? How can you establish civil relations with your ex? Here are some key strategies that can help you manage your emotions, avoid misunderstandings, and communicate effectively from the time you separate.
1. Set communication boundaries
When you separate, talk to your ex about how the two of you will communicate and how often. Identify reasonable timeframes for response. You and your ex can also agree on a “go to” method of communication — such as text messaging or phone — if something urgent comes up.
2. Keep your communications short, neutral and business-like
While it might sound strange, it can help to think of your ex as a business partner — someone you have to work with regularly for the long-term. This strategy can help curb the emotion and keep you focused as you collaborate to make the best possible decisions about your property, finances, and any children involved.
This might involve:
keeping your messages to your ex short and to the point
setting reasonable time frames for the exchange of information — and being sure to hold up your end
being polite and respectful in all your communications — whether to your ex, your children, family and friends, co-workers, or on social media
using qualifying words such as “sometimes” or “maybe” rather than “always” or “never,” unless they’re needed to set boundaries
3. Be open-minded and honest
During conversations, try to keep an open mind and listen carefully to your ex’s thoughts and concerns. Respond honestly. Don’t make judgments; ask questions. You can also rephrase what you’re hearing to show you understand.
Bottom line: Communicate with your ex the way you want them to communicate with you.
4. Be responsive rather than reactive
Say your ex is late again to pick up the children for their parenting time. You’re itching to tell them exactly how frustrated you are. But while yelling may feel good in the short term, it probably isn’t the best idea. Stay calm. The last thing you want to do is to escalate the situation with a war of words — especially in front of your children.
You control how and when you communicate with your ex. Use this advantage by taking the time to think through what you want to say — or whether you even want to say anything. Stick to the facts. At every turn, think: Will this help me reach my end goal?
If you aren’t able to talk through your issues, you might think you have to go to court. But you don’t. There are out-of-court options that are faster, cheaper, and more effective. Among them are mediation, negotiation with a collaborative lawyer, and arbitration.
Sometimes, though, certain situations — like family violence — may make talking directly with your ex a nonstarter. Talking to a lawyer or mediator can help you figure out the best path forward. See below, under who can help.
Steps to having a difficult conversation
Soon after separating, you and your ex will need to work out a number of issues.
But first, be sure to take care of your emotional needs. Take time to work through your emotions. Reach out for any support you need from family, friends, and health care professionals.
Also take some time to reflect on where you’d like to end up after working through the issues. For example, if you have children, you might prioritize establishing an ongoing amicable relationship with your ex so you can jointly make decisions that affect the children. Setting longer-term goals for yourself can help you focus on resolving your legal issues and keep moving forward.
A third piece of groundwork is to get informed on the legal issues. There are excellent sources to learn about family law and how it applies in BC. A family lawyer can give you legal advice. (See below, under who can help, for free or low-cost options.) Understanding what your rights are in your situation can help you feel knowledgeable and confident when communicating with your ex.
Let your ex know you’d like to speak with them about the issues you need to work through.
Suggest options for when and where to meet. It’s a good idea to pick a public place like a coffee shop or a park. Propose times when you’re both relatively free from competing commitments. If you have children, pick times when they will be looked after. Neither of you will be in the right frame of mind to talk if you’re under stress or time constraints.
In advance of the meeting, write out a draft agenda. Give your ex a copy of the agenda with an invitation to add to it.
Discuss and agree on whether or not to bring supporting documents — such as financial information — to your meeting.
Safety comes first
If you’re concerned about your ex’s potential reaction during or after a conversation, hold off. Your safety takes priority. Speak to a counsellor or support person and make a safety plan. Also try to talk to a lawyer to get legal advice. For options, see below, under who can help.
Now’s the time to make some notes to prepare for the conversation, including:
What the issues are. Write out the legal issues you and your ex are in conflict about. For example, you may disagree about dividing your property, support payments, or parenting arrangements — or all of these and more.
The resolution you want. Describe how you would like each issue resolved.
If you have children, what is in their best interests. Describe how the way you propose each issue be resolved is in your children’s best interests; that is, how it prioritizes their physical, psychological, and emotional health and safety.
Your ex’s perspective. Put yourself in your ex’s shoes to understand the issues from their perspective. For each of the issues, think about what your proposed resolution would mean for them.
What you and your ex have in common. Identify common interests you and your ex share. Revisit your proposed resolutions and add notes about any common interests that tie in.
Getting ready for the conversation in this proactive way can help get you in the mindset for having a constructive conversation with your ex.
When it’s time to meet with your ex, take your agenda, notes, and any supporting material with you. Take a few deep breaths as you head to the meeting. A little bit of small talk may help break the ice.
Even though this isn’t easy, you can do this, and you will get through it. Here’s a sequence you might follow.
1. Calmly explain what you think the issues are
“We have different ideas about who the children should live with.”
2. Lay out the facts
“I’ve been the main caregiver for the kids, and I have a flexible work schedule. You’re travelling every second week for your work.”
3. Highlight your common interests
“I can see we both want what’s best for the children. And we want to work through things without going to court (and spending a lot of money on lawyers).”
4. Suggest solutions, and invite their input
“I think the children should live with me most of the time. I’m happy for you to have generous parenting time. We could meet with a family justice counsellor for help in making the parenting schedule. What do you think?”
5. Discuss a timeline to check-in
“I’ll contact a family justice counsellor and touch base in a week. Does that work?”
(The specifics of your conversation will depend on the issues in play. For example, if you need to work out support payments or property division, sharing financial information will be a key part of the talk.)
At the end of the meeting, thank your ex for their time, understanding, and willingness to work together.
Stay calm, cool, and collected
During the conversation, it’s important not to yell, blame, or threaten your ex. This can escalate the situation rather than resolve it. Try to stay calm and on topic — focus on the problem, not your ex. When your ex is talking, don’t interrupt. Listen actively, ask clarifying questions, and paraphrase replies.
If your ex is verbally abusive or disrespectful to you, you don’t have to continue the conversation. You can tell them you’d like to continue your meeting another day, or try another way of working through your issues.
Either during or after the conversation with your ex, make notes of what each of you said. Also note the decisions you reached and any timelines you agreed on.
You might also find it helpful to debrief with a trusted friend or advisor. Reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Try to think how it could go better next time.
After your conversation, send your ex a written summary of what you talked about. If you can’t resolve your issues, this record may be helpful down the road.
In your summary, include:
any decisions made
any timelines agreed on
any courses of action each of you agreed to take
a proposed time for a follow-up meeting
You may want to turn the decisions you reached into a parenting plan or a separation agreement. If you and your ex decide to prepare your own agreement, it’s a good idea to get legal advice before you sign it. Once signed, the agreement is legally binding and enforceable by a court.
Who can help
Family Justice Centres on Clicklaw HelpMap
Access Pro Bono's Free Legal Advice
Access Pro Bono’s Everyone Legal Clinic
Lawyer Referral Service
BC Legal Directory