Communicating with the Enemy: The Impact of Conflict and the Importance of Respectful Communication
At times communicating with your ex-partner may feel like navigating a battlefield, with open confrontation and each sides’ forces well-defined. Perhaps your situation is more similar to Guerrilla Warfare- filled with ambushes, sabotage and raids. You may feel that any communication is similar to walking into the line of fire, or as if you are tiptoeing carefully, afraid of footing a landmine. This type of communication is often poor, ineffective and destructive, and commonly driven by overwhelmingly intense and raw emotions. As a result, any communication with your ex-partner is frequently anxiety-provoking and leads to hostile and frustrating situations that habitually turn into conflict which is intense and intractable. The outcome of this war? You feel terrible, your ex-partner most probably feels terrible, and most importantly, your children are often caught in the middle- watching and experiencing the destruction first hand.
Children continually exposed to this type of toxic stress have impaired neuro-biological development and show the least ability to be resilient in difficult situations. Respectful communication is key.
The Effects of Conflict on Children
Children raised in high conflict families and by parents fuelled with animosity are at greater risk of developing emotional, social and behavioural problems- such as internalising (e.g., depression) and externalising (e.g., anger) disorders. These children are said to be in prolonged ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode and as a result are hyperalert to threat at all times. They are robbed of the chance to develop appropriate systems of self-regulation- the ability to manage their emotions and impulses. Children who are caught in the middle of the battleground and exposed to constant conflict, often experience the world as an unsafe place. This world view increases their risk of mental health difficulties and predicts future relationship issues and instability.
The next time you are facing the battlefield, and forgetting the importance of respectful communication, try and remember these things:
Firstly, take a step back from the conflict and think about the goals you have for your children. What goals and dreams do you have for them?
Secondly, observe and reflect upon how you have been affected by the conflict. How has the conflict affected your parenting? Your tolerance and stress levels?
Thirdly, and most importantly, how have your children been affected by the conflict? Can you think of any positive outcomes for your children if the conflict continues? What if there was less conflict- what would the positive outcomes for your children look like then?
Lastly, suppose, three years from now, your child tells a close friend everything you did in your power to assist them throughout the separation. What would you like them to say about your behaviour? Would you be ashamed? Would you be proud?
Dr Catherine Boland