Handling communication issues with your ex

Image of a woman with neutral expression sitting on couch, looking over her son's shoulder.

Why is this important?

It can be tricky to navigate a co-parenting relationship. Conflict is likely to happen if you disagree on issues regarding your teen – big and small. Ultimately, you and your ex-partner will have to continue interacting for the sake of co-parenting your child, so it pays to manage communication issues with your ex in a healthy way.

Having a solutions-oriented approach to co-parenting will help you manage conflict and give your child the support they need.

How does conflict affect your child?

When a child is exposed to a lot of conflict or fighting, it’s likely to cause them distress. They might:

  • become quiet and withdrawn

  • be overwhelmed and anxious

  • feel stressed if they think they have to choose ‘sides’

  • start acting out at school or at home, such as becoming more defiant or aggressive

  • think that conflict is a normal part of a relationship, which could affect how they relate to other people later on in life.

Strategies for dealing with issues with your ex

Different parenting and communication styles, and getting caught up in issues from when you were together, can all contribute to ongoing conflict with an ex-partner. Here are some ways to minimise co-parenting conflict.

Your child comes first

If you and your ex-partner can agree on one thing, it's that your child comes first. Keep this in mind when you’re interacting with your ex-partner, especially if conflict arises. Putting aside personal feelings for your child’s sake will help you both to move forward.

Try to keep your child out of issues between you and your ex-partner.

  • Don’t badmouth your ex-partner in front of your child. Instead, focus on their strengths and positive qualities.

  • Speak to your ex-partner directly. Don’t ask your child to be a messenger.

  • If you need to vent your frustrations, try writing in a journal or talking to a friend or a professional.

Business partners, not life partners

Even though you're not a couple anymore, you still have an ongoing relationship. It can be an uncomfortable transition, but rethinking your relationship will help you to focus on why you’re doing this. Here are some things that will help you to keep it ‘businesslike’:

  • Ensure that all your interactions relate to co-parenting your child.

  • Focus on the issue at hand. Keep old relationship problems out of the discussion and avoid blaming your ex-partner or yourself for what’s in the past. If one of you can’t put the past behind you, suggest reopening the co-parenting discussion later.

  • Write down your agreement on who’s responsible for what.

  • Have structured interactions. You could try making an agenda, with a list of the points to be discussed, so that everything gets covered and you can stay on track.

It can also be helpful to rethink expectations that you may have had when you and your ex-partner had an intimate relationship. For example, as co-parents it may not work to expect:

  • sharing of personal details and experiences

  • emotional involvement

  • affection, appreciation or praise.

Clarify, don’t assume

To save yourself from dealing with misunderstandings later on, always clarify what you mean and don’t make assumptions about what your ex-partner means. For example, you might have unspoken expectations about how your teen will be disciplined under your ex-partner’s care, but they might have different views. Ask and clarify what you can each expect from the other.

Write down the arrangements that you and your ex-partner have agreed on – you could use a shared online document that you can both refer to when needed. If the situation changes – for example, if either of you moves house or repartners – you might have to revisit previous agreements.

Respect goes a long way

Even if you feel like your ex-partner doesn’t deserve it, or you don’t personally agree with their choices, be respectful of them. Belittling them will make it difficult to have productive discussions.

Keeping a respectful attitude will also help you to remain calm if your ex-partner gets angry or emotional. It’s hard not to respond similarly when someone is negative, but this will only make matters worse. Avoid responding aggressively or defensively, and remember that you’re there for your teen’s sake.

If you don’t handle a situation well, forgive yourself and try to repair any damage. You could say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t handle yesterday’s discussion well. Can we try to talk about it again?’ Likewise, forgive your ex-partner, even though it’s difficult when you’ve been hurt and are frustrated or annoyed. Forgive, and move on.

Winning isn’t everything

Don’t let conflict distract you from the bigger picture. You might get caught up in little things that in the long run don’t matter. You probably won’t be happy with every single decision your ex-partner makes, either.

Before having a discussion, figure out what really matters to you and what you might be able to be flexible on.

Take a time out

If you see that you or your ex-partner are falling into negative patterns, or getting angry or emotional, take time out. Stepping away from the discussion for even a moment, and taking a few deep breaths, can help. If the discussion isn’t going anywhere, take a break, take care of yourself and regroup later.

What can you do if none of this works?

If you’ve tried these strategies and your ex-partner isn’t responding positively you could try using a mediator. A mediator is an impartial party that will help moderate your interactions with your ex-partner. You can use a private mediator or go through a family relationship centre.

If your ex-partner refuses to communicate, you can get advice from a solicitor, Legal Aid NSW or a community legal centre.

If your ex-partner is becoming aggressive or violent and you or your child are in distress, contact an emergency support hotline.