The Abuse You Receive Isn't Personal

“When people first come to see me, the first thing I give them is a feeling that they’re deeply understood. They learn they’re not alone, and that nothing is wrong with them.”

Andrea LaRochelle is a high conflict, co-parenting communications specialist based in Calgary, Alberta. In this capacity she helps parents navigating a high conflict separation or divorce to disengage from parental conflict, teaching them constructive strategies for calm and effective communication with their ex partners. 

Andrea’s approach to communicating with a difficult ex is straightforward and tactical. She’s often someone’s first hope at peace, and for many, the first person they’ve talked openly with about what’s going on in their lives.

“Typically, our first meeting is when people realize that they’re not just scared – they’re terrified. They’ve been living in a psychological state of fight or flight for so long with no reprieve that their baseline for being able to assess what’s “normal” is totally skewed. They’ve been living in a state where they don’t know when the next attack from their ex or current partner will come so they don’t get a mental break or any downtime. Ever. And every single person is absolutely shocked that I understand.”

For those struggling with a high-conflict individual, possibly the most revolutionary insight Andrea offers is that nothing your ex does or say is personal.

“You’re fat/ugly/stupid, you’re bi-polar, you’re an unfit mother, etc. – they all say the same things.” Your ex is incapable of managing his or her emotions, so lashing out, blame and feeling like a victim are all dependable reactions to anything they don't like. On the receiving end, the words feel exceedingly personal, hitting where you’re vulnerable. But here’s the thing:  if “they all say the same things” then “high conflict” is a kind of character type. It’s as if they’ve been cast in a role and they’re brilliantly – tragically, unconsciously - playing the part.

The only thing we can control or manage when dealing with a high conflict individual, is our own response to crazy-making exchanges.

This isn’t easy, but it’s learnable. If your ex is a “character” with predictable responses, there are equally predictable things you can do to help direct the “story.” Andrea provides a framework, and in some cases an actual script, for how to communicate with your ex to diminish the drama.

Andrea’s rules for responding to email or text messages include, “provide no emotion, no insight, no opinion – and write no more than four sentences. More than four sentences and there’s a good chance you’ve got one of those things in there.” The more words you use, the better the odds you’ll provoke another defensive or blaming response.

In addition to supporting non-conflicting spouses, Andrea is always focused on the mental health and safety of children involved. She’s quick to emphasize that children are far more resilient than we give them credit for - and that their journey is not yours: your number one job is to ensure they don’t end up in a high conflict relationship themselves. “You do this by encouraging them to talk and question everything. Teach them empathy and emotional intelligence… the research is clear that a child needs just one, stable person to love them unconditionally, to be OK. Better than OK!”

In high-conflict separations, love often comes with conditions at the child’s other home. “Your job is to be your child’s umbrella, opening up to protect them when it starts to rain and giving them shade when things get too hot. You want to be a place where they can have all the emotions and still be loved.”

Andrea finds that many of her clients are overly focused on getting Court Orders. “They think (the Order) will be followed, when really, their focus should be on their kids. Women, in particular, spend a lot of time fighting for what they think should be in an Order, not realizing that it doesn’t matter, because there are no real consequences if and when their ex breaks the conditions of the Order.”

The best use of your time and energy? Redirect it towards loving your kids, keeping them emotionally safe and setting clear boundaries with your ex to protect your own psychological well-being. Continue to document all your text, email and other correspondence, manage your ex with proven communications tools, and know that despite the crazy-making drama you’ve been unwittingly cast in that you are not, in fact, crazy. And you’re not alone.

For more communication tools, this is a great article, from the High Conflict Institute.

Carrie Gour