Why do I need a lawyer to teach me how to write an email to my ex?
Let’s be honest: if you and your ex knew how to communicate effectively, you probably wouldn’t be getting divorced.
Raising children together, while living in two separate households, is challenging. Effective communication is one challenge that arises almost daily. Email (used appropiately) is a useful tool for divorcing parents, especially in the early stages of the process when emotions can be very strong.
Email is now the default communication method for most of us. Generally both divorcing parents have access to email at least once a day.
Lawyers will often advise their divorce clients to communicate primarily by email, to avoid disputes about what was said or when information was provided. Also, the slower and more deliberative process of email can avoid the pitfalls of an angry telephone conversations, when it’s too easy to say something in the heat of the moment that will come back to haunt you (and your lawyer) later.
BUT a badly written or inappropriate email can do just as much harm (to you, your case, and your kids) as a phone call that ends in screaming and tears.
How to Succeed in Business…
You and your ex, as divorcing parents, are navigating a new relationship, and it’s hard to know in these early stages what the form of that relationship is eventually going to be. But how can you “communicate appropriately” when you are still working out the rules for what is and is not appropriate in your new post-couple parenting world?
For now, try thinking of this new relationship with your ex as a business. A business whose only objective is to nurture your children into healthy, well-adjusted adults; adults who will be able to invite both of their parents to their high school graduation, their wedding and (eventually) their own child’s first birthday party without involving UN peacekeeping forces.
The “business” model is a helpful way to think about email communication. Even a parent in the emotional turmoil of a divorce generally knows how to communicate appropriately with a client, colleague or boss. For this reason, attorneys often encourage divorcing clients to keep emails “business-like.” But what exactly does that mean in practical terms?
What would happen if you sent this email to an important client:
As usual, I am having to pester you for your revisions to the quarterly figures I gave you over a week ago. You know very well that I cannot finish the budget without your revisions, but clearly that does not matter to you as much as the two day ski trip you just took with your “intern” (guess you thought I wouldn’t find out about that one).
Give me your revisions by Friday or I will just have to tell the Board that we don’t have a budget this year. The consequences of that will be your responsibility.
Would you expect to keep that business relationship for long, like all the way until your child’s eighteenth birthday? Would you expect that client to speak politely the next time he sees you, or cut you any slack the next time you’re five minutes late for a meeting? Of course you wouldn’t.
You might think that no one in their right mind would send this kind of email to a person they wanted to have a long-term relationship with (like an important client or an ex). But if you change a few terms (like “quarterly figures” to “weekend schedule”) you get an email that most family law attorneys have read a hundred times:
As usual, I am having to pester you for your revisions to the weekend schedule I gave you over a week ago. You know very well that I cannot book the kids’ soccer camp without your revisions, but clearly that does not matter to you as much as the two day ski trip you just took with your “intern” (guess you thought I wouldn’t find out about that one).
Give me your revisions by Friday or I will just have to tell the children that they can’t go to soccer camp this year. The consequences of that will be your responsibility.
Natuarlly enough, Tom decides to fight fire with fire and spends the next 45 minutes composing his very own email Nastygram in reply (note that this is actually more time than it would take him to come up with the information Susan is seeking).
For those keeping score at home, that’s Susan 3, Tom 2, Kids 0. And (since both parents will now run shrieking to their attorneys, who will carry on the battle via duelling faxes at $250 per hour, each), Lawyers 7.
How would the process be different if the email to the ex was modeled on a business communication? A business email to a client would read like this:
I really need your revisions to the quarterly figures I sent you last week. I have to finish the draft budget for the Board by the 15th, so please let me have your revisions by Friday.
Let me know if you have any questions.
And a “business-like” email to an ex would read like this:
I really need your revisions to the kids’ weekend schedule I sent you last week. I have to have their places booked for soccer camp by the 15th, so please let me have your revisions by Friday.
Let me know if you have any questions.
Isn’t that more like what you had in mind when you told yourself that you wanted a civil relationship with your ex for the sake of the children?
Here are some practical tips to help you make your email part of a succesful, business-like exchange.
Keep It Brief
Until you and your ex achieve a new emotional equilibrium, the less said the better. Saying more just increases the risk that something will be misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted.
As a rule try to limit these emails to about four sentences.
Keep It Factual
The point of the email is to exchange essential information about your kids. At this point in your relationship, neither of you particularly wants or needs to hear about the other’s opinions, emotions, or theories.
Blame interferes with communication by making the other party defensive. If you write, “Sam had two cavaties at his check up today. You have got to stop letting him drink so many soft drinks when he is with you,” you will get a reply disputing the number of soft drinks per week consumed in each household, and accusing you of interrogating poor Sam about dad’s home.
A better approach is to say, “Sam had two cavities at his check up today. The dentist says we really need to cut down on his sugar. Any ideas?” Now no one is the Bad Guy, and you are asking your ex to be your ally in an effort to help your child. You are much more likely to get a reply thanking you for providing the information, offering to help or even (gasp) asking you for some advice about how to cut the sugar.
Threats are toxic to communication and achieve nothing apart from increased fear, anger and resentment. Was there anything uglier in the Tom and Susan example above than the threat to tell the kids they couldn’t go to soccer camp because of their dad?
Avoid threats at all costs.
Leave the Legal Advice to the Lawyers
These are a particular type of threat presented under the guise of helpful legal advice.
“The judge will not like it if you don’t let me see Kevin on my birthday. It’s called contempt of court.”
“My lawyer says it’s obvious you are hiding bank accounts. You can really get in a lot of trouble for that.”
Like every other type of threat, no good can come from this kind of email.
Don’t Accuse—Ask for Information
Your child WILL from time to time come home from visits dirty/injured/upset/hungry. She will also from time to time come home from school, birthday parties and field trips dirty/injured/upset/hungry.
Most of the time, these incidents won’t require an email or any other kind of communication. Bruises, skipped meals, squabbles between siblings and unwashed faces occur in every home, including your ex’s and including yours.
But there will be times when your child seems upset beyond what is usual for him, and he may tell you about a problem of some kind at dad’s home. Rather than sending an email setting out the version of events you have received from the child (who may or may not be a very accurate reporter), try to open communication with your ex by seeking information in a way that is neither blaming nor threatening:
“David seemed really upset tonight. Did something happen when you picked him up at basketball practice?”
“Rose was very distressed about her homework tonight. Any idea what that’s about?”
If you want information from your ex about a potentially difficult issue, resist the urge to accuse. Just state the problem simply and briefly, and ask for information.
Once a Day Should Do It
It should be very rare to email your ex more than once per day. This frequency should decrease over time as you establish your post-separation routine.
If you find that you are regularly emailing more than once per day, you may be emailing about things that are relatively unimportant. Look back on your emails and try to see what could have been skipped.
You and your ex will go through a variety of extreme emotions and many ups and downs during the divorce process. While you need to keep communication open on essential issues, it is also best to avoid extraneous communication. The more that is said during this volitile time, the greater the chance of a misunderstanding.
Think Before You Send
I often ask my clients to observe a “two hour” rule on emails to ex’s, especially emails they wrote when angry or upset. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, anything that needs to be communicated in less than two hours should not be emailed. Urgent communication (like changing the details of that day’s visit) has to be by phone.
Second, if you are upset, you might just need to vent by writing the email. After you have written it, get up from your computer and do something else for at least two hours (or, even better, sleep on it overnight).
When you reread the email, ask yourself if you really need to send it to your ex. Would it feel just as satisfying to send it to a close friend or keep it as part of a journal? Is the satisfaction you would get from letting your ex know how loathsome his behavior is, really worth the long term harm it could cause to your relationship as co-parents? What will the fallout be for your kids?
Most clients who observe the two hour rule decide not to send the email to the ex. Some clients send the emails to me instead, and a few of them are (as we say in Kentucky) real barn burners!
The question is not whether you will experience strong feelings of anger, grief, sadness, and loss during the divorce process; the question is whether you will be able to put your children first in spite of those feelings. If you can maintain at least one safe line of communication as parents, then some day you will be able to look back and say that even when things were at their worst, you still communicated about the essential stuff concerning the kids. And wouldn’t that be a good thing to know about yourself?