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Responding to a Psycho Emails

One of the most difficult things about divorce, even divorces that are relatively amicable, is learning a new way to communicate with your former partner, especially when children are involved. While I am sure that some (saintly) people are able to continue to treat their ex-spouse in the same loving and compassionate manner that they did while they were married, most of the rest of us would occasionally like to take a two-by-four to the other person's head.

Whether the breakdown in communication happens because of "divorce crazy" or real crazy, there will be days when a hostile, or even psycho, email will show up in your in-box. And the trick to dealing with these emails, as well as dealing with communicating in general is to change your response, rather than to try to change your ex-partner.

Email is a wonderful tool - but like all tools can be used for evil as well as good. We have probably all been the recipient of a ranting, obnoxious email at one time or another. We may even have sent one ourselves. Certainly when you receive an email like that your first response is likely to be "fight or flight." You are emotionally hooked in and feel like you need to defend yourself. BUT DON'T. Take time, take a breath and analyze the situation.

Bill Eddy, a California therapist and attorney, has spent many years both dealing with folks with "high conflict personalities" and helping others to deal with them. He has developed a method for analyzing and responding to hostile email, that works both for emails and almost any other communication with a hostile person, whether a former spouse, family member or business associate. http://www.highconflictinstitute.com/Published-Articles/responding-to-hostile-email.html . He recommends that you consider three things before bashing out a response:

1. Do you need to respond? Sometimes angry emails are just intended to pull you into an argument - to give the angry person power over you. Stop the cycle, if you can, by simply ignoring the email or at least ignoring everything but the real issues. For example, you receive a three-page email ranting about what a louse you were as a husband and father. Ignore. However, buried in that rant is one sentence about how your child needs both parents to sign a permission slip for school. Address only this issue.

2. Don't respond emotionally. Your ability to think rationally is impaired by your emotions. Take a break, put away the email and wait to respond until after your anger and hurt has subsided. If you need to, write an angry email back, but do not send it. Print it out, tear it up and delete it. Then go back and write a new email.

3. Figure out what your goals are before you write the new email. Focus on that goal and write an email that fits into Bill Eddy's BIFF format - brief, informative, friendly and firm.
BRIEF - Focus on the real issue and your goal.
INFORMATIVE - Focus on just the facts, avoiding negative comments, sarcasm and threats.
FRIENDLY - Treat this like a business letter to customer or company that you have a disagreement with. You wouldn't spew vitriol at a business contact. Well, now your former spouse is a business partner with you and you are in the business together of raising happy, healthy children. Treat that person like you would a co-worker that you don't personally like but must get along with to get the job done.
FIRM - Tell the other person clearly what your position is. Don't leave the door open to more discussion if you are not willing to continue to hash out an issue and receive more of the same anger.

Using the previous example, here's a sample answer: "Dear Ex-Spouse, I understand that Johnny needs us both to sign the permission slip. I will stop by the school on November 16th to sign the form. I spoke to the teacher and they do not need us to sign the same form, so this will take care of the issue. Regards."

Looks easy, sounds easy. But it is not, but it is important to learn to do both for your sanity and that of your kids.

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