I’ve got friends going through ugly divorces right now. Not the usual afterschool special narrative of the ugly divorce, where the guy shows up like “if you leave me I’ll kill us both and the kid,” but the drawn-out, state-mandated-mediation, this-could-be-friendly-but-I-just-took-the-coffee-table, who-keeps-the-friends kind. And I gotta say, just because something doesn’t look like a TV abuse narrative, that doesn’t make it ok. Wearing someone down emotionally until they can’t believe in themself anymore is also a trash thing to do, especially if someone then uses that lack of confidence to manipulate the process of separation.
In a drawn-out separation of any relationship, especially a long-term one, you can’t actually avoid communicating with your ex-partner.
But you can avoid communicating with them in ways that are inevitably going to lead to more pain for you and have an extremely limited productivity.
That’s where I come in. As an editor and a friend, I’m the one who gets asked to look at these emails. And I gotta tell you, y’all are making the same mistakes over and over. You know, kind of like being in that relationship with your ex in the first place? (Two good people can be bad for each other. One bad person can be bad for a good person. Two bad people are probably bad for each other. An extra person can destabilize a stable relationship with several people in it already. These are mistakes. It’s ok to make mistakes; just don’t keep making the same mistake.)
The biggest mistake is when you try to communicate with your ex as though they’re a person who is still invested in your continued emotional wellbeing. Even if they’re the greatest human in the world, right now they need to put themselves before you. Because you are not in a romantic relationship with this person anymore. What you are now is coworkers, and your job is to separate your shit and move on with your lives as individuals.
So I made you a handy flowchart. Print this out. Stick it by your computer. Apply it to that email you’re about to send. What, your email has five topics? Look, I’d prefer that you keep it to one topic, one email for clarity’s sake, but fine, apply this rubric to all five topics individually. If you run afoul of that MAYDAY box, delete whatever part of your email that was and move on to the next one.
Maybe that’s going to delete your entire email. That’s fine. Take all those feelings and put them in a journal or an essay. Go buy a friend some tea (or something stronger if that’s your jam) and rant about it. Talk to your therapist (this is a great time to get a therapist if you don’t already have one). But don’t send it to your ex.
Before I give you the chart, let’s talk about why you need it. There are two people (at least) involved here, right? Okay, great. So what you need to not be doing is writing a manual for how to get you riled up, hurt you, make you look unreasonable, or gaslight you about the relationship. Don’t do that. And every time you talk about a feeling, express the desire for this person to fill an emotional need, or try to discuss the relationship, that’s what you’re doing.
NOTE: THIS APPLIES TO RELATIONSHIPS THAT AT LEAST ONE PARTY (it doesn’t have to be you) HAS DECIDED NOT TO SALVAGE. Or, honestly, to communications in the context of an ongoing relationship when you’re super duper pissed off but don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Let’s take a look at the chart and then talk through the rubric and why each question is there.
The pun in the title is deliberate. You’re excommunicating this person or relationship. You’re putting emotional and physical distance between you, and you’re drawing a hard-line boundary to protect yourself and them from fallout as you move on with your life.
First question: What do I want from this conversation?
If you don’t know what you want, you’re not going to get it, and you’re going to leave dissatisfied and hurt no matter what your ex says to you. So know what you want going in. Now, about that logistics/emotions divide…
The only thing you are entitled to from your ex is logistics. What time will they pick up the kid(s)? How are they planning to get their piano out of your third floor apartment? When can you come over and get your t-shirts and your Steely Dan CD? (It’s ok if they throw your toothbrush out.) If what you want from this conversation is to get a logistics answer? Go ahead.
You are not entitled to have your emotional needs met by your ex. And, let’s be very fucking real for a second here: if this person was invested in meeting your emotional needs, you would not be breaking up. So if you’re about to ask them to confirm that they loved you when they said “I do,” or that you are a person who deserves love, or that they’re abusive, or to validate literally any perception or emotion of yours? ABORT THIS CONVERSATION RIGHT NOW. YOU ARE ABOUT TO GET HURT. Even if they don’t want to hurt you, you are writing them a manual for how to do it and giving them almost no choice but to damage you consciously or unconsciously. Don’t do this to yourself. Walk away from this conversation.
If you’re standing in front of them trying to have your emotional needs met, practice this line: “You know what? That’s not your job, and I don’t need you to do it.” And then GTFO, ok? Please? Take care of yourself. Go for a walk or read a book or go dancing or whatever it is you liked to do before you met them.
Second Question: Is this conversation in writing?
Unless you absolutely can’t avoid it, you should be having all conversations with your ex in writing. For one thing, if they’re a gaslighting abusive asshole, you’re going to want a record. Even if they’re not, writing gives you both a chance to be clear and calm, both of which are things that will benefit you as you move on with your lives.
Third Question: Have I asked for what I want directly?
Don’t prevaricate. Don’t mess around with “do you remember the time we listened to that CD three times while we sat on the couch and the sun went down? Yeah, I want that CD back.” Just say “I think you have my Steely Dan CD still, and I’d like it back.”
If you’re not a writer, think of this as your introduction to a surprisingly popular type of writing: microprose. In microprose, the challenge is to convey a complete idea or story in as few words as possible. Think of “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” (I know Wikipedia calls it flash fiction, but flash fiction is typically much longer than micro. This is why you can’t use Wikipedia as a primary source for your term papers, kiddos.)
Ask for what you want, directly, in as few words as possible. Don’t describe the thing or how you feel about it. Not “I haven’t had a vacation in ten years and Andy and I want to go to the Bahamas so I need two weeks off from the twins.” Instead, say “Please let me know when you can take the twins for two weeks.”
Fourth Question: Have I explained why I need it?
DON’T. Just ask for what you want. Why? Because there’s almost no way to do this without telling your ex how important it is to you. Don’t say “I need my computer back because I have a project due at work and I’ll get a bad review if it’s not in by Thursday.” That means they can hold your computer hostage like “well, I’ll bring it back when you do XYZ for meeeee” and know you have no other options. Just say “I need my work computer back now. Let me know what time today I can pick it up.”
(Have you noticed that each of these suggestions flows into the next question? I’m so smart.)
Fifth Question: Have I limited their possible responses to YES or NO (or something like “3:30 pm”)?
In law school you learn how to conduct a cross-examination. Since you might not have gone to law school, here’s the benefit of my education, for free, for you: Ask yes or no questions that you have an expected answer to.
So you’d never ask “How long does it take to get to work from your house” because the witness is going to be like “Well I usually leave at 8:30 and then sometimes there’s traffic and it really depends on the beltway and it could really be anywhere from like maybe I get to work at 9 but it can take an hour and a half if there’s construction” and all of a sudden your client’s alibi is gone. No, you say “It typically takes you twenty minutes to get to work, right?” and you expect a yes. And then if they say something like “Unless there’s construction or” you bring it right back with “but typically, it takes you twenty minutes, right?”
By using cross-examination techniques, you’re setting up a situation where if they try to divert or dodge you can come right back to the question. “I didn’t ask if you were working late or having your new girlfriend over. I asked what’s a good time for me to pick up my computer today.”
Sixth Question: Have I phrased my statement in a way that assumes a yes answer if there is no reply?
Or have I at least phrased it in such a way that NO REPLY is A REPLY?
Never write to your ex (or your coworkers for that matter) in such a way that you’re left hanging if they ignore you. That is going to give you all the bad feels. I am trying so hard to protect you from bad feels.
You can give yourself an ulcer, or you can start writing sentences like “I’ll be over to pick up my autographed picture of Nichelle Nichols at 6pm unless I hear from you by 2pm that another time tonight is better.” Or “I’ll expect to see you at 8am with the movers for your piano unless you contact me by 3pm today and tell me a different time. I will not be available to let movers in from 3-6pm, so please keep that in mind if you need to reschedule.”
Last Question: Have I had a trusted friend read this?
Like any piece of formal, professional writing, your communications with this new coworker may need an editor. Especially if you’re new at this rubric! Grab a buddy. Buy them a coffee or some bourbon or a pedicure, and ask them to go through your email before you send it. The odds are pretty good that something you thought was neutral is an obvious emotional plea that needs to be rephrased or deleted.
It’s okay. You’re not doing it wrong. This is hard stuff, and we all need help with it. Separating emotional needs from planning needs can be tricky. It takes a lot of practice to stop explaining, but still give the person enough information to respond. Your friend may suggest “Let me know when this summer you can take the twins for two weeks. They’ll be excited to see you.” That’s a great edit! It clarifies your needs, doesn’t give information about you, and helps grease the wheels a little bit for your time in the Bahamas.
It sounds like you’re ready to hit send on that written conversation about your logistics needs, which lays out the need and your expectations clearly, provides that no answer is still an answer, and that doesn’t contain a lot of emotional filler text.
BUT WHAT IF THEY….
Before you go into a panic spiral over the potential responses, remember the fifth and sixth questions. Your email or text is phrased that way for a reason. All you have to do is redirect their inappropriate responses right back to the question. “I still need to know what time you’ll be picking Dhruv up.” Don’t prevaricate; just jump right in and re-ask that question. It’s fine if you want to thank them for other responses (this is why I want you to keep it to one need, one email though). “Thanks for letting me know about the CDs and end table. I still need to know what time you’ll be picking Dhruv up. As I said, school is out at 3:30 and he is available any time after 4.”
I shouldn’t have to tell you to save all these emails, but save all these emails. You might need them. That’s another reason to stick to the rubric: it keeps you looking reasonable and professional and practical. It can add a little grace to your side of the scale.
If you’re really struggling, you can make a throwaway gmail account for ex communications, give your trusted friend the password, block your ex everywhere else, and just communicate through the friend or just using that email so the friend can see all your drafts and approve them before hitting send. Breakups are hard. Don’t make it any harder on yourself.
Oh, and? You are amazing, and worthy of love, and of a partner who can meet your emotional needs. You are not too much. You are the right amount of you, and you’re going to be okay.
(If this helped you, and if you can spare it, consider hitting that “buy me a coffee” button in the sidebar. The ad down there makes money for WordPress, not me. But please take care of yourself first. It sounds like you’re going through quite a time right now.)