The Art of Nonengaging

As a general philosophy, I am a believer in being direct in your communications. I don’t mean the rude “I don’t want to hurt your feelings but your casserole tastes like dog food” which of course is meant to be rude, regardless of the disclaimer. I mean being clear in your communication, such as looking someone in the eye, and telling them “You are unlikely to be allowed to move to another state unless your ex-spouse agrees to the move” rather than “ well, there is a long history of cases involving moves which involve differing factors which may or may not apply to your situation and which may give differing results depending on the particular trier of fact.” The second statement, while accurate, doesn’t immediately give the person you are talking to the needed information.

So what do I mean by “nonengaging”? If the purpose of a question or statement is not about communicating, but the real purpose is to engage you in a dialogue that is not productive to you, then responding to that question or statement doesn’t act as communication. Let me give you an example. Your soon to be ex-spouse emails you, and asks you if the children got to school on time that morning, since he is sure that you are really out partying and dating and not
taking care of the children. He really isn’t seeking information, he is seeking to engage you in a conversation in which he can lob innuendos and insults. This triggers a button with you. How dare he suggest that you don’t take care of the children? If you don’t deny that you not out on a date, but were at a PTA meeting, isn’t he going to assume the worst and cause a dramatic scene that will be brought up in court? You feel you have to immediately email or text back that you were not on a date, you are not dating, you were at a PTA meeting and of course the children were to school on time. Except that when the purpose of communication is to engage and have interaction with someone, even negative interaction, then your response will just trigger a further response. He will probably respond “I don’t believe that you aren’t dating. The only reason that you could possibly have for wanting a divorce is that you have been having affairs. God knows who you have been with.”

Don’t engage.
Recognize when communication is not about communication, and just don’trespond. Don’t respond to the first email asking if the children were to school on time and hinting that you were out on a date. If the communication does have even a partially legitimate question, such as “I just got a call from the
school wanting to know if the children are absent. Were you out on a date last night and couldn’t get up on time?” then answer the part that is relevant to the “business” that you have with your ex-spouse. “Kids are in school, Johnny had a hard time finding his book this morning.” Then stop. Even if you know that
no matter what you say or don’t say, you are going to get accusations or insults, if your communication doesn’t relate to a “business issue” for you,
then don’t respond. The emails, texts and phone calls just keep coming and escalating. And if this kind of dialogue does come up in court, telling the judge that you just couldn’t let it go doesn’t convey a good impression for you, even when you feel that you are on the defensive.

Not engaging is not easy.
For some people, especially if there might be narcissistic personality disorder traits, being ignored is very threatening, and can feel as if the person who is ignoring you doesn’t believe you are a worthwhile person. The first time you don’t engage, it is not unusual to have the next level of exchange be even more insulting or hostile. It’s also likely that when you were married, this was a common communication style between you and your spouse. He or she would make an angry statement, you would become defensive, and before you know it, there is a angry, loud argument going on, and you can’t really identify what the argument is about.

When you choose not to engage in a conversation that is not productive, you are redefining your relationship boundaries. You are no longer looking to be emotionally intimate, but you need to replace that emotionally intimate relationship with a relationship that is focused on the business issues, usually issues involving your children. This is not easy. You did not develop your communication pattern overnight with your spouse, and you may not be able to replace that pattern with a more focused communication pattern. Iin the short run, nonengaging just makes things worse. In the long run, if you do not provide the negative or positive emotional interaction that is the real issue, your spouse will find someone else to emotionally engage with. You no longer become fun to play with, and that is exactly what you want as you go forward with the divorce and post divorce interactions.

You should also be aware that if you do not engage, the other parent may engage in a negative manner with your children in order to draw you back into the same old communication pattern. Your child comes back from a week with your spouse and tells you that Mom kept asking questions about who else was at your house, and if you bought anything new, and that there would be more money to pay support if you weren’t getting a divorce. You could then engage with your child. “I can’t believe your Mom said that! She’s the one that always spends way more money than she should going clothes shopping.” When you do that, you are not really talking to your child, you are talking to your spouse through your child. Your child is ten years old and no matter how sophisticated your child thinks she is, the truth is that she is still developmentally a ten year old and doesn’t have the skills to sort through the emotional baggage. You could go back to your spouse and remind her that in the parenting class, you learned to not put your child in the middle emotionally, and that you suggest that she stop making derogatory comments to the child. The response is likely to be “What are you talking about? I was just making conversation!” After all, you just gave the spouse what your spouse really wanted: emotional engagement with you. Now that she has been successful in getting you to engage, the same situation will come up again.

When you get that kind of feedback from your child, understand that the real issue is not the words that your child is repeating, but how your child feels. Focus on that, and ask questions about how your child feels about that statement. Most of the time what your child wants to tell you is that she feels uncomfortable being asked intrusive questions by either parent. That is a different issue than what was being directly stated. If your child becomes insistent on a direct answer on how you spend money, it is very appropriate to tell your child that budgeting is an adult issue, not a child issue, and taking care of the money is your job.

Silence. Nonengagement. Sometimes the most effective communication tool you can have.