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Breaking the pattern of toxic communication

  • June 28, 2021

Not everything requires a response.

Like many people going through a divorce, my ex-husband and I were trapped in a toxic pattern of behaving politely, then behaving badly. Emotions ran high throughout the negotiations around our personal and business lives, and we were communicating primarily through text message.

I was grieving, single parenting a one-year-old, running a business, and desperate for this “in between” period to end. As the divorce and business split moved forward, I grew more fearful, anxious, and defensive—the end was in sight, but I still didn’t know how it would all turn out. I began looking at our text message exchanges as a win/lose situation, where one party had to get the upper hand and come out on top, making the other party a clear loser in the exchange.

I became blind to the real outcome of these negotiations—settling the intimate details of our lives, our child, our business, and allowing each other to move on in peace. All I could see was winning and losing. I didn’t want to lose. And I especially didn’t want him to win.

As a result, I became incredibly reactive, especially when he was the one behaving badly. (Note, this went both ways—divorce is hard and neither of us were at our best.) He’d send a button-pushing text about the business, custody, or some other aspect of our proceedings, and I’d immediately fire back, matching his heightened emotion and tone. This would trigger a volley of frantic text exchanges that became increasingly impolite, threatening, or downright mean, until both of us were so angry, we’d throw our phones and go off to fume.

Or at least, that’s what I did. I have to imagine it was similar on the other end.

I was deep into The Work of Byron Katie at the time, going through the steps on my own and with a trained practitioner. Through the work, I became acutely aware that every time I went low and tried to hurt him, it actually hurt ME. Every time I tried to manipulate, back-stab, or get one up on him, I was the one who paid the price. It felt awful. I hated who I was in those moments, and I hated the energy it was bringing into my life (and stealing from it). It was dimming my shine, and turning me into someone I didn’t recognize. Worst of all, these exchanges weren’t moving us towards a resolution, they were only further dividing us.

All it takes for a pattern to change is for one person to change how they respond. So I tried something new.

The next time he sent a provocative text, I did… nothing. I didn’t reply at all. I forced myself to put the phone down, giving myself time to sit in how the text made me feel, noticing what was coming up for me, and committing not to respond until I had processed what I was experiencing and could talk to him in a way that was in alignment with my highest good.

It took me HOURS to move through the anger, anxiety, and fear response and into the inquiry of The Work. By the time I was calm, I realized a neutral response was the most prudent course of action. I would stay grounded, not get sucked into the emotions swirling around us, and try to call up some compassion for the difficult situation we were both in.

Guess what? I didn’t have to.

Before I had the chance to reply, I got a follow-up text from him. “Hey, that was kind of sh*tty of me. Sorry about that. Can we try that discussion again?”

Well, I’ll be damned.

It turns out that one pattern interruption ended the cycle for us once and for all. If I’d initiate a nasty text, I’d immediately think, “Ouch. That was sh*tty. He’s trying. You can do better,” and I’d apologize and start again. If he reached out with that energy, I’d simply hold a response, and when we did resume the conversation, it was always from a calmer, more compassionate place.

The best part was that I had less and less to apologize for as the proceedings went on, because I was thinking, “Is this sh*tty of me?” before I sent the text. We were communicating in a healthier manner. I felt better about myself, and less anxious about the proceedings. I dropped the idea of winning and losing, and approached it (as best as I could) from the perspective of a team discussion, both wanting a satisfactory outcome for the sake of our child.

It was hard, but it was worthwhile. And it worked.

CAVEAT: I had the luxury of working with someone who was also trying to be better even while things were falling apart. You won’t always have that. Sometimes, the people you are communicating with are hell-bent on hurting you, wounding with words, making your life harder, and “winning” in the end. Sometimes, you have to communicate with them, because they’re a co-parent, mother, or soon-to-be-ex-spouse.

I’m still going to tell you that not everything deserves a response. And even if you don’t get the apology or the de-escalation, your lack of response is in the very least not feeding the fire, and (most important) not energetically dragging you down to their level. That one is huge.

Ask yourself, “Does this need a response?” Is it just a threat, a prediction, a poke, a passive-aggressive jab? Will devoting your energy to this make for a productive resolution, or just reduce your vibration? Are they just looking for ANY response…. and they know the right buttons to push?

In truth, the best thing you can do when dealing with a hurt person hell-bent on hurting you back is… nothing, or as close to nothing as you can get. Don’t reply. If it demands a reply, take as long as you need to reply with calm, unemotional, compassionate (if you can) energy. Involve your attorney, pastor, or therapist in the communications. Hold a boundary around how you will and will not communicate. Control the flow of energy, by modulating your own. Channel your inner Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”

“Going high” may feel like they’re winning in the moment, but trust me, that kind of “win” is hollow, empty, and unfulfilling, and depends on you continuing the pattern of communication you’ve been stuck in. And you’re the one who has the power to change that. Your new, calm, grounded, non-reactive way of responding may not be immediately gratifying, but for your long-term health,  happiness, and high-vibration, it’s the only way to move forward.

Change the pattern. You have the power to do that.

XO MU

Please seek out the help of a trained counselor, therapist, or online support group if you’re struggling with communications of this nature. Also note, this advice is not meant for those experiencing abuse in any form. If that is your scenario, reach out to a professional or crisis hotline for assistance.