Metacommunication: Strategies during Divorce

When we get divorced, our communication needs change like a passing storm. Sometimes we need to get rage out. Sometimes we need to be reflective. Other times, we want to talk about baseball or an art exhibit or the news. And still other times we don’t want to talk at all. Changing communication needs and desires is a part of divorce that isn’t always discussed. And it’s a hard part of the situation for friends and family who want to support you to understand.

This week I sat down with renowned professor, author and expert Dr. Deborah Tannen. She is the University Professor and Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many books and articles about how the language of everyday conversation affects relationships, best known for You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which was on the New York Times best seller list for nearly four years. This month we’ll be taking a deep dive into Dr. Tannen’s work and what makes it so incisive and unique.

Metacommunication: A Definition

Metacommunication is the act of talking about talking. That means expressing an awareness of the topics that come up naturally in conversation. This can be hard to do with even our closest friends and family because, especially with them, talking can feel natural and instinctual. And taking a step back to evaluate space, boundaries and “rules” for talking can feel like an affront. It can hurt.

But it’s an important step for everyone’s comfort and healing. So, for example, friends and family can ask questions about the “rules of engagement”. They can ask questions like “would you prefer I not ask how things are going?” Or, “do you want to talk about it, or would it be better to set the subject aside”. Speak up. Ask your own questions, for example:

  • Can we not talk about the divorce today?
  • What can we do today that’s completely different to get my mind off it?
  • I don’t want to talk about myself today. What’s going on with you?

“Tell Me if There’s Anything I Can Do”

One of the most challenging responses from friends and family is this classic statement. It puts all the responsibility on the listener (who is the primary sufferer, the one actually living the divorce). That’s a lot of extra pressure. As Dr. Tannen points out, when offered this response, people will say thank you and then never talk again. What’s more helpful is offering specifics, like a dinner date. Just be sure to offer an easy out and offer to drop off dinner if that’s easier.

The Support You Really Need

It’s important to keep in mind that your friends may have one idea of support that is different from yours. And it may not be an effective way to communicate. It’s ok for you to speak up and help guide them in the direction where they can have real impact in helping you.

With communication regularly cited as one of the leading causes of divorce, it’s understandable that you feel nervous about tackling talking about communication with your friends and family. But one conversation may change the dynamic, and create a support system that’s exactly what you need.

If you’re considering divorce but would like to try an approach that might mean a brighter future, call my team to schedule a confidential consultation.