Psychologists and feminist scholars have long studied how males and females are socialized to communicate differently. In the same way that communication gender traps can hurt women at work, in relationships, and in leadership positions, they also deliver a powerful punch in divorce.
Recently a divorce coaching client asked me, “wait, can I actually say that?” in response to my question about what she needed to communicate to her lawyer. Women need to be concerned with not only how they communicate with their ex during a divorce but also with the divorce professionals that can help them.
How women are taught to communicate
Women are socialized to believe that women talk too much, should be “nice” and “polite”, should apologize and qualify their statements and allow their male counterparts to interrupt them. Studies have shown that women do not talk more than men. In fact, in professional and classroom settings men are far more likely to volunteer their opinions than women. Additionally, any expression of a woman’s negative emotions is not tolerated and is often blamed on hormones and being “crazy.”
Communication in a divorce
When someone goes through a divorce they are likely to communicate with:
- Their spouse
- Their attorney
- Financial professionals
- A mediator
- A judge
They are likely to fall into the same communication gender traps with all of them, regardless of the other’s gender.
Common communication gender traps in divorce
Looking out for everyone else’s best interest. Women are taught to care for others and wear it as a badge of honor. Most women I know can easily express what their children want, what their spouse wants, and what their boss wants but when it comes to what they want, they just aren’t sure (or apologize for wanting it). As girls, they were made to feel that their wants were too big, too much, or just plain silly. Women are socialized to believe that they (and their wants) take up too much space. When they step into a divorce space, they often feel guilty for wanting anything for themselves and communicate in a way that minimizes their own needs and desires.
I highly encourage women who are facing divorce to get very clear about what is in their best interest as well as their children’s because they often go hand in hand. Talking to a divorce coach, a therapist or a trusted friend can help in getting clear. Once you know what to ask for, you need to speak up. If a particular divorce professional you’ve hired isn’t listening or answering questions in a way that works for you, you need to say so.
Apologizing. Women are socialized to believe that they should apologize for having needs. They often start statements with “I’m sorry but…”, and “This might seem stupid, but…”, I might be wrong, but…” Nian Hu writes, “While men are able to deliver their opinions and ask their questions in a blunt and straightforward manner, women often equivocate, apologize, and frame everything they say in vague language.”
So what can you do to avoid these communication gender traps? Reread your emails before sending them – look and correct language where you have used qualifiers or apologized. Ask a friend or coach their thoughts before expressing yourself verbally or in writing about your divorce case. The clearer and more direct you are about what you want and need the more smoothly things will go. Lynn Fahselt brilliantly suggests these tips for not over-apologizing:
- Keep an apology log for a week. Jot down how many times you apologize in a given day and what for.
- Get the Just Not Sorry – Gmail Plug-in, which alerts you—underlined in red—every time you use the word “Just” or “Sorry” in an email.
- Don’t apologize for things that are out of your control.
- Replace “sorry” with “Unfortunately” or “Excuse me.”
“Hold on, I’m not done.”
“This is important.”
Changing how you communicate will be uncomfortable at first. Developing new habits and patterns takes time. Even if you stop an interruption once this week, you’ll be making progress.
Direct communication is not rude. Women are socialized to be indirect in their communication. Lauren Powell, Psy.D., clinical psychologist, said, “society as a whole values women who are passive and agreeable. Women don’t speak up fearing they’ll be seen as bossy, demanding or high-maintenance.” My clients often have me review correspondence with their attorneys and spouses to ensure they are as direct and clear as possible. Recently a client asked me how to approach her attorney in a way that didn’t feel “rude.” I asked her why communicating her needs felt “rude” and I reminded her that her attorney’s feelings were not her responsibility.
There are better ways to address people when our needs aren’t being met (taking emotion of it, owning how their behavior makes you feel) than others. However, in the end, if a professional you’ve hired isn’t communicating with you in a way that meets your needs, you have the right to move on. Here is an example of a better way to communicate the same thing:
“I’m not sure you understood the questions in my last email, can you take another look”. – not clear or direct
“I need a clearer explanation of why you believe I can’t get 50/50 custody of my children. Let’s schedule a phone call to discuss this. This is the most important part of my case. When are you available?” – call to action, clearly stating the importance of the topic and how you’d like to communicate.
When you are socialized to communicate in a particular way your whole life, it can be challenging to do it differently. Being aware of the communication gender traps in divorce is a good first step. Practicing new ways of communicating and pushing past the discomfort is the next.
Do you need support in communicating differently? Contact me and let’s get started!