In this post, we’re discussing the manuals in relationships and how we can throw them away to live a better, more genuine, and less stressed life after divorce. We will focus on co-parenting with your ex, but this applies to any relationship.
Let’s start with the question, what is a manual? Creating a manual is something we all do. Most of us have used an operational manual at some point in our life — whether the manual taught us how to operate our vehicle or build something or use an electronic device.
But did you know that most people have an unwritten, unspoken, operational manual “written” for everyone in their life? You know what I’m talking about. It’s a manual about our expectations for the people in our lives and how we’ve decided they should act. The manual is very popular in romantic relationships and in many family dynamics.
I’ve had to work on this myself when it comes to Jeff as my husband and partner, as well as others in my life. And what is interesting is that I didn’t even understand that I had these manuals in relationships until I did. What I also recognized is that the manuals I had were causing me a lot of unnecessary pain and disappointment.
Understanding the Concept of Manuals in Relationships
How does this play into rebuilding your life after divorce? Well, we are here to provide support to help you get past the pain and suffering and on with rebuilding your life. When it comes to manuals, you need to recognize where you have them in your life and to whom you are applying them. This brings awareness so that you can change your thoughts, let the adults in your life be who they are, and release the frustration that comes with trying to control someone that you truly cannot control.
We have listened to our clients and have noticed that many of them hold deep-rooted manuals for their ex-partners that existed before their divorce but were rewritten to apply to their new relationships as well. This primarily applies to those who have children together and have an ongoing co-parenting relationship that they want to control.
So, these manuals are unwritten operational guidelines that people have for the important people in their lives. We like to start by asking, “Where do you have these manuals in your life?” and “Who do you have them for?” This helps to identify a starting point. Once you have identified who you have these manuals for, the next question is, Have you shared the manual with this person? Do they clearly understand what they are expected to do and how to act? Most people would say no.
The Problem with Trying to Control Other People
The next question is, Why do we get upset when someone isn’t living under the terms of the manual? This manual is like a rulebook on how the other person should behave. Many of us spend a lot of energy getting upset when someone falls short of the manual we created for them. However, we’re suggesting that you may think you’re completely justified in having expectations of other people, but this often backfires.
We may justify our expectations by saying something like, “If he just did this with the kids” or “If she communicated with me about the children like XYZ, then everything would be great with our co-parenting relationship, and then I could move on, and be happy again.” We have belief systems that if other people would just behave the way we want them to, then we could be happy. This applies to any relationship, but I see it mostly in co-parenting relationships after divorce.
The problem is that we don’t realize we’re doing this. We think that we have reasonable expectations of people in our lives, and they should behave in a reasonable way. However, what we think is reasonable and what others think is reasonable are often very different, even when it comes to co-parenting after a divorce.
One of the first things we believe is essential to remember is that adult people, including your ex, have the freedom and ability to behave however they wish. This applies to you as well. As adults, we all have the power to make choices about what we do and how we act.
We understand that this may be contrary to what some of you have learned in therapy, especially marriage counseling. We want to emphasize that spouses should try to save their marriage if they wish, and counseling can be an effective tool to accomplish this. However, in some counseling models, therapists may ask each partner, “What do you need from him or her?” and create a list of needs that each partner must fulfill to make the other happy.
We suggest that this approach can lead to further problems in the marriage or relationship. Most of us struggle enough to understand our own needs and how to meet them, let alone being responsible for someone else’s needs. If we are in a relationship where the couple is constantly trying to control each other, no one will ever win.
The truth is, we cannot control another person. Additionally, there is nothing they can do to make us as happy as we want to be. Most of us cannot control or manage ourselves, yet we want to control and manage other people. This is somewhat ridiculous when you think about it. If we cannot even control our own behaviors, how do we expect to control someone else’s?
Let me ask a question: Why do you want someone else to behave in a certain way? Do you know? We’re going to give you the answer. The reason why we want someone else to change their behavior is because of how we think we will feel if they do. But let’s go back to basics and explore this. It’s our thinking that causes our feelings, not another person’s behavior.
So, what actually happens is when they follow our manual, we decide to think they are a good co-parent, they respect us, they care, and then we feel okay and good. When they don’t follow our manual, we make it mean something negative, and then we feel negative about it.
Stay with me. When you let someone’s actions or inaction control your feelings, you are not taking responsibility for how you feel. Instead, you have given away all your power just because someone you cannot control did something. Whenever we think someone else’s behavior causes our emotions, we not only set ourselves up to feel negative emotions, but we also set ourselves up to be completely powerless because the only way we can feel better is if the other person changes.
For years, I was crazed trying to get other people to behave the way I wanted them to behave. When I remind myself, the only reason I’m trying to get this person to behave this way is that I think I’ll feel better when they do it. But I can remind myself that it’s not even possible because someone else’s behavior cannot determine how I feel; it’s only what I think about their behavior. Then I can take a deep breath and stop trying to control them so much.
The Importance of Recognizing What We Can and Can’t Control in Co-Parenting Relationships
Think about the people in your life for whom you have manuals. Think about whom you really want to change and what you want them to do on a regular basis. It’s a little bit different if you have children because your job is to help them write their operation manual for chores around the house and schoolwork and stuff like that. If you’re a boss, there are some things you need to do in terms of your expectations of an employee. This is very different from a manual because the manual says that if you don’t behave this way, I’m going to feel something. It’s like saying, “I’m going to be very upset if you don’t behave this way,” or “I’m going to be very angry.”
That’s very different from saying to a child, for example, “If you don’t clean your room, there will be consequences for you.” That’s very different from saying, “You hurt my feelings because you didn’t make your bed, and that makes mommy feel very upset.” That’s emotional blackmail. It’s really important to separate those two things out and to remember that making requests of people and not tying your emotional life to them is very expected and a normal part of life.
Clients will say to us, “But you’re telling me I shouldn’t tell my ex-husband that he shouldn’t feed our kids junk food or let them stay up late on a school night?” Yes, you can express what you would like. That’s expected. It’s part of being a co-parent. You can communicate all the requests you want. But when you tie your emotional happiness to whether your ex responds or takes your advice, that’s when you get yourself into trouble. When you start banging your head against the wall and trying to manipulate them so they’ll behave the way you want them to behave, that’s when you’re going to get yourself into a spiral of negativity.
You see some exes stay in this litigation mode after the divorce because they have certain ideas about how a parent should parent. These ideas make all the sense in the world to them, and even the experts may support their thoughts, but their ex isn’t buying into it, so they try to get the court to side with them. This is why, legally, in states like Florida, where I practice, there is a high standard for what is considered the best interest of children and what amounts to abuse or neglect. This is because what may appear like bad parenting to one is not seen as bad parenting by another standard. It’s challenging when it comes to children because we all want what we believe is best.
The alternative is to make a request, and if they don’t honor the request, you take responsibility for how you feel about that. With co-parenting, it is a bit different because you have no choice but to respect, even if you don’t necessarily like them, that this person is your child’s parent also. In other words, you can’t just dismiss them from this role. They are in the role.
You see, with other people in your life, you can decide that they are free to act as they want, and if you don’t like it, you can forgo the relationship. You get to make this choice. There is a distinction, however, when it comes to your ex as a co-parent. The issue here is to understand that they may not parent the same way as you do, and it is important to accept this as long as your child is safe. Sometimes your ex just won’t buy into your parenting ideas, and it is essential to recognize that there may be other ways to bring your values and ideas on parenting into your child’s life. While doing so together and being on the same page would be easier, it may not always be a reality.
You get to decide what you’re going to do with your time as a parent and how you’re going to respond when your ex isn’t buying into the manual you have. Let me give you an example: I have a client who is a vegan and prepared vegan food for the family during the marriage, which seemed okay with her husband. However, when they got divorced, her ex decided that he wasn’t going to live a vegan diet and started introducing non-vegan foods to the children.
When my client found out about this, she was very upset. She had strong beliefs about why a vegan-based diet was better for her children based on expert insight. My client spent countless hours trying to convince her ex of her beliefs, becoming frustrated with his lack of buy-in. She truly believed it to be detrimental to their children to eat non-vegan, obsessing over it. However, while she made a strong argument, the reality was that the court would not require or order a vegan diet. The court would not be micromanaging the children’s diet, so it took my client a while to realize that all this energy was for naught.
Finally, she decided to do what she could on her watch, continuing to teach the children about the benefits of a vegan diet and doing the best she could while they were with her. As the children got older, they decided to request vegan foods themselves. She controlled what she could and gave up on trying to control her ex in this regard.
She voiced her requests, saying “I would love this and that,” and then let it go with her ex. I have found that this sets people up to have more enjoyable, long-lasting, conflict-free relationships. It is better for the children’s overall health for the parents not to be in conflict over this and place the kids in the middle of it.
The Link Between Our Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in Managing Expectations in Relationships
Today, we are focused on co-parent relationships, but keep in mind that there are many other people in our lives for whom we have manuals. Mainly, I would say, our closest relationships. We have ideas about how we would like them to behave and who we would like them to be. It comes from the idea that if they were more like we wanted them to be, we would somehow be happier. This is true for bosses, coworkers, friends, and people in our lives whom we think, “Gee, if we had a better boss or a better friend or neighbor, we would be so much happier.”
I think it’s important to remember that your happiness comes from within you, and it doesn’t matter who your ex is or what they do when it comes to your emotional well-being. It’s easier when you are compatible with your ex, like Sam and I are, as opposed to Jeff and his ex. It makes for a better co-parenting existence, right? But not everyone has that kind of meeting of the minds with their ex.
Consider voicing your thoughts clearly and respectfully, in a calm way, and then letting them go with no strings attached. Genuinely notice what people do when you don’t try to control them. If you focus only on trying to control yourself and your response to other people’s behavior, imagine what your life would be like. How could you use that energy to make your and your children’s lives better after divorce?
If your ex doesn’t honor your request or follow through on what you’ve asked them to do, you get to decide to let that go. But the truth is that you don’t have to be upset or angry about it. That’s totally up to you. You don’t have to get so angry when your ex doesn’t comply with what you want. In our personal relationships, it’s much easier to let go of the manuals. When we start letting people be who they are and notice what they do without trying to control them or change who they are, we’ll notice that we’re a lot calmer. First of all, we’ll notice that we don’t have to make their actions mean something negative.
Maybe consider trying to really hear your ex’s perspective. You don’t have to buy into it or agree, but just listen calmly. Maybe there is some common ground that you can start to build on.
Rebuilding Life After Divorce and Dealing with Manuals
Here’s an exercise to consider: think about the requests you have of your ex or a person in your life. Write down the things you think it would be awesome if this person would do. Then take the time to think about what you would feel if they voluntarily did all those things. What would you be thinking? Remember, all of your feelings come from your thinking. Can you think that about this person without them having to do all those things? If the answer is yes, you scored. You don’t have to go around changing other people to feel better. You can decide to take care of your own emotional life and brain, and make sure you’re thinking thoughts that serve you.
If you really want something done and it’s important to you, take some time to consider this idea. Are you willing to give up your manuals? Are you willing to let go of your expectations based on what you want in your life, and focus on yourself and creating the best life that you can for yourself? A life that isn’t dependent on anyone else’s behavior, and is only enhanced by being around people who genuinely want to do things. Not because you’re emotionally manipulating them or requiring them to behave in a certain way.
I promise you, it’s a game-changer. Try it out.
If you’re ready to work on yourself and the manuals you’ve created for those in your life, let us help. We offer one-on-one coaching where we’ll help you take control of your mind so you can begin building your best life after divorce. Set up a Discovery Call by visiting our website today.