Language Matters for Separating Couples

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Language Matters for Separating Couples

Language is a powerful tool. The words you use can impact on how you and the people you are communicating with think and behave. It is essential that you are mindful of this when you are trying to sort matters out during a divorce or separation, otherwise conflict can increase. When conflict is increased it is less likely that constructive solutions to issues can be found, this can then result in the time it takes to sort things out escalating as well as stress levels and costs. If there are children it’s even more important reduce conflict, as high conflict between parents can cause harm and long-term damage to children.

With this in mind there are 5 key principles to be aware of when you are communicating with a partner you are separating from. These principles are known as the ‘5 Ps’ and were identified by the Family Solutions Group in its Language Matters Report, which calls for a fresh look at the way family law is framed and delivered to those who need it.

The 5 Ps

  1. Plain English

Use words which can easily be understood and avoid legal jargon. This can prevent misunderstandings and arguments.

Legal terms can often be misused or misquoted by separating couples. For instance, did you know that when you are talking about the parenting arrangements for your children you shouldn’t be using words such as ‘custody’, ‘access’, ‘contact’ or ‘residence’. The law no longer refers to these concepts, these matters are now referred to in the law as child arrangements. The rationale for the change in terminology is to move parents away from placing labels on parenting roles and for them to instead focus in more general terms on what arrangements their child needs in place for their parenting.

  1. Personal

If you are using lawyers to help you, make sure they are not writing correspondence referring to you as ‘my client’ and the partner you are separating from as ‘your client’. Using such language makes it easier to become detached and slip into more aggressive language. This can increase conflict and tensions. Language should be kept personal, so it focusses on the people that are affected by the issues.

If you have children refer to the children by name too and avoid calling them ‘my’ children rather than ‘our’ children when talking about them to their other parent. Even though the relationship between you as partners is coming/has come to an end, you will both still remain parents. If you make the other parent feel side-lined in the language you use it can cause difficulties which otherwise could be avoided.

If discussing matters relating to the children avoid referring to ‘my rights’ or ‘my entitlement’. The focus should always be on the children. Think of it more in terms of you and the other parent working out your shared responsibility for the children, rather than focusing on your respective rights as parents.

  1. Proportionate

The language you need to use will be dependent on the issues you are dealing with. For instance, the language where there is serious abuse will need to be more formal, the language should however still remain factual and avoid controversial or emotive language. If there are not issues of serious abuse, with the issues instead being more down to the separating couple having a different perspective on the right solution it’s more proportionate to use conciliatory language.

In many circumstance matters can be more effectively dealt with without being aggressive and disrespectful. Judges dealing with family law cases will often not look favourably upon someone if they are using language that is disproportionate to the issues they are asking the court to resolve. For example in the case of WC v HC 2022 the Judge said:  “Parties, and their legal advisers, may be under the impression that to describe the other party in pejorative terms and to seek to paint an unfavourable picture will assist their case. It is high time that the parties and their lawyers disabuse themselves of this erroneous notion.”

  1. Problem-solving

It is sadly common place for war and battle metaphors to be regularly used, for example ‘court battle’, ‘in my corner’, ‘fighting for my rights’ to name just a few. This combative language gears people up for conflict not solving problems.

Try to avoid language that creates a mindset that your divorce/separation is a war to be won. You are going through a transition in your life and it can help to think and speak about it in a less combative way.

  1. Positive futures

If you are driving along in your car and only look in the rear-view mirror you are going to crash. In order to reach your destination safely you need to spend the majority of time looking forwards. The same can be said for a divorce/separation.

Try and move your focus and communications away from what has happened in the past so you can focus on the future ahead. Your time and energy is often best spent on focussing on moving things forwards.

How can we help?

None of this is easy. If you are separating from your partner emotions are likely to be high. That can make it hard to think generally let alone be more mindful of your language. Things can often be said/texted/emailed in the heat of the moment.

Communicating with somebody you are separating from can be really challenging. We have a range of experts here at Family Law Partners that can help, including a Family Consultant, Mediators and Lawyers. Please get in touch to arrange a consultation.

Gemma Hope is a Director, Specialist Family Law Solicitor, Mediator and Collaborative Lawyer in our Brighton team. She is also a member of the steering group with the Family Law Language Project.

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