Does it feel like your ex is impossible to deal with? Do you feel like every day is tainted with divorce drama and sucking the life out of you?
Maybe you have an ex who is nasty one day and nice the next. Perhaps you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around your ex, always worried that if you say the wrong thing they’ll blow up and get defensive.
Even worse, you may have a litigious ex—one who calls in the lawyers at every opportunity or even uses legal action to threaten you if they don’t get their way.
Or you could have an overbearing, disrespectful kind of ex—one who routinely discounts your role as a parent or constantly criticizes you. They operate from a “my way or the highway” attitude, constantly expecting you to bend over backwards “for the sake of the kids” but never budge when you ask for flexibility.
Whichever unfortunate scenario you happen to be in, it all adds up to a huge drain on your energy and your life. When you’re consumed by the latest drama with your ex—in a state of constant distraction…at work you can’t concentrate, with friends you can’t stop talking about it, or turning it over in your mind in bed at night.
You rehearse what you wish you could have said, how you could defend yourself or prove your ex was wrong. Then there are times when your frustration and anger get the best of you and you decide to give your ex a piece of your mind which you ultimately later regret.
Will the fighting ever end?
Sometimes you go through periods where things are “fine,” and you think maybe just maybe you’ve turned the corner and things will get better. But the “peace” usually doesn’t last for long.
Eventually, your ex gets triggered out of nowhere and the fighting starts all over again. You wish you could change it but you just don't know how to stop it.
Worst of all is when it happens in front of your kids, and it breaks your heart. How in the world are you supposed to protect them from that?
You know none of this is good for them. You’re not willing to be your ex’s doormat, but what choice do you have especially if you want to do right by your kids.
You feel angry, resentful, hopeless, and out of control.
Above all, you’re terribly concerned about how all this will impact the children.
Maybe they’ve started copying the other parent’s bad behavior by being extremely disrespectful; perhaps they’re having more tantrums or when they come back to your home their behavior is off the charts and you feel like you have to re-parent them. You could have a kid who seems more sad or depressed while others feel caught in the middle.
Just what are you supposed to do?
For the past 20+ years, I’ve educated separated and divorced parents on how to handle the trickiest moments on their journey. When working with a parent who is dealing with a contentious ex, I help them take a step back from drama and look at what’s really driving the train.
Here’s what I mean:
When you have an ex that won’t let up, it because there’s a “payoff” for them. Your ex is gaining something from the conflict, and when you understand what this payoff is, you can shift the cycle.
Let's take a look at Maria and Joe:
Ever since Joe’s divorce, he tried to do everything he could to get along with his ex, Maria. It seemed like no matter how hard he tried, nothing worked.
While they would go through periods where things were fine, it usually didn’t last for long.
Eventually Maria would unexpectedly explode over something trivial and a slew of angry emails, texts, and voicemails would ensue.
When this happened, Joe would usually drop what he was doing and immediately respond to Maria’s outburst.
Most of the time, Joe did his best to calm Maria down and work things out. If she sent him an accusatory email, he would reply with an equally long email explaining his perspective point by point. Every voicemail and text she left, he would return, resulting in numerous back and forth exchanges and heated debates.
Joe knew none of it was good for his 10-year-old son, Sammy. While he wasn’t willing to be Maria’s doormat, he desperately wanted to do right by his son.
What Joe didn’t get (and most parents don’t) is that he was giving Maria lots of incentive to keep stirring the pot.
Removing The Payoff
Every time Joe and Maria got into a spat, Joe unknowingly was giving Maria exactly what she wanted—his undivided attention.
This dynamic is sometimes referred to as negative intimacy. In other words, since Maria no longer passionately loved Joe, she put her energy into passionately agitating Joe. For Maria, the conflict had become the primary outlet for keeping her connection to Joe alive.
One way for Joe counter this would be to stop scrambling to respond every time Maria blows up. By removing the payoff—his attention—he stops reinforcing Maria’s bad behavior. While things won’t get better for Joe overnight as he continues to not take the bait, eventually Maria’s antics will die down.
Keep in mind that there can be lots of different payoffs for a conflictual ex.
For some, it may be the need to feel in control or powerful. Others may try to offset feelings of helplessness, while another may use the ongoing conflict to assert a false sense of superiority or importance.
Can you see where your ex fits into this picture and what the pay off might be for him or her?
Without a doubt, dealing with the unrelenting antics of a contentious ex can be exhausting.
It feels as if he or she can do whatever they please, unleashing a flood of bad behavior on you—and your children.
But you DO have power here.
When you allow your mood, your day, and your parenting to be affected by your ex’s behavior and choices, like it or not they are in control.
Taking back control over the quality of your life involves getting some emotional distance from
what the other parent does or doesn’t do and learning to respond instead of react. Realize you always have the ability to choose how you respond to your ex's behavior and how you view a situation.
While the logical part of you may realize this, the emotional part may not buy it. You might still be hoping that someday things will change. You may still love your ex and feel rejected by him or her. You may feel you have no control over your feelings. Could it really be that simple?
Actually, it can.
Let’s start here:
Come to terms with the fact that you cannot change what your ex does or doesn’t do, the choices they make, or how they behave.
Instead of turning yourself inside out, stay focused on what matters most—how you handle the conflict, the way you process the issues with your kids, and limiting the energy that you give to divorce drama.
Imagine your ex rings you up and wants to talk about changing the schedule. Before you know things get heated…AGAIN. This time however, you don’t feel the knot in your stomach or the tightness in your chest, You remain calm and clearly tell your ex you’ll think things over and get in touch later.
Really. Your day isn’t ruined, you don’t spend hours hashing it over in your head, you don’t fire back with an email or text, and you sleep well at night.
And the amazing thing…because you’re responding in this new way, is that you break the cycle. Your ex no longer gets that “payoff” that keeps the behavior in motion.
Think of the incredible impact this one small shift can have on your life and your parenting.
It’s completely possible, but it’s not going to happen if you don’t clean up your side of the street first.
Not sure where to start?
I can guide you through all of it with my video program called Co-Parenting With Purpose: How to Raise Happy, Secure and Resilient Kids After You've Split Up.
In this easy-to-use program, you’ll learn how to handle the 10 most common challenges and concerns parents have after a break-up or divorce.
You’ll learn how to communicate with your ex so the drama doesn’t take over your life and compromise your ability to parent your kids. A lot of it starts with changing the way you see your relationship with your ex…while changing the way you respond.
I’ll teach you helpful tips that will help you stay calm and confident whenever your ex starts stirring the pot, while shielding your children from the conflict. Plus I’ll share my guidelines for communicating successfully with the other parent, including key pointers to use before you hit “send” on any text or email so you don’t regret it later.Start Watching Now
If you’re feeling resentful because it seems as if you have to do all the legwork here while your ex gets off scot-free, remember it’s not about your ex, it’s about your kids. Keep mind, over time kids notice who showed up for them and who didn’t. Make choices today that they will be proud of years from now.
You’re also teaching them good relationship skills—including holding your own when someone else might not be. As long as your child has ONE parent who is stable, consistent, and considerate, they have a much better chance of adjusting to divorce and even thriving as life moves forward.
Wishing you and your children the very best,