While divorce is difficult in many ways, if your relationship with your ex-spouse was full of conflict, putting a legal end to it can be a relief. But sometimes, the final divorce papers don’t necessarily mean the end of your dealings with your ex. Usually, that happens when you have children with your ex – the need to co-parent your child means that you’ll need to have some type of contact with your ex for years to come.
And sometimes the end of the marriage doesn’t mean the end of the conflict – an ex that’s hurt, angry, or just inclined to be contrary can make ongoing contact difficult and painful for you. Sometimes that’s only temporary, but some ex-spouses keep it up as long as they can. Take a look at some tips for dealing with a difficult ex-spouse.
Find Common Ground
Often, a hostile ex-spouse will attempt to pick fights in order to assert their dominance or just because they want you to feel as upset or angry as they do. And avoiding an argument when the other person is determined to have one is difficult! It can be very tempting to just fire back your own insults and accusations, especially if your ex is disparaging your parenting.
But retaliating only prolongs the conflict, and your goal is to end it. Often, the fastest way to defuse a situation like this is to establish some common ground that you can agree upon. So, for example, if your child got a bad grade in school and your ex is blaming you for it or insisting that you are handling it the wrong way, you might say something like, “I understand that you’re concerned about our child’s grades and school performance, and the way that poor grades might negatively affect their future. I understand your concerns, and I’m worried too. I can assure you that I’m communicating with their teachers and taking the appropriate steps to handle the situation.”
With this statement, you put yourself on the same side as your ex-spouse. You both share the same concerns – you’re not at odds here. You’re validating their feelings and concerns, and in many cases, that’s enough to shut down an argument – it’s tough to argue with someone who’s agreeing with you! This doesn’t mean that you have to justify your decisions about how to handle the issue with the grades, or even explain what it is you’ll be doing to handle the issue.
As a general rule, divorced parents are able to handle parenting issues as they see fit during their own parenting time, so whether you decide to ground your child or hire a tutor isn’t really the issue. The issue for your ex here is really their own feelings and desires, and establishing common ground with the statement is a way of acknowledging their feelings and letting them know they’ve been heard, without engaging in an argument. That may be enough to satisfy them – or head off a confrontation – at least for the time being.
Don’t Let Your Ex-Spouse Turn Your Kids Against You
If your ex-spouse can’t get you to engage in an argument with them directly, they may use your children to provoke you. For example, during their visitation with your children, they may say negative things about you or misrepresent the reasons for your divorce, painting you as the bad guy in the situation, knowing that your children will repeat those things to you when they return home.
This can be upsetting, and trash-talking the other parent is generally frowned upon by the court, so it’s a good idea to document when this happens so that you can raise the issue with the family court if need be. But what you really need to know is how to handle the situation in the immediate moment.
When your children come home and repeat negative things about you that your ex said to them, it can be tempting to call your ex up and go after them for lying or for painting such a negative picture for your kids. It can also be tempting to go through each negative comment point by point with your kids and rebut your ex’s claims. But remember, what you really need in this situation is to defuse it, not extend the conflict.
So instead of responding with anger, tell your kids that their other parent is angry and hurt and that you understand those feelings. Let them know that you also understand how upsetting it must be for them to hear those things. Remind them that you love them very much and that you’re there to address any questions or concerns that they have.
Stay calm and avoid any retaliation. Don’t allow your ex to manipulate you into a conflict through your children. Apart from not wanting to give your ex the satisfaction of knowing they got to you, you want to keep your kids out of the middle of the conflict as much as possible. You can’t control what your ex says and does, but your own reactions are fully within your control.
Set Boundaries and Stick to Them
A hostile ex may push your boundaries in order to provoke a conflict or just in order to get you to pay attention to them. And if they had a tendency to push boundaries when you were married – and if you were in the habit of giving in to please them or to avoid conflict – you may find it hard to enforce those boundaries once you’re divorced.
But sticking to your boundaries is important – otherwise, your ex will continue to push them in order to initiate conflict. Establish a method of communication that works for you and stick to it. Many divorced parents find text or email to be the best method of communication. If verbal communication tends to devolve into arguing, don’t let your ex goad you into it – stick with texts and emails.
Refer to your court order if necessary. Stay calm and don’t argue the point, just state your position. For example, if your ex is insisting on visiting with the kids in the middle of the week, say that you understand that they miss the children, but the court order says that their visitation is on the weekends and you’re sticking to that.
If your ex really wants more time with the children, they can always petition the court for more visitation time. You can’t control that, but you can maintain your boundary by referring to the existing court order. If your ex violates the court order, don’t argue about it – just report it to the court.
Dealing with a difficult ex-spouse can be a problem, but a detailed court order outlining each parent’s rights and responsibilities can help. A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you get a comprehensive court-ordered parenting plan and find out how to enforce it if your ex won’t cooperate.