Going through a divorce is one of the hardest challenges you will ever face. There are so many emotionally painful stages in the process, from informing family and friends to the physical separation.
It’s hard enough to get through a divorce when things between you and your ex-spouse are amicable. But, what do you do when you are dealing with an ex who makes things even harder for you at every turn?
If you have children or other unresolved issues, it’s likely your ex-spouse is in your life to stay. And the emotional fallout from a divorce can leave you feeling bitter toward an ex.
So, how do you deal with a person who tries to make your life miserable in every way possible? Here are a few tips.
One of the first steps in dealing with a difficult spouse is to keep the lines of communication open, but impersonal, according to Ron L. Deal, licensed marriage and family therapist.
Deal, author of “The Smart Stepfamily,” and a Jonesboro, Ark., minister, says that avoiding face-to-face interaction will not only help to minimize conflict, but also keep children from being exposed to any toxic remarks passing between the two of you. “Use the phone when possible or even talk to their answering machine,” he advises. “Use e-mail or faxes when possible.”
When you find that your ex is beginning to get nasty, avoid giving a similar response. Instead, keep the conversation focused on the children or whatever issue you are discussing. Deal says that this minimize opportunities for verbal attack. “Actively work to keep conversations focused on the children,” he says. “If the conversation digresses to “old marital junk,” say something like, “I’d rather we discuss the schedule for this weekend.”
If there really is no way around dealing with a hostile ex-spouse in person, there are some additional steps you can take to make the conversation go smoothly. For example, Dr. Bill Nodrick, a registered psychologist with the StepFamily Foundation of Alberta, Canada, recommends these steps:
* Book a specific time and neutral location to discuss the issue at hand.
* Write down your thoughts and ideas ahead of time to help you be clear and specific about what you want to say.
* Do not try to discuss more than one issue at a time during the course of one meeting.
* Be clear about whatever you are asking of your ex-spouse and try to stay positive during the course of the conversation.
* Draft a document detailing whatever resolution the two of you come to on the issue and send your ex two copies, one for him/her to sign and send back to you and one for him/her to keep. Be sure the resolution benefits both parties.
* Avoid using angry language, such as “you never” or “you always.”
* Do not raise your voice.
* If you find you are not making progress, end the conversation quickly and plan to try again another time.
Conflict triggers
For most couples, there are triggers that will almost instantly start a conflict. A new relationship is one of those triggers and is among the most common ways to bring out the worst in an ex-spouse. Parenting issues as well as unresolved emotions lead to the jealousy and resentment that is often the underlying factor in these types of conflicts. Boundaries play an important role in this situation, particularly for the new spouses.
Kathryn Luscri, a Plano, Texas-based therapist, says that new spouses must do everything possible to maintain a positive relationship with the other parent for the sake of the children. “It’s important to remember that conflicts that arise with other parents need to be handled by the children’s biological parent,” she said. “Additionally, forming an alliance between all of the biological parents as well as the new stepparents will benefit everyone involved.”
The key to avoiding triggers is to be aware of what they are. In most instances, the issues that caused your marriage to fall apart are the topics that you want to avoid whenever possible. Additional tips for dealing with a hostile ex-spouse include:
1. Respect his/her parenting style.
Constantly criticizing the parenting skills of an ex will only make what remains of your relationship worse. This is not the same thing as excusing bad behavior. If he/she is doing something to put your child in harm’s way, then it’s your responsibility as a parent to step in. However, if the differences are as trivial as, say, the types of chores your children do at the other parent’s home or a 30-minute difference in bedtimes, let it go. Respecting the rules of his/her household will go a long way toward maintaining a peaceful relationship for the sake of your kids.
2. Keep kids neutral.
No matter how bad the situation gets, never force your children to choose sides. Kids do not fully understand the nature of the situation. For them, it is all very basic: they love both of you and want to know you both love them and little else really matters for them. So, even if you find that your ex badmouths you to your children or makes nasty comments in front of them, simply blow it off and fight off any urges to retaliate, particularly through your children.
3. Take a parenting class.
In some states, this is a requirement of divorce. A parenting class will teach you the most effective ways to communicate with a difficult ex-spouse as well as ways the two of you can work together to make things easier on your family. If you can stand being in the same room, you can take the class together and participate in various exercises that will strengthen your ability to deal with one another. If not, then at least take the class separately and utilize the techniques to communicate with one another.
4. Use an intermediary.
If you simply cannot communicate under any circumstances, consider an intermediary. This could be a professional mediator who works with you on a regular basis or a mutual family member or friend who is on good terms with both of you. Sit down with this person and explain your needs and the time commitment involved in acting as a go-between. Make sure they are willing to deal with both of you and set ground rules ahead of time. Both of you should sign contracts agreeing to what the intermediary will do and what your responsibilities are in the situation.

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