Divorce can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it. And it is almost always more difficult when children are involved. Unfortunately, many divorcing/divorced couples use the children as pawns in their arguments and as an easy way to drive each other crazy. My clients ask me daily for ways to co-parent with a really challenging ex-spouse in order to do what’s right for their children and to stay sane.
Here are three tips that I’ve found work best and are relatively easy to implement:
1. Don’t argue with your ex about the minor details of what goes on with your children when they aren’t with you. If your ex leaves them with a babysitter, or parks them in front of the television, these are frustrating situations but not worthy of battling over. Similarly, don’t sweat things like junk food, late bedtimes, and different rules. Although it is completely understandable to want things to be different, it isn’t under your control and these issues are not going to be worth hauling your ex back into court. Pick your battles and only pick the truly big ones. If you think there is abuse or neglect, you need to act accordingly. Other than that, you are not likely to motivate your ex to change and arguing will only increase the tension between the two of you.
Similarly, if your ex continues to comment on what goes on during your parenting time, disengage. You don’t need to respond to each of their criticisms about how you parent your children on your time. Keep your conversations short and to the point. Don’t get defensive or dragged into arguments about minutia. By doing so, you will be teaching your children how to set limits and how to avoid defensive, frustrating conversations.
2. Never threaten your ex. I get why you want to, but don’t do it. Unless you are absolutely sure that you can follow through with your threats, you are essentially teaching them to not believe you. Instead, use a confident voice and clear and non-threatening words to ask for what you want. If they say no, you can decide where to go from there. A threat will only add to the adversity. Don’t point figures, judge, or exaggerate situations. Just use small, short sentences to ask for what you want. For example, “It will not be okay to bring the children home prior to our agreed upon time.” Or, “If you would like a change in parenting times, please call or email me directly.” These sentences pull the emotion and judgment out of the conversation, yet are still clear and assertive. If you have trouble doing this, practice with a friend or professional until you are comfortable doing the same with your ex.
3. A difficult ex will get enjoyment out of your strong reactions. Is that what you really want? The more you react, the more they win and the harder it is on your children. Now is the time to really get a hold of your emotional reactions and learn how to respond in a calm and measured manner. If you can’t do this, then you need to either get some help or get yourself into a situation where you can do so. The more calm you are in responding to your ex, the better the situation will proceed and the better you will feel about yourself. Without question, your ex knows how to push your buttons and will probably try to do so. But you have control over how you think about and thus respond in these situations. If you are not reacting, your ex will eventually back off and find someone else to annoy.
Co-parenting with a difficult ex-spouse can be exhausting and maddening. Learning how to manage yourself will lend to confidence and an improved situation for your children. No, it’s not fair that you have to make changes, but that’s often how it is and ultimately worthwhile for all involved. Do you really want to give your ex the power to anger and frustrate you? Who will you really be hurting if you react to them? Not your ex. You will only be making it harder for yourself and your children. Pick the big battles, avoid any type of threat and be aware of your reactions. Your situation is bound to improve.