Are you divorced or separated and exhausted by the interactions with your former or soon-to-be former spouse? Does it feel, some days, like you get no respite from the crazy? Do you respond in kind to her rants in an attempt to stop it? Do your kids get caught in the verbal cross-fire or notice when you are angry or upset with their mother? Are you at your wit’s end about how to manage? You have learned that no matter what you do you cannot change your former spouse. She rants, she raves, she tries to control what and how you do things no matter what. Getting outraged with her has made no difference. In fact, the only result is that you may feel depleted after you’ve expended energy to attempt to put her in her place.
What then, can you do? The answer may be simpler than you imagine is possible. You may want to sit down for this because it will surprise you. You may need to shift what you do in response to her to change the way things are going. You may need to change. Now, let’s be very clear: we aren’t talking about blaming you. In fact, let’s set aside the idea that you play any role in the unreasonable behavior of your former spouse. It’s surely true our exes know just how to “push those reactive buttons” that make us roar but what if you mostly don’t take the bait? I recommend three techniques that I have found both useful and productive for my clients. It is important to give them a little time to work. It took you and your former spouse a long time to develop the pattern you have now. Shifting the manner in which you interact now will take time too. But it may preserve your sanity and, most importantly, allow you to co-parent your children for many years to come and allow your children to flourish. What’s better than that?
1. Stay Calm No Matter The Outrageous Behavior
Have you ever noticed that once someone escalates a situation, with their voice or behavior, everyone else tends to get worked up too? What if you don’t do that? What happens, if you are screamed at—in person or by text or email—but you don’t respond in kind? You may be surprised to learn than escalation responded to with additional escalation is not very good for you or anyone else. In fact, it’s also true that the most successful people learn how to manage their emotions even when situations are very heightened. http://bit.ly/2HLVOyf Otherwise, your ability to focus and avoid anxiety is diminished. So, even if she tells you (or worse yet, your kids) that you have done something wrong, do not take the bait. If a response is required, deal with the underlying issue and none of the other stuff. Also, and this may be most important, take a break before responding. This is, perhaps, the single most important way to keep calm when under attack. If no one is on fire and there is no immediate logistical issue to be addressed, wait to respond, and only do that if it’s necessary
2. Know When To Hold ‘Em And When To Fold ‘Em
As Kenny Rogers, the country crooner once soulfully said in a song written in 1976 by Don Schlitz:
You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
These sage words, written for a gambler, are just as important to someone who is divorced. In fact, in divorce communications it’s always better to check your ego at the door permanently. Just because something inaccurate is said to or about you does not mean a response is necessary. Explaining a falsehood or misrepresentation is mostly a misguided and time-wasting exercise.
In the event you are worried about what others will think if you don’t make it right, remember this: people may enjoy the gossip around your divorce but, honestly, they don’t really care about the details. Sure, juicy tidbits are fun for most people to hear, especially those who don’t want to focus on the mess of their own lives, but they don’t really have the time, energy or inclination to sort out the truth of the matter. In fact, if they are so interested in you, they likely already know. If they don’t, why should they? One of the most painful parts of divorce is letting go of people you supposed were friends. In fact, they may have been friendly, school acquaintances of your kids or just people in your life who love good gossip (and who like to avoid their own mess at home). Whoever they are, take a deep breath and let it go. Fighting to win the friend or convincing anyone of anything (unless you are in a court of law, god forbid) is likely not worth it. Deal with your co-parent as needed on issues important for your kids. And let the rest go.
When you need to communicate, choose email or text except when a communication is urgent. Be direct, kind and include any important deadlines for a response. Don’t badger after sending an email and only follow up if no response arrives timely according to the issue at hand. Keep your opinions to yourself and include only what’s needed to move the ball forward for your kids. Straightforward honest and kind communication, without extraneous details, goes a long way to improving your relationship with your former spouse. Or, at least, keeping you sane while dealing with a difficult personality who may never change.
3. Give It Time
The only certainty is change. If you can hold this idea high in your mind during and post-divorce, you can recognize that the high conflict dynamic, if you have one, can shift. Sometimes it has nothing to do with how people behave, although it certainly can, but it can simply be a matter of time. People calm down, heal or get their attention diverted to something else. Whatever occurs, you do not need to think that because things are bad now, they will always be this way. So, instead of trying to “fix” the problem, just do what’s needed and give it time. In fact, it’s preferable to do what’s needed, and no more, in order to avoid additional escalation. It may seem counterintuitive, as many believe more is always better but, sometimes, less is just right. Communicate only when needed about what’s needed.
If you can make your focus your work, kids and social life, including your family and friends, you may just find that you don’t need the conflict to sustain you. A connection, even with conflict, is just that. Whether it’s you or your spouse, staying escalated with each other is way more energy than required to co-parent your kids. Try to think of your former spouse as a business contact with whom you need to have a long and productive relationship for the most important product of all: your child(ren). Even if you have nothing in common, and active distaste for each other, you did manage to have a family at one point and time. So, now, create whatever boundaries you need to keep an arm’s length, child focused view of your former spouse.
In sum, although you can never change your former spouse, and she may be wrong and driving you crazy, you can decide what about her behavior is intolerable for you. When you know, do what it takes to acknowledge it, to yourself, and then let it go. Don’t harass, rant, rave or otherwise create additional escalation for yourself or your child(ren). By doing everything you can to contain and take care of yourself and your children, you will do far better for you and them in the long run. In the meantime, make sure you have the support you need and that your children do too. It can get better and you can be a part of the plan to make that happen.