When It's Time to Stop Being Nice to Your Ex

06/01/2015 06:18 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2016

" We've been divorced over a year and my ex still won't make eye contact at little league. He communicates via two-sentence emails. I've been nothing but nice to him, and I always tell the kids what a great dad he is. So why does he treat me like a pariah?"

As a therapist, I hear complaints like this every day from well-meaning folks desperate to establish friendly relationships with unresponsive, angry exes. Of course a collaborative co-parenting partnership is best for children. But it's not always possible, especially when wounds are fresh. If you repeatedly extend olive branches only to have them chopped off, set on fire, and thrown back in your face- it's time to reassess your strategy of relentless optimism.

When it comes to divorce, there's no such thing as an emotional free lunch. Whether you're the leaver or leavee, your life will be turned upside down. But while some of us lean into emotional pain, others defend against it by launching into action mode. Working overtime to engineer a great relationship with someone who won't reciprocate is a good example. You already know, at least intellectually, that you can't turn your ex into someone you would've wanted to stay married to. So if you're stuck endlessly repeating the same fruitless attempts to induce good will in your former spouse, it's time to ask yourself some tough questions:

1. Is my ex ready for or capable of the co-parenting relationship I want?
2. Am I really being nice, or am I making things worse?
3. Why do I keep at this when it's clearly not working?
4. Is there a better way to relate to my ex?

Let's put these ideas into real life context. Below I've listed a few "Common Awful Feelings" that accompany divorce (not a comprehensive list, just a sampling). Under each "Awful Feeling" I've described a "Typical Complaint" from a "nice" but frustrated former spouse, followed by the suggestion of "A Less Nice, But Better Way" to cope.


"My ex often finds a parenting-related pretext to call, then launches into a marathon rant about how I've destroyed her life. No amount of reassurance ("Yes, you're the mother of my children. Yes, I'll always care about you!") calms her for long."

Especially if you initiated the split or hale from a family in which divorce "isn't done," you may be haunted by a sense of failure. But don't let self-recrimination hold you in destructive patterns of behavior. Engaging in painful, looping conversations about how you've let your spouse down keeps both of you from grieving, moving on, and re-tooling your relationship from an intimate partnership into a respectful co-parenting partnership. Kindly but firmly tell your spouse that you're done talking about your marriage. Then direct your attention where it belongs-- towards your kids.


"Taking solo care of the kids is new for my ex. So I give him a weekly list of local child-friendly activities, send electronic reminders of school events, and email recipes for easy-to-prepare, healthy alternatives to pizza and cheeseburgers. He ignores every suggestion."

Giving up control when you've been the everyday go-to parent is rough. Especially if your former spouse hasn't logged many hours in the kitchen or carpool lane or you think his or her parenting hard drive is faulty, you'll worry. But even if your ex's best Saturday plan involves pizza and Xbox, if he or she experiences your well-intended advice as patronizing and intrusive back off. Lash yourself to the mast and stay out of the mix. Your kids and your ex need time and space to navigate new territory, and let's face it-- so do you.


"I want our kids to see that even though we're divorced their mom and I are still friends. So I save a seat at back-to-school night, bring an extra mug of coffee to soccer games, even invite her for Sunday dinner. She'll have none of it. It seems the harder I try the madder she gets."

One of the toughest aspects of divorce is that partners rarely cross the emotional finish line together. You may have grieved your losses and feel ready to spend easy social time with your former spouse. But if he or she is still reeling, pushing for more togetherness is not only insensitive, it's short sighted. Especially early on, too much family time sends mixed messages to a grieving spouse still secretly hoping for a reconciliation. It delays repair and recovery. Respecting your ex's boundaries now gives you your best shot at being able to dance together at your daughter's wedding.


"On weekdays I work brutal hours and rarely see my kids. So I hate my ex's frequent last minute attempts to sabotage my weekends ("There's a neighborhood camping trip. Do you really want to tell the girls they can't go?"). If I stand firm, she flies into a rage and threatens to tell the kids I left the marriage because I don't love them anymore. I just can't take the risk."

During the raw days of early divorce, we all make a few unreasonable demands. But most of us calm down and don't follow through. If your ex tries to blackmail you into making concessions you're not comfortable with, you know better than anyone if he or she is the type to make good on the threat. But think about it: What good can come from giving in to terrorist tactics? Whatever you're afraid of, trust me-- if it's in your ex's character and ability to do it, he or she already has. Instead of capitulating out of fear that your ex will disparage you to your kids, assume it's happening now and find a way to address the misinformation directly (for advice on this check out by post "My Ex Keeps Trashing Me to the Kids: What Should I Do?"). Stop making fear-based concessions, and start making independent, pro-active parenting decisions.

No one wants to re-create their marriage in their divorce. But changing established relationship patterns with a former life partner is tough. And not just because old habits die hard, but because dismantling a marriage, even by choice, represents the death of a dream. Acknowledging that loss-whatever it means to you-is the first step toward relinquishing stale dynamics, accepting current reality, and crafting a new and better co-parenting relationship over time.