10/29/2013 04:26 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2013

When Your Ex-spouse and Co-parent Won't Cooperate

When a co-parent won't cooperate or stop fighting, it can be positively maddening. Ex-spouses can become immersed in rage, frustration, and a sense of powerlessness when their co-parenting partnership isn't working. This can leave little energy for either to move ahead with their post-divorce lives.

You cannot force an uncooperative co-parent to stop fighting. You can take them to court and make their choice to misbehave costly and time consuming (for you both). You can do this repeatedly. Unfortunately, co-parents focused on being destructive or on hurting their ex can always find new ways to do so.

The more you understand about why your ex won't give up the fight the better your chances at figuring out what to do. Here are five issues to consider:

1. What is your ex-spouse getting out of this?

When your ex-spouse engages in uncooperative behaviors, how do you respond? If you react by yelling, sending nasty emails and texts, etc., then what your ex may be after is your attention. They most likely are enjoying the fact that they can still get a reaction from you. Perhaps they are mistaking this to mean you still care (enough about them to react). And, perhaps you do, but even if you don't, it's important to discover how not to gratify or reinforce this type of behavior. If you sense your ex is enjoying "poking the bear," ask yourself what it would take to stay calmer in their presence, even while feeling extremely annoyed.

2. What role are you playing in all this?

Are you adding "fuel to the fire" by provoking your ex? Are you not cooperating, because he/she isn't cooperating (which only continues the fight)? For instance, are you arriving late for pick-ups, not returning calls promptly or "forgetting" to send your children's items back? Or, are you subtly (or not so subtly) disparaging your ex-spouse's parenting decisions, questioning their life choices, or using angry tones to respond? (Be honest with yourself as you answer these.)

3. The fighting can only continue if you both continue fighting!

You may feel powerless in getting your ex to behave as you really can't control whether or not he/she will cooperate in co-parenting. But, only you can decide to stop retaliating, arguing, or acting out your frustration. If you simply refuse to engage and lay down your weapons, then your ex will not be able to fight with you anymore, right?

Just like when a toddler has a tantrum, the best response is often no response. If you can summon up your inner strength and not go bonkers when your ex arrives late, forgets juniors' clothing, or otherwise irritates you, this "game" might become less fun. They may decide, in time, to stop playing. This doesn't mean you shouldn't calmly say, "We agreed on 5:00, so please come on time next time" or "Please send Henry's clothes home next time, like you said you would", or whatever... Just don't give them a reaction that shows they are "getting to you" as that may encourage them to continue the misbehavior.

Note: Because it is stressful when a co-parent won't cooperate or provokes you, it is recommended you seek out an experienced, licensed psychotherapist, divorce coach, or counselor. Getting the frustration and tension "out of your system" through talking with a professional might help you stay calm and not react when it matters most!

4. Keep your distance.

When your ex is ranting on the phone, you can say, "If you keep yelling at me, this call is over," and then hang up. Similarly, during a parking lot screaming fit, better to announce, "When you're back in control, I'd like to hear what you have to say" and then leave. Too often, ex-spouses (out of habit, guilt, or something else) stick around once the bombs drop. As a rule, it is better to protect your own nervous system and get out of the line of fire as quickly as possible.

5. Focus ahead and on you!

Engaging in battle with or letting your ex "rent space in your head" absorbs mental energy, the same energy you will need to move yourself forward, post-divorce. Constantly talking about this with friends or frequently thinking about ways to retaliate just keeps your ex front and center in your mind...something your divorce was meant to eliminate. Save your mental energy for you and your children.

It's upsetting to have an ex-spouse continue fighting with you after your marriage is done, particularly when the ex-spouse is your children's co-parent. Taking time to think about why this is happening and exploring the possibilities can yield helpful information and lead to new ideas about how to stop fighting and move yourself forward.