Some people don’t ever get over their divorce. It doesn’t matter if they wind up with the house, all your money, a hot new partner, and your entire social circle. Ultimately, those tangibles don’t matter because they don’t get to the root of the problem: shame.
For most people, divorce causes shame, which often manifests in anger. Well-adjusted people eventually get over being angry because they take accountability for their part in the demise of the marriage. They stop focusing on the past and become grateful for opportunities in the present. They get sick of being angry and move on.
But this doesn’t happen for perpetually hostile exes. High-conflict personalities can’t tolerate knowing something in their life didn’t work out. This sense of failure triggers shame, and their only means of defending against that awful feeling is to blame you for everything: the failed marriage, issues with the kids, problems with communication, their poor health, etc. They will blame you even if they were the one who initiated the divorce.
Because they don’t really want to get along with you (that would require accountability and personal growth), they perpetuate a high-conflict interactional style that fuels seemingly endless litigation, custody battles, and unnecessary co-parenting drama.
Does this sound familiar? If so, you need to accept that your ex will never get over being angry at you because you serve a purpose: to be the receptacle for their shame. Now that you know you’ll always be a target, how do you keep out of the line of fire?
1. Develop an effective communication strategy. Hostile exes love to use electronic communication to criticize, attack, and threaten. Just seeing their name come in on an email is enough to trigger your gag reflex. Knee-jerk reactions to respond in kind, or fire back a lengthy self-defense are understandable, but will inflame the conflict. You must develop a strategy to deflect the hostility and limit their access to you. Don’t respond to electronic communication more than once day. If possible, wait 24 hours before writing back. Don’t hit “send” before you thoroughly read over what you’ve written. Delete anything that smacks of sarcasm or anger. Imagine you’re a reporter laying out the facts: stick to logistics and keep your feelings out if it.
2. Acknowledge your ex’s experience. We all want to feel heard, but high-conflict personalities are particularly sensitive to feeling ignored or misunderstood. Your first response to any communication from your ex must be to acknowledge their experience — even if you think it’s ridiculous. For instance: “It sounds like you’re worried that Ezra isn’t getting enough sleep at my house, I understand why that’s a concern.” Once you mirror their feelings and needs, then you can move on to your calm response: “Ezra’s well-being is a priority for me as well and I can assure you I’m getting him to bed at an appropriate time.” Remember: the issue isn’t Ezra’s bedtime. The issue is your ex’s need to be heard. Your validating, measured response is much more likely to defuse the conflict than arguing your point-of-view.
3. Keep firm boundaries. If you were the Pleaser during your marriage, you must learn to assert yourself effectively. Waffling or being passive-aggressive will make your ex more angry because he or she will feel that you’re playing games or behaving in ways that are confusing. Practice setting and keeping limits: “I understand that you miss the kids; I miss them on the weekends they’re with you, so I know what that feels like. Nevertheless, this is my weekend with them so please drop them off at the designated time and place.” Refer to the court order if necessary. If you don’t have a court order, then get one! Verbal agreements mean nothing to high-conflict exes and won’t hold up in court.
4. Keep kids out of the middle. Raising children with a hostile ex is one of the most difficult byproducts of divorce. But you must develop strategies to prevent your children from being used as artillery. If your kids tell you about the crappy things your ex says about you, many of which are lies, do not fire off an email setting your ex straight. Remember: your job is to disengage from the conflict. Tell your kids you understand that Dad is angry. Acknowledge that it must be upsetting to hear their parents aren’t getting along. Advise them to come to you directly with questions and concerns about you instead of trying to get their dad to do it for them. Also try to stay calm when you talk to them about your ex; otherwise, they will go back and report that you seemed angry, which will fuel more fire.
5. Develop coping skills. Being a human target is traumatic. If you’re irritable, anxious, exhausted, perhaps medicating with Oreos and red wine, it’s time to develop positive coping skills! Therapy, journaling, making art, physical exercise, and mindfulness meditation are great ways to tolerate challenging feelings and build internal resources. If you’re feeling ragged, you may be interacting with your ex in a way that inadvertently aggravates her — for example, hostile body language, an emotionally charged tone of voice, or snarky emails. When you feel more empowered, your voice and body language will shift and you will be better able to deal with your difficult ex.
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