Dealing with a difficult ex

Feelings of hurt and upset can turn to anger or worse, creating communication challenges.  Here are some tips on avoiding common problems.

What types of communication difficulties may I face?

Difficulties around communications can come in many forms. They often depend on the severity of your breakup. For example:

  • Your ex is living in the past and constantly refers to events that have no bearing on the conversation.
  • Your ex doesn’t trust you and makes many detailed and complex demands on you as a precondition for seeing your kids.
  • Your ex emotionally blackmails you by using the children.
  • Your ex tells you the children don’t want to see you.
  • Your ex books events for the children to attend when it is your contact time.
  • All communications have ceased despite your reasonable efforts.
  • You are being disrespected on social media.
  • Your ex uses friends or relatives to communicate with you on her or his behalf.
  • You are being intimidated or threatened by friends or relatives of your ex.

General rules about communication with a difficult ex.

  • There is no future in deciding you don’t want anything to do with your ex going forward and just want to see our kids. Irrespective of how badly you have been treated, this is the last thing your kids want and it would be cruel to them if you didn’t make every effort with your ex. Your kids don’t ask for much. They want to feel safe, they don’t want the two people they love the most to argue around them or with each other. They don’t want you to say nasty things about their other parent. They do want to know what’s going on.
  • Every communication you have with your ex should be respectful, responsible, and consistent despite what your ex may say or do. This will eventually encourage them to reply in the same manner. This is not just a single email or letter to see if it works, this is a long-term strategy to transform your relationship for the benefit of your child(ren).
  • Do not reply to arguments about the past, who said or did what, who is to blame, threats or blackmail. Simply don’t reply or make reference to them.
  • Don’t send any text/letter or email that you would not expect a judge to read out loud in court. You want him/her to be impressed with how reasonable you are being… usually in contrast with the communications of your ex. You rising about provocations and conflict will help you avoid court as well as if eventually you have no alternative but to go to court. Going to court does mean you no longer have to find a way to communicate with your ex.
  • Never send an email/text in anger. Always park it in drafts for a day. You often find it was not worth sending it after all. Angry emails, however justified they seem at the time, are often regretted later.

How do I stop my ex constantly referring to past events without dealing with current problems?

  • If a communication is about past events that do not affect the future, then do not engage in any communication about it. You may wish to acknowledge it… “Thanks for the email…. I’ll bear it in mind.”…. But discussing the content will send you up a maze of dead ends and non-resolvable arguments which can result in a text firestorm and an end to all communication.
  • If a communication is about both past events and the future, only refer to the future events and positive elements in your reply. This helps you set the agenda for future communications and will encourage more of a purposeful response.
  • This strategy is not a one-off response to see if it works. It is a long-term plan to transform your relationship from one of mistrust to trust. Every communication should follow this plan.
  • This plan is not for your defense (although it helps psychologically) but for the long-term stability and happiness of your children.

How do I stop my ex planning my parenting time?

You will at some stage need to make it clear to each other that micromanagement of your parenting time is not in the best interests of the kids, because they need a relationship with both adults as parents not one parent and a childminder. This is most effectively achieved through the agreement of a joint Parenting Plan.

How do I encourage my ex to trust me with the kids?

You must become immune to negativity and criticism while at the same time taking on board her (or occasionally his) concerns. Here is a list of things that concern mums during and after contact.

  • Cuts, grazes and bruises.
  • Getting lost.
  • Being left with unknown adults.
  • Exposure to adult computer games or films.
  • Staying up late.
  • Being taken to the pub.
  • Car seats.
  • Returning home dirty.
  • Strange diets or takeaway foods.
  • Time spent with relatives they don’t trust.

There are many more you could add to this list of course and you would be worried if the boot were on the other foot and your child came home reporting these things to you. But, to regain trust you will need to ensure the above list is forefront in your mind when planning your activities with your child(ren) and don’t let them happen. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to get the children to keep secrets. It will never work. Your children will want to tell their mum what a great time they had with their dad and that can only enhance your relationship with them and her. Encouraging secrets puts stress on the children and encourages mistrust at every level.

Despite the presentation, negativity about you and complaints usually reflect genuine concerns about the kids. In a strange way you should be pleased about protective and caring behaviour.

What if I’m doing all the right things above, but my ex is not?

Firstly, two wrongs do not make a right. You have to do what is right for your children, whatever your ex does. Secondly, if your ex is accusing you of all the things above and more, it may be malicious or it could be that she/he is suffering from paranoia or other mental health conditions. These are very difficult situations to manage. You have to do everything right and take steps to protect yourself from any such allegations e.g. by having witnesses, keeping good records of your own, etc. – just in case.

You may feel (rightly perhaps) that you would make a far better main carer to the children. You could be right about that. However, you have to keep in mind that family courts place a lot of weight, arguably far too much, on the negative effect on children from moving from one parent’s care to the other. It means that a high threshold of evidence of harm to a child in their day-to-day home will be needed. Meanwhile, if you have been doing some of the same things that your ex has or present as angry, again even if justifiably so, the judge may decide, on the balance of probability, to do nothing and leave the child where they are. In other words, be an angel and do what is suggested above, whatever the provocation. It is your best hope of making progress in most situations.

Of course, if the evidence is overwhelming that the child is suffering harm and their day-to-day carer is incapable of being a good enough parent, then you must seriously consider asking for the court to order that the child lives with you. However, do not take this step lightly and consult with someone with experience of such matters.

You should also look up the section on good/bad parenting behaviours and Parental Alienation or Extreme Emergencies.

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