Co-Parenting When Mom Is High Conflict
Co-parenting when Mom is high conflict is tough. Is your ex-wife a high-conflict co-parent? Does she do any of the following?
- Bad-mouths you to the kids (and anyone else who will listen).
- Tries to “hold on” to you by dragging out your divorce agreement.
- Barrages you with hostile and/or invasive emails and texts.
- Intrudes upon your visitation time (calling frequently, monopolizing the kids via long phone calls, scheduling activities during your time without asking permission).
- Tries to control how you parent and what you do in your home.
- Makes the kids feel guilty for having a good time with you.
- Tells the kids they don’t have to be nice to your new partner.
- Tries to turn the kids against you.
If you’re on the receiving end of these crazy-making behaviors, you’re probably wondering how you’ll ever be able to co-parent effectively. There are ways to raise children with a high-conflict ex, but it requires learning skills and applying strategies.
Skill: Managing Your Reactions
It’s easy to blow up when your ex causes drama. But responding in anger will just create more drama and confirm your ex’s narrative that you’re evil and scary…and the cycle of chaos continues. So it’s crucial that you learn to manage your reactions when dealing with your high-conflict co-parent. Here are some tips that will help:
- Don’t respond right away. Wait before firing off an email or text. If you’re in a public space, don’t retaliate; excuse yourself and walk away. Your ex wants to see you upset, so don’t give her that satisfaction. Remember: if you’re the target of a false-abuse narrative, lashing out will just make your ex look credible.
- Use coping skills. A coping skill is any positive activity that calms you down: vigorous exercise, walking, meditation, journaling, visualization, thinking through the consequences of knee-jerk reactions. Seeking out support – talking to a friend, family member, or therapist – can also help. Being disciplined about utilizing coping skills will improve your ability to weather your ex’s storms without reacting.
- Practice Radical Acceptance. Radical Acceptance is a Buddhist principle. It means that you accept reality exactly as it is, no matter how much you loathe your current circumstances. The idea is that suffering comes more from your relationship to the present, rather than from the circumstances themselves. You can’t control your ex – and trying to will just inflame conflict — so shift your focus to what you can control: your ability to tolerate discomfort.
Strategy: Effective Communication
Developing a proactive communication protocol is critical in managing high-conflict divorce. And the more you practice your coping skills, the better you will be able to communicate effectively. Here are some basic guidelines:
- Pretend you’re a reporter. When emailing/texting your ex, assume the persona of a news reporter. Your job is to deliver facts. A fact is not “how dare you accuse me of hurting the kids?!” A fact is “Jacob is home sick with a cold today, and I’ve already notified the school.” So eliminate all opinions, advice, threats, and emotion from your correspondence and just stick to the facts.
- Be brief. Your blood pressure probably spikes when you open a rambling, single-spaced email from your ex, so keep your own emails short and to the point. Only include what is absolutely necessary.
- Adopt a neutral tone. Sarcasm, threats, and condescension have no place in your communication protocol. You should aim for a neutral tone. If you feel yourself getting wound up as you write, take a break and return when you have a cooler head. Edit your correspondence so that you’re channeling your inner reporter. Another tip: avoid bold print and all-caps, which infer anger.
- Don’t negotiate. High-conflict exes love to engage you in endless email exchanges. Don’t let yours hook you so that you spend hours trying to resolve minor issues. She is probably more invested in pushing your buttons than in getting whatever it is that appears to be so important. So state your position once, politely. If she keeps after you, don’t respond, and definitely don’t respond in anger, which is what she wants.
Strategy: Addressing false narratives with your kids.
If your ex is poisoning the kids against you, this is a form of child abuse. So ignore the conventional wisdom of saying nothing and do what you can to protect your children.
While you can include a non-defamation clause in your divorce agreement, it’s virtually impossible to enforce 100% of the time. Instead of hemorrhaging energy trying to control what your ex says (remember Radical Acceptance), use that energy to teach your kids critical thinking and relationship skills:
- Tell your kids your side of the story calmly, without bad-mouthing your ex, or trying to explain why she makes stuff up about you. An exception: if your ex-wife has a legitimate mental health diagnosis – meaning one given her by a psychiatrist, not you! – that results in erratic behavior, you can acknowledge that some of her statements may be an indication of her condition.
- Explain that things are rarely black-and-white and people can experience the same thing differently. Teach your kids how to look at events critically to form their own opinions.
- Urge your kids to talk to you directly. Teach your kids healthy relationship skills by getting them out of the triangle your ex has set up. Invite them to share any questions or grievances they have about you (and don’t get mad or defensive when they do!). Explain that talking to their mother won’t solve any problems that exist between you and them. The only way to solve those problems is to discuss them with you.
Having a high-conflict ex is a bit like having a relative with addiction or mental illness. If you try to control her behavior, you will not only fail, but your life will become unmanageable. Shifting your focus to your own reactions, communication, and the skills you teach your kids, will reduce chaos and help you feel in control of your life again.