Tips for Co-Parenting with a Difficult Ex-Partner After Divorce
Divorce is quite possibly one of the most stressful events someone can experience in their lifetime. Lots of people say that nobody goes into a marriage expecting a divorce, but with the divorce rate in the United States at a historical high, the possibility of divorce is always going to be on someone’s mind. According to the CDC, the divorce rate is 2.3 people per every 1000. This statistic does not include separations, but actual finalized divorces. Among that number are certainly couples with children. Divorce is traumatic for children, especially in what is commonly known as a high conflict divorce.
What is a High-Conflict Divorce?
Divorce isn’t always an ugly situation, although most divorces are very emotional. The psychological strain usually has more to do with a major change in life. Division of property, splitting assets, and even moving to a different town or even state in some cases. But some divorces get really ugly. The situation seems to bring out the worst in people, or maybe just illustrate what was failing at the core of the marriage. Like throwing gasoline on a campfire, clashes in personality seem to erupt to their most extreme during a divorce.
A high-conflict divorce might result from mental health issues stemming from one, or even both partners. People with unresolved childhood trauma, personality disorders which have developed as a result of arrested development, such as narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, or other clinical disorders can contribute to codependency, abusive relationship patterns, and escalate to high-conflict scenarios.
High-conflict divorces often involve lots of drama, with soon-to-be former spouses making outrageous demands, withholding property during settlements, continual court appearances and endless court dates which feel like they are being perpetuated out of spite. Kids are especially susceptible to harm during a high-conflict divorce, as they love both parents. An injury to either parent reflects onto the child and can create stress, anxiety, depression, and even anti-social behavior.
Indications of a High-Conflict Divorce
Here are some examples of how to recognize a high-conflict divorce.
Constant back and forth: Emails, phone calls, letters from attorneys, and a constant barrage of argumentative conversation are all signs of high-conflict. The goal isn’t communication, but harassment.
Undermining parenting time: A high-conflict co-parent might always have something come up that interferes with parenting time. Schedule problems, visits from out of town relatives, and new clubs they are putting the kids into are usually divisive strategies to interfere with a set schedule.
School conflicts: Especially with children, high-conflict divorces tend to orbit around school functions, whether it is parent/teacher conferences, school music programs, or sports events, a difficult ex-spouse might use any of these points of contact to initiate a confrontation in public.
Badmouthing: A high-conflict spouse might try to contact the other’s friends, family, and even attempt to introduce drama into the workplace in an attempt to smear their reputation. This continuation of emotional abuse didn’t work in the marriage, and there is no excuse for it now.X
Calls to law enforcement: Many parents have a virtual minefield to walk through when dealing with a high-conflict ex. All too often, the other party will make “anonymous” calls to law enforcement or Child Protective Services alleging abuse or illegal activity.
Remember the ABCs
When dealing with a difficult spouse during a divorce, it’s important to Always Be Cool. Exchanging choice words with a difficult spouse is unnecessary, especially in front of the kids. Engaging in conflict, whether it is at a public parenting exchange location, or at the front step serves only one purpose to a difficult ex-spouse: antagonization.
More often than not, a high-conflict spouse is trying to elicit an argument or some kind of emotional response because that is how they have gotten attention throughout their life. They demand to be noticed. Negative attention is still attention. Remaining calm, limiting contact with the other spouse except in moments that are absolutely necessary, and ignoring attempts at baiting an argument are good tactics to avoid confrontation. At the very least, providing a paper trail to the courts which show one side being non-confrontational whereas the other side is baiting and argumentative might get some traction in the hands of an attorney.
Keep It Simple
Communication with a difficult co-parent should not become an open invitation for debate or continuing an argument that started years ago. Reducing communication to facts and fundamentals reduces the volatility of an argument. Emails and phone calls can be limited to just a few words that are brief, informative, and fair.
Alan and Chloe have shared custody of a son, Rudy, who is just hitting middle school. He has lots of activities after school like soccer and Brain Bowl. Nearly every week, Alan gets angry emails from Chole that remind him exactly why he decided to end the marriage. She complains about the teachers, the schedules, and even calls Alan weak and worthless. She claims to be the only one actually doing any parenting. Alan has lived with the result of Chloe’s narcissistic personality disorder for years and thinks he knows how to handle her–until he doesn’t.
Alan’s therapist recommended the BIF rule: Brief, Informative, and Fair. Since Alan started limiting responses to Chloe’s paragraphs of blame and shame and hostility to just twenty words or less, he feels better and the same things that need to be done still get done. After a while of ignoring never-ending paragraphs, tensions between the two have diminished quite a bit. Rudy feels less stress in both homes as a result.
Set up a fixed schedule with the other parent and stick to it. The calendar should be available to both parents and changed only upon mutual agreement. Set boundaries and be firm, friendly, and fair. Consistency is key in providing a structured life for kids whose whole way of life has suddenly changed due to no fault of their own.
Boundaries with kids are also important. Newly divorced parents might find themselves in a situation where they feel they need to “buy” their child’s affection or at the very least compensate them for being in a difficult situation. Kids might unconsciously game this new system to get more permissions, especially if they can gain more from pitting the parents against each other.
Though co-parenting is ideal in a divorce situation with kids, sometimes the behavior of the other parent is so outrageous and extreme that parallel parenting is needed. This puts rules in place for each house that are independent of what goes on at the other parent’s home.
For example, Steve and Jennifer had two kids, Kyle and Dee. Kyle has become more withdrawn since the divorce and Jennifer gets calls about her son acting out at school. Dee has thrown herself into time with her friends, and stayed out late at night. This was more of a problem during co-parenting, especially since Steve’s new girlfriend, Stacy, has moved in with them.
There aren’t a lot of rules at dad’s house, and Jennifer has tried to communicate the problems, but Steve and Stacy’s solution seems to be to try to buy the kids off and let them stay up all night. Jennifer decided that she can only control what happens at her house and doesn’t worry about what the kids are doing at their dad’s. She doesn’t ask after Stacy or her rules. The kids seem to be doing better, at least during the weeks they are with mom.
Knowledge is Power
Many newly divorced parents go back to school to finish a degree, but getting educated means much more than working towards a Master’s. High-conflict divorces are common enough that a lot of information on the subject is out there. Books about parental alienation, high-conflict divorces, and dealing with personality disordered exes are abundant in the self-help section of bookstores and libraries everywhere.
YouTube Channels can also provide information from professional psychologists on how to deal with high-conflict divorces. Classes on dealing with a high-conflict divorce are also available in person as well as online. Many judges will often require both parties to attend these classes–sometimes together–especially if discourse during hearings demonstrates a high level of conflict.
Therapy as a Resource
Going to therapy is a great way to deal with the stress and anxiety of a high-conflict divorce. Some divorces are so tumultuous that therapists often treat their patients for complex post-traumatic stress disorder after all of the emotional trauma resulting from the process. Kids in particular are sponges and pick up on lots of stress, especially from their parents. Therapists can offer a listening ear instead of advice, which is what friends and families tend to do. Healing from this situation will give the parent a chance to be more supportive and effective with parenting.
Impact on the Kids
Studies have shown that high-conflict divorces affect the emotional well-being of children. They might begin acting out, hanging out with kids who are into risky behavior such as drugs, alcohol, sex, or petty crimes. At the very least, kids who are living in a constant state of high-conflict are always in a fight-or-flight mode. Being in an elevated state of alert over time can cause problems with cortisol and other hormones, which can lead to health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and compound behavioral disorders.
Kids under a lot of stress might start self-harming, suicide ideation, and even self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Divorce is a stressful situation, but it doesn’t have to be an ugly, knock-down drag-out fight. It can be an opportunity for kids to see both parents moving forward with their lives and making the best out of a less than ideal situation.