Coping with a Difficult Ex: Divorce, Children & Custody

For many divorcing parents, the process of parting and the years that follow involve a cascade of infuriating, disrespectful, and hurtful exchanges. Here are ten strategies for reducing frustration and conflict – and increasing respectful communication and peace – between divorced co-parents.

By Jeffrey P. Wittmann, Ph.D.
Updated: January 31, 2017
Children and Divorce

On rare occasions, spouses choose to part in a gentle and respectful way: After looking across the breakfast table, after affirming their care for one another, they agree that they have "grown apart," quickly settle their affairs and move on to raise their children as friends from two separate homes. A wonderful scenario for children who are losing the nest as they have known it.

For a very real percentage of divorcing parents, however, the process of parting and the years that follow involve the cascade of frustrating, infuriating, and hurtful exchanges. Two people who once vowed to spend the rest of their lives together may suddenly view one another as enemies, or at least as deficient or irresponsible parents. The groundwork is laid for years of angry, difficult encounters – anger that he doesn't send the soccer shoes back after the weekend. Sadness that she fails to show for visits with children who miss her. Anxiety that he won't buckle the children safely as he drives off with the kids and his new girlfriend. Fear that she will lose control of her volatile temper and say hurtful things to the children. Frustration when he again arrives late to get the children in an apparent effort to stall their mom from making it to work on time. Resentment over her refusal to help pay for school clothes.

The list of frustrations and fears goes on and on, and many divorced moms and dads can offer their own twists on the common theme of an ex-partner who behaves in ways that are infuriating, disrespectful, irresponsible, or downright nasty.

After almost 20 years of working with divorcing families, I now have deeper compassion for how frustrations with an ex-partner can derail a parent's life. However, as a psychologist, I have had the privilege of having skillful and resourceful divorcing parents teach me over the years about a path to personal peace that is available for distressed moms and dads. Here is what they have taught me.

Give What You Long to Receive

"What goes around, comes around," or, in more biblical terms, "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." All of the major wisdom traditions teach us to focus on giving respect before expecting it from others. Behaving with your ex-partner in the way that you long for your ex to behave toward you is the first step toward not only creating a more civil relationship with your child's other parent, but also toward reclaiming your own personal power. Begin by looking in the mirror and asking the following question: "Am I consistently and regularly acting toward my ex in the way that I long for my ex to act toward me?" The dictate to "Do unto others" is not easily achieved and requires discipline and compassion. It is always sad to watch a divorced parent railing about the vindictiveness or insensitivity of their ex, when they themselves regularly behave in uncivil ways – the cycle of family pain is going to continue, often with little ones in between. Most importantly, remember that you and your ex are always modeling for your children behavior for their futures. You and your ex are always, in a sense, standing before a blackboard, holding pieces of chalk and writing life lessons on the board. Remind yourself that it is your children who are sitting in the classroom scribbling in their life notebooks. If they witness hurtful behavior between their parents, they will hurt others. If they witness civility and peace, they will be a resource of peace in an already angry world.

Trade Eyeballs

Longfellow, the renowned nineteenth century poet, once said the following: "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find sorrow and suffering enough to dispel all hostility." Rosy words? Maybe. Timeless truth – definitely. All of the injuries that the divorce process creates can cause parents to demonize their ex-partners, to deny their humanity and their vulnerability, or to forget that there was a time when spending the rest of their life with this person was the most important thing in the world. This means that in the middle of angry or frustrating exchanges, it is easy and understandable for a parent to forget that the person they are now viewing as foolish or rigid is actually another human being with needs and concerns of their own. On one level, choosing to view the world, or a particular problem, through your ex's eyes is a path to compassion that can dampen some of your own suffering: Remember when Toto, in the Wizard of Oz, peeks behind the curtain to reveal a frightened, insecure person behind the false image of the fuming, frightening wizard? Peeking behind that same curtain with your ex can help you to remember his or her humanity and to feel less distress. However, if the idea of seeking to understand your ex's position or struggle feels distasteful, remember that it is the choice to view a problem through the other person's eyes that is often the most practical and skillful step employed by the world's greatest negotiators. Trading eyeballs is a critical step toward negotiating successful solutions with your child's other parent. You can't come up with "win-win" proposals about such matters as visitation times, support questions, etc. without thoroughly understanding the needs and desires that are behind your ex's demands, even if these demands appear foolish.

Become Clear Which Problems Aren't Yours

In the complex relationships between ex-partners that often ensue after a separation, it is all too easy to become confused about which problems are actually yours to solve – it's all too easy to become confused about which balls you need to pick up and dribble and which need to be passed to your ex, to your children, or to someone else all together. Your ex may call you to complain about your child's behavior, implying that somehow you need to do something about it. Or he may call and simply state that he won't be taking the children for his appointed week because he is going on a vacation. Or your child may come to you complaining that her mom is refusing to pay for her prom dress – as she had promised. You may be accustomed to instinctively protect, defend, or speak for your children, or you may be accustomed to taking care of a dependent, complaining ex-spouse. All of these scenarios involve the same dilemma: A divorced parent is presented with a problem by someone else ("Mommy won't buy my dress," "I can't take the kids – I'll be away"), a problem that is not actually their responsibility to solve. You can help yourself gain clarity about which problems to become tangled in and which problems to detach from by learning to recognize "unnecessary burdens": problems presented by others that are actually the responsibility of others to solve. If it is your ex who is expressing the concern or making the complaint, if it is your ex who is feeling the most emotion about the dilemma, and if it is your ex whose life would most improve if the problem were solved, you are likely being confronted with an unnecessary burden. This simply means that you can choose to gently pass the ball back to your ex, indicating that you trust he will be able to solve the dilemma on his own (after all, it was not your choice to schedule an adult vacation during your custodial week – it was your ex's choice). You may still choose to help with an unnecessary burden (you might find it to be a joyful opportunity to have your children with you for an extra week), but by spotting the unnecessary burden, you have at least alerted yourself to the option of passing the problem back to your ex.

Use the Five Cs of Good Communication

Despite any fantasies that you may have to the contrary, having children means that your ex will never be excised from your life and that the two of you will have to talk to one another – again, and again. Details will have to be worked out. Problems will have to be negotiated. Report cards will have to be passed back and forth. The five Cs of good communication with ex-partners can go a long way to smoothing troubled waters between the two of you.

  • Before a hot topic conversation with your ex become Centered. Know what you want to say, and rehearse it. Consider multiple solutions to the problem in advance. Create a "won't-do list" of the plans that will be entirely unacceptable to you. Keep your expectations low for the conversation: don't anticipate respect, and then you can be surprised if it comes your way. Becoming centered means becoming self-aware and focused before ever laying eyes on your ex.
  • During the conversation, be Civil. Offer your proposals or your complaints without attacking language, without references to past history, and without character slams. Behave as you would with a frustrating, yet vital business partner.
  • Seek Compassion. This doesn't mean pretending that you agree with your ex. It simply means seeking to understand their dilemma, while expressing yours, and letting your ex know that you have an understanding of her perspective. It means listening attentively to what your ex is saying and making it clear that you have heard her. Surprising your ex with understanding ("Suzanne, this sounds difficult I know you want more time with the kids on weekends") can go a long way to disarming an angry ex.
  • Remaining Calm during a hot topic conversation is critical to responding logically, creatively, and without creating a volcanic event. As you feel your emotions rise, stop yourself from responding defensively and concentrate on bringing yourself into more of a state of calm. Quietly practice deep breathing, count to ten before you speak, imagine your ex-partner's angry words striking a protective shield you have visualized in front of you and imagine his words falling harmless to the ground – whatever works for you. Simply choosing a strategy that effectively helps you to lower your own emotional arousal will prevent you from saying things that you later regret. The simple choice to propose a time out (or to say you have to go to the bathroom!) can help rational minds prevail.
  • Creative responses are often needed in the dance between two angry ex-partners. These include finding one or two things to agree with in what your ex is proposing and stating this out loud. Poke fun at yourself. Find things to express appreciation about while you stick to your position ("Jack, I wanted you to know that I really appreciate the way you do Suzie's braids before you bring her back to my house. She really loves it! Now, about the Christmas holiday...").

If your conversation about the hot topic somehow fails or falls apart, remember that one failed conversation does not mean that all is lost. It sometimes takes divorced parents months, or even years, to develop a way of resolving problems. Consider finding a neutral professional to whom both of you can go for co-parenting counseling or mediation (e.g., a psychologist, clinical social worker, licensed counselor, or mediator). Consider writing business-like letters or e-mails. If talking directly is too difficult, consider using a "kids log" to write important notes about how the children are doing at each home. Most importantly, remember that working again and again to create civil exchanges is one of the best gifts you can give to children who are caught in the middle of an angry divorce.

Honor Your Ex's Role as Parent

Children are born into this world the product of two imperfect human beings. I often say the following to parents, somewhat tongue-in-cheek: "Your children have a right to both of your imperfections." Nice words, yet tough to live by if your ex is behaving in foolish, upsetting ways. However, you may need to remind yourself that, through your children's eyes, that foolish, disrespectful parent is someone that they love. Remind yourself that there are many different parenting styles that create healthy, happy children. Remind yourself that you cannot entirely protect your children from discomfort or unhappiness in their relationship with their other parent. Most importantly, remind yourself that your children are now traveling a somewhat private, sacred path with their other parent that needs to run its own course. Communicate to your little ones that you expect them to respect their other parent and that you are happy when they have a chance to be with that parent (even if you have to fake this last part!).

Create Peace Between Your Ears

"If he would only act like less of a jerk, my life would be better." "If she would stop being such a bitch, the kids and I would be better off." Notice the catch: Life will only get better if the other person changes. However, full maturity and even inner peace can only occur once we have embraced the reality that it is our interpretation of events, and not the events themselves, that causes our distress. George's ex greets him at her door by saying, "You're late again – when will you grow up?" He grows fangs and sees red. Sam's ex greets him at the door with the same angry words, and he stays calm, offers an excuse, and apologizes. The events are the same but what happens "between the ears" of these two fathers must be quite different.

Finding peace with a difficult ex often involves doing basic mental hygiene on yourself by softening what is happening between your own ears: Accept your feelings about your ex as a step toward self-compassion while remembering that you are not your feelings and moods and that you always can choose how to respond to your emotions. Avoid extremist thinking: begin to redefine frustrations with your ex as problems to be solved, rather than as catastrophes. Remind yourself that there is more to your ex than his difficult behavior (something other than his foolishness must have urged you to marry him at one point). Count the blessings in your life because there is more to your life than your ex's pain-in-the-neck behavior. Ask if you are somehow contributing to the problem between you and your ex and work on your contribution. Finally (get ready – this is a tough one), consider forgiveness. Remember that your ex is going to blow it on occasion, just as you will. And even if you have been hurt in a "big way" by your ex, forgiveness is often one of the only routes to finally and completely letting go of old suffering and ushering in personal peace.

Don't Be a Wet Noodle

Peaceful does not equal passive. Yes, it is true that your own sense of personal peace will be increased commensurate with the degree to which you yourself embody a peaceful attitude with your ex. However, acting with respect and civility does not mean becoming docile or passive, nor does it mean surrendering your own needs and desires. The choice to be peace-oriented does not mean that you cannot set limits on intrusive behavior, demand that your boundaries be respected, refuse to tolerate verbal (and certainly physical) abuse, nor does it take away your responsibility to be sure that your children are not being abused or neglected. Embody self-respect and self-protection for your children. Make sure they're safe, and involve the authorities if you have reason to believe they're not safe with your ex.

Keep Your Ears Small

Because we love our children, because protecting them is as basic to being a parent as breathing is to being alive, we often become intensely emotional, interested, and wrapped up in our child's tearful or angry complaints about the other parent. In short, our ears get very big. As our little girl complains that Daddy was mean, or as our son complains that Mommy was somehow unfair, our own spousal resentments can quickly get confused with our desire to protect our children and cause us to overreact. Our children quickly see our ears grow large as we seem intensely interested in their complaint, and we fail to exercise the kind of cautious pause used by most good parents as their child runs in the door complaining that they were kicked by someone on the soccer field: we don't quickly run out to angrily confront the child or their parent – we pause, gather more information, and figure out the best response. Unfortunately, we respond viscerally to our child's complaints about our ex-spouse. We forget that there is a child in the middle who is adding his interpretation to life events and that it is possible we are not getting the full story. When parents respond with emotion and drama, children quickly learn that their complaints are highly valued information and become little cub reporters about their other parent, with the cycle of hostility continuing as the parent with big ears races to the phone to bark at their adversary. Learning to keep our ears small, to respond with emotional detachment, quiet interest, and empathy can go a long way toward dampening hostility in a divorced family.

Control the Tribe

"When we divorce, we often return to our "tribe of origin," and the tribal members beat their war sticks around us, preparing to attack on our behalf. Loving grandparents, your brothers and sisters, or your new partner can unknowingly contribute to your long-term suffering by further poisoning the waters between you and your ex or by letting the children hear their derogatory comments. They mean well. They are trying to help. But they can often make things worse, both for you and your children. Insist that in your home and theirs, the other parent is always to be spoken of with honor, or not spoken about at all. Make it clear that it does not help reduce your stress when your parents, your siblings, or your partner decide to angrily confront your ex. Tell them that they can help reduce your distress in life by communicating in civil, cooperative ways with your ex, when such communication is necessary, if for no other reason than to create a sense of peace for your children as they move back and forth between the homes.

Focus on What You Can Control

It makes perfect sense to wish that your ex would control his or her temper better with the children. It makes perfect sense to wish that your ex didn't feed the children donuts and Happy Meals during his week with the kids. It makes perfect sense to wish that your ex would put the children to bed at a decent hour. Perfectly sensible – yet you have failed over and over and over again to get your ex to listen to your complaints. Your ex isn't budging and thinks your concerns are foolish. In the end, many parents have to face the difficult reality that despite their best efforts, their ex-partner is refusing to change. They have hit the proverbial "brick wall" and sit fretting and frustrated on the couch as the children leave for their other parent's home with nothing having improved.

Unfortunately, for such parents, every bit of additional mental energy that is put into trying to change their ex-partner is a bit of mental energy that they have wasted and that they no longer have available to use for themselves. Make the empowerment shift: begin by accepting your ex for who he or she is. Recognize that each of you has chosen a certain path in life, that you have made reasonable efforts to change your ex, and that it is now time to move on and focus where you really have power: on the way you are parenting your kids. Every time you find yourself mentally focusing on an aspect of your ex that won't budge, quickly refocus on your own parenting and the gifts that you bring to your children. What do you choose to feed your children? How do you choose to handle your temper when you are angry at them? What bedtime do you choose? Continually insisting that an intransigent ex change in the way that you desire is like standing in front of a custard pie and yelling at it to "be apple!" Ultimately, it is a custard pie. If you love apples, go and bake an apple pie with the children that you love.


Jeffrey P. Wittmann, Ph.D. is a court psychologist, divorce mediator, and family therapist in Albany, NY where he co-directs the Center for Forensic Psychology. He is the author of Custody Chaos, Personal Peace: Sharing Custody With an Ex Who Drives You Crazy. He can be reached at (800) 846-0080 or via www.CustodyChaos.com.

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August 08, 2006

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