One question I ask all of my divorcing clients is this:
“If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about your situation right now, what would it be?”
The most common response I get is, “I would make my partner disappear.”
Wishful thinking, I know, but this answer says a lot about how difficult an ex can make the process of separation and divorce. Sometimes an ex is difficult because they always have been, and their personality is one that embodies inherent challenge. Then there are situations where exes make life difficult for their partner out of spite, anger, revenge, and an attempt to punish. The intentions behind your difficult ex’s actions are important, but what’s even more pertinent is learning how to manage them so that you can find the most peace through this arduous process of divorce.
Taking a broader perspective beyond divorce, we know people can become challenging when they are harboring negative feelings. This manifests in passive aggressive behaviors like stonewalling, or more outward acts of aggression like yelling or criticizing. Stepping back from your situation and recognizing that anyone who has been hurt, betrayed, or demoralized would feel the need to protect themselves might create more space for understanding on your part, which in turn will decrease the amount of stress you feel. While there is never an excuse for offensive and immature behavior on the part of an ex, you do have some control over how you respond to that behavior. It’s easy to get pulled into traps like blame, victimization, and self-pity, but these responses only empower your ex by giving them what they actually want: a negative reaction from you.
Since your difficult ex isn’t likely to disappear in the near future, it would behoove you to start adding some tools to your tool belt for coping with difficult behavior and interactions. These tools may seem counter-intuitive because they come more from a place of good than bad, but you just have to remember that they are intended to serve you and to make your life better.
1. Depersonalize Your divorce is, of course, a highly personal affair, but you don’t have to take every action personally. Your ex is responsible for their own feelings and actions, but that isn’t always something they want to do. Learn to deflect some of their negativity and attribute it more to their own pain than to yourself. It’s important to show remorse if you’ve injured your ex, but you don’t have to be eternally punished for it. If you are the ex who is responding to being hurt or betrayed, you may want to reflect on your actions and how you might be trying to get your partner to feel your pain.
2. Consider Apologizing Many angry exes feel really frustrated when they don’t receive any form of an apology or when they feel there is no accountability taken. Even if you feel you did nothing wrong, an apology can eliminate a lot of the negativity you’re experiencing. Even unintended hurt deserves acknowledgment, and saying "I’m sorry" or taking responsibility doesn’t equate with anything being solely your fault.
3. Practice Empathy Putting yourself in the shoes of your ex at any given time will bring you a sense of peace, even when they are acting horribly. Empathy reduces the stress in your own body, and that’s all you need to focus on. Trying to control what’s outside of you only makes things worse. Try to imagine why your ex is upset, what you might feel in that scenario, acknowledge what you learn, and then move on.
4. Limit Availability If there’s nothing to attack, then an attack can’t happen. Making yourself less available for interactions, berating, or criticism will minimize the challenges you encounter with your ex. This isn’t a permission slip to avoid your difficult ex or to disappear, but it’s okay to put limits on when and how you engage. Good boundaries are a must-have tool in any divorce process, and this is particularly true when dealing with a difficult ex.