Dealing with a Difficult Ex

By: Loriann Oberlin
Last Update: October 19, 2015

Many who are separated or divorced consider their ex to be pesky at one time or another. After all, you no longer live together presumably because you have two different world views and/or tensions have crept into your working relationship. An isolated disagreement or a harsh word between the two of you does not qualify as "a difficult ex."

That category gets reserved for when the majority of run-of-the-mill interactions, including pick ups and drop offs or matters involving mutual dealings and your children, result in the following:

  • Terse words, name-calling, and/or threats;
  • Nasty email or text exchanges that break down communication rather than build it up;
  • Flat-out bullying;
  • Constant criticism, sarcasm, and contempt;
  • Stonewalling or ignoring timely questions that deserve a prompt response;
  • Sabotage or other emotionally or physically abusive acts.

Obviously, physical violence or abuse may need to be dealt with in terms of a safety plan and/or legal involvement. For the purposes of this blog, I will focus on lesser degrees of difficulty.

As I teach clients, and even included in my most recent book, many times when another person is "bugging" you, you can employ the DEBUG method. That mnemonic device stands for Do ignore, Exit or move away, Be friendly or talk nicely, Use assertive or firm language, and Go get help.

Managing a difficult ex is a high art. For starters, you will not change them, but you can change how you respond to the person's antics or created drama. You will also improve your own skill set. Over time, you will feel more accomplished and confident in your abilities to defuse poor exchanges.

To use the DEBUG approach, realize that it takes a great deal of emotional maturity to interact calmly when a difficult, determined person pushes every button he or she possibly can. Much of the time, he/she is inherently familiar with—dare I say may have actually installed—a few of those buttons.

1) Stop the human reaction to defend yourself for very often this escalates the conflict, much like a ladder. At the top peak, someone explodes. It's not productive.

2) Take a deep breath. Think of a totally opposite response. For instance, if your ex has escalated his/her demeanor to prove a particular point, your reflecting how the ex feels and providing even an ounce of empathy takes the edge off of the tense moment.

3) Refrain from any tone, keep to the facts (no opinions), and keep it kind (even if you're being provoked by foul language and rough body language).

4) Communicate in "I" statements, or use phrasing such as "My experience is that..." because each of these conveys ownership instead of blame. Avoid beginning sentences with "you" and refrain from "why" questions as they tend to invite defensiveness.

5) Agree to disagree on some points, but actually strive for agreement on others. Again, this approach meets the other person in the middle and is quite often so unexpected that it can stop a difficult person in his or her tracks.


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