Divorce and separation are challenging no matter what, but when you have a difficult ex, the challenge increases exponentially. However, it can be managed, with the right perspective and some proactive strategies.
Your ex may have made you feel bad about yourself during your marriage/relationship so your self-esteem is low. You may be exhausted from years of dealing with your ex’s difficult behavior and you can get triggered by this. How do you co-parent when it’s so hard to control your emotions? Follow these 5 guidelines to make co-parenting with a difficult ex more effective:
1. Build your self-esteem and be patient with yourself. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend. Be patient with yourself – if you mess up, recognize that you’re learning how to deal with a very difficult situation. Change your self-talk from “I can’t believe I let her get to me.” to “I’m doing the best I can and it’s ok.”
2. Don’t get triggered by your ex’s provocative remarks. This is easier said than done. If you can take a pause before you respond, you’ll give yourself the time to think through how you’d like to handle the situation. A pause enables you to respond rather than react. Take a few deep breaths, meditate, call a friend – anything that helps you calm down.
3. Seek a parenting coordinator through the courts. Courts can appoint a parenting coordinator to coordinate scheduling and communication issues between the parents. It’s helpful to have a professional who is trained to deal with high conflict divorce handle these issues.
4. Develop your divorce strategy. What are your priorities? What kind of life do you want in 6 months or 1 year? Without a strategy, you can get derailed by your ex’s behavior. Remind yourself why you’re leaving the marriage and what kind of life you want going forward. This will give you perspective beyond the current struggle.
5. Don’t make your child the middleman. Don’t use your child to send messages to the other parent, don’t vent to your child about the other parent and don’t ask your child for information about the other parent. Let your children know that it’s not ok to do those things and if either parent tries to do any of those behaviors, they will know that it’s not ok. They can learn to set boundaries with their other parent.
The life you want is waiting for you. Ignore the noise that’s coming from your ex and celebrate that it can’t control you anymore. Focus on the present moment, breathe deeply, notice nature, appreciate freedom. Once you recognize that finding your peace has nothing to do with anyone else, you’ll have the life that you’ve been dreaming of.
Moving on from divorce isn’t easy for most people. You may feel overwhelmed, angry and sad and not know how to deal with these intense emotions. It’s difficult to start to find a new path for your life after you’ve spent many years building a life with someone and that person isn’t a part of your life anymore. But you will be able to recover and there are several things that you can do to build a happy and fulfilling life after divorce.
The first step toward moving on is to understand what went wrong in your marriage. This doesn’t mean that you assign blame, in fact it’s the opposite. Reflect on what was wrong in the relationship in a non-judgmental way. What was the relationship lacking? What needs weren’t met for you and for your partner? The more you understand your past, the easier it will be to start the process of letting go and moving on.
It’s normal to feel grief when you’re going through divorce and it takes time to process those feelings. Processing feelings involves thinking about them, talking about them and possibly writing or drawing them. It involves feeling the feelings which is difficult and many people avoid feeling the feelings for good reason. Although it can be painful, if you don't process your grief you can get stuck and you won't be able to build your new life.
Grief is processed by going through the following stages:
Journaling is one tool to help process grief. Writing down your feelings enables you to get out what you’re feeling so that you don’t stuff them. Stuffing your feelings can lead to anxiety, depression and physical illness. Also, counseling, divorce coaching and divorce support groups can be really helpful. I run a divorce group coaching program which helps people going through divorce find support from others going through similar experiences in a safe environment.
Another way to move on is to set small, achievable goals each day. Maybe it’s a chore that has to be accomplished or starting a new project at home or work – what is your first step towards that goal? Setting small, achievable goals, builds your confidence and enables you to start a process of moving in a positive direction.
These techniques take time and work. Having support while you go through this is one of the most important things you can do to get through this process so that you can move on in your life. But if you get your team of support behind you and work at this moving on process, you will be able to develop a happy and fulfilling life for yourself. It’s definitely worth it!
Sometimes you may feel your relationship is going well and other times you may be worried about the strength of your relationship. It can help to take a step back and see what’s working and what’s not. Here are some areas to look at:
These five areas are important when assessing the strength of your relationship. If you’re doing most or all of these, you’re probably doing pretty well. If you need work on one or more of these areas, don’t be discouraged. These skills can be learned. You can improve the strength of your relationship yourselves or you can always try couples counseling.
Many clients seek counseling because they’re having difficulty with combining two families after divorce. They have children who are different ages, have different needs and personalities and they find it overwhelming and stressful. It’s not surprising considering how difficult it is raising children in intact families where there hasn’t been divorce!
Despite the difficulties, it is possible to have a happy family even if you have children from two different marriages. Some of the ways to make this situation successful are as follows:
These suggestions will help you develop a closer family when you have partners that have children from previous marriages/relationships. If these techniques don’t work, family counseling with an experienced therapist is an option. However, if you make children and your relationship a priority, respect boundaries and communicate effectively, you’ll be far along the way to having a happy blended family!
When you are going through a divorce, you may feel hurt, guilty, alone, scared – a lot of very difficult feelings. Starting a new relationship is appealing because it can help you feel less lonely and it can provide support when it may be difficult to get support from others who don’t understand what you’re going through. However, relationships take time, energy and a lot of compromise. Thinking through what is best for you and your family will help you determine when to move forward with a new relationship.
Some things to consider when starting a new relationship after divorce:
Look into your situation and assess where you and your children are emotionally. This will help you determine if you’re ready for a relationship.
There are parents who don’t consider starting a new relationship because they feel that they need to focus on their children. They feel that they can’t have a relationship at all until their children are out of the house. Although some may think that this is best for children, there can be some negative consequences to this.
A parent who focuses primarily on their children may find that they don’t have any time to develop their own life, hobbies, interests, friendships or take care of themself. This works for young children as they want and need their parent’s undivided attention. But as children get older, they start to develop their own life, friends and activities. If their mom or dad is solely focused on them, the children may feel responsible for their parent’s happiness and feel guilty that they don’t want to spend all their time with the parent.
There is a middle ground. You can have a relationship and your own life after a divorce while putting your children as a priority. One of the reasons to develop your own life outside of your children is that you are your children’s main role model. If you are happy and have a full life, it encourages your children to have that too.
There is no one right or wrong answer. Think through what you want and take your time with every decision. Talk to a trusted friend or therapist to help you think clearly. Balance your own needs with that of your children. You know what is best for your children and for yourself. Have faith in yourself that if you take the time and space you need, you will come up with what will be best for you and your family.
Relationships are tricky. In order to have a healthy relationship, you must compromise. You have to give up some things that you would want and hopefully your partner also gives up some things that they want. But how much giving up is too much? How do you both give to each other while making sure that you're meeting your own needs?
Communication is key to finding the balance between taking care of yourself and taking care of your relationship. Make some time to talk when you’re both relaxed and can focus on the conversation. Listen to each other and try to understand the other’s point of view. If you find that your partner doesn’t allow you to have your own friends or activities, that may indicate a serious problem in your relationship. If you can have a reasonable conversation about how you can work through this issue, that’s a very good sign for the health of your relationship.
Too many people get into relationships and find that everything they do revolves around their partner. The problem with this is that it may work in the beginning but after some time you'll most likely feel resentful. You'll wake up and realize that you’ve become distant from all of your friends and you don’t have any outside interests. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can give of yourself to the relationship while you take care of yourself.
The first step is to think about what’s important to you. Prioritize the things that you do that make you happy. Is it important to attend a weekly book club with your friends? Is it important to work out every day? Is it important to spend time with your sister regularly? You probably won’t be able to do it all but you can choose some things that you value the most. You need to feel grounded and happy. If you find that you’ve given up too much and you’re starting to feel resentful, that needs to be discussed.
Good communication is essential to finding the right balance for your relationship. Check in with your partner regularly and make sure you’re on the same page regarding time spent together and time spent apart. If you do so, you’ll develop the basis for a really strong, connected relationship.
Most couples struggle with communication. You may spend a lot of time together with your partner but much of that is tied up with kids, work, or chores and responsibilities. At the end of the day, exhausted, you each watch your favorite program and go to sleep. In truth, very little meaningful communication occurred.
If that sounds familiar in your relationship, you can make some changes that will significantly improve your communication. The first step is to schedule time to communicate into your day two to three times a week. Make that time sacred so that nothing else can take priority. It doesn’t have to be that long – 30 minutes is plenty of time. Make sure there are no distractions. Then use the following guidelines to structure your communication time:
Good communication in relationships is a skill that takes practice. It may take some time to change the way you communicate, especially if you’ve been doing it differently for a long time. But using these techniques successfully will help you communication better and as a result, you will have a closer, more connected relationship.
In most relationships, there is conflict. The way that you deal with conflict is so important to being close. John Gottman suggests using specific word to help people repair their relationships when there is conflict. He suggests using “I feel” statements instead of “You” statements. Saying how you feel with “I feel” statements allows the other person to hear you without becoming defensive. It’s a non-threatening way of communicating.
I Feel statements:
If the communication starts to get more intense or emotional, one of you may need to take the intensity down. When emotions are high, it’s very difficult to have a reasonable conversation. Here are some suggestions for those circumstances:
I Need To Calm Down:
Apologies and taking responsibility for your part can be really powerful, especially when they’re heartfelt. They can immediately change the intensity of the interaction and start moving you in a different direction.
Finally, in every conflict there is a way to get to a resolution. Providing some positive comments can be very helpful in getting you to an agreement.
Get To Yes:
Using these statements and tools involves being kind. Kindness is the glue to healthy relationships. Kindness is like a muscle – it’s easier to be kind the more you practice. It’s difficult to practice kindness during a fight when emotions are running high. When you’re emotional, it can be hard to think of what to say to be kind. But these kind words can be powerful tools to repair feelings during a conflict so that the end result is a much closer, more intimate relationship.
When your partner pulls away, you may feel hurt. You may even feel a deep sense of rejection and fear that he or she doesn’t love you and may leave you. Typically, this is an irrational feeling if your partner has shown you over time that they love you. Your partner pulling away from you is likely the result of their past experiences and circumstances. Something happened in their past that makes them pull away when they feel upset.
Intimate relationships are hard because there are so many complex emotions that we might not fully understand. Experiences from the past are brought up and those feelings impact your reactions. If it was just about the single incident, it wouldn’t take you long to recognize that your partner loves you and when he or she pulled away, it wasn’t due to the way they feel about you. But instead you feel that irrational rejection. So why do you have that irrational feeling?
These irrational feelings are usually triggered by past experience – possibly being rejected by a parent or a past partner. A part of the brain that is triggered doesn’t know the difference between the current experience and the past experience. So you feel deeply hurt and you become scared that the person will leave you. You immediately react – either fight or pull away. This may create the same feeling in your partner and, in turn, they may pull away even further. Before you know it, you are completely disconnected from each other emotionally.
What do we do about this? The first step is try to figure out what previous experience is coming up for you. Did you have a rejecting parent? Was your parent depressed, anxious, addicted to something or unable to meet your needs when you were a child? If so, when a partner pulls away you feel like a child again. I call it being “kicked into your kid”. You are that 8 or 10-year-old child again where you didn’t get your needs met and didn’t feel unconditional love from a parent. If you have a bad experience of being hurt by a previous relationship, when a partner pulls away you may feel scared of being hurt again. This is a little easier to understand and connect on an emotional level. But this new partner didn’t leave so it’s important to separate your feelings from your past from this current relationship.
The second step is to share your feelings with your partner in a clear, non-threatening way. Use an “I message”:
I feel ________________ when you ____________ because _________. Would you please ______________?
I feel hurt when you pull away because it brings up the feelings I had when I was rejected by my mom when I was a child. Would you please let me know that you still love me?
This is scary to do for many people because you are making yourself extremely vulnerable. But you are also learning how to communicate your feelings which will bring you closer and will enable you to have a truly deep intimate connection with your significant other.
When you disagree with a spouse, co-worker or child, it’s easy to get emotional. Intense feelings can be triggered and the disagreement can turn into a messy fight. Things are said in the heat of the moment that you can’t take back. At that moment, it seems like you don’t have control over your brain. Wouldn’t it be great if you were able to train your brain so this wouldn’t happen?
During these interactions, we get consumed by what's called the “reptilian” part of the brain – the survival part of our brain that scans for danger multiple times per second to find potential danger lurking. That primitive part of the brain only sees two possible solutions to problems – fight or flight. The reptilian brain feeds on fear and actually shuts off the creative problem-solving part of the brain. Your heart starts racing, you get flushed and your voice starts getting louder. The other person responds in the same way and the interaction escalates.
When your creative thinking area of the brain is shut off, you won’t be able to come to a compromise or handle the situation in the best manner. So what do you do to train your brain not to respond this way? The main technique to learn is to slow your brain down. To be able to do that you literally have to remove yourself from the heated situation by saying, “I need some time…” Give yourself the time and space to slow down. Take deep abdominal breaths, go for a walk, listen to music or call a friend. It may take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. Once your brain is functioning slower, you may be able to think of a solution. Or you may realize that you don’t need to come up with a solution right away – you may be able to give yourself a few days or more to find a compromise.
Training your brain this way takes time and practice. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t do it right away. Tell yourself, “I’ve got this, I can do this.” Eventually you’ll learn this technique and you’ll find that your newly trained brain will help you tremendously in many different areas of your life.
Jill Barnett Kaufman, MSW, LCSW and Certified Parent Educator is an experienced clinician who helps clients discover new ways to resolve a variety of challenges and bring more happiness and peace into their lives.