Wonder what children of divorce hate more than almost anything? Hearing their parents bad-mouth each other. Ex-bashing is such a common problem among divorced couples, in fact, that warnings against it are written into standard custody orders. Here’s a boilerplate excerpt used in New Jersey: “Neither parent shall do anything which may estrange the other from their children, ignore the opinion of the children, injure the opinion of the children to the other parent or hamper the free and natural development of the love of the children for the other parent.”
Despite knowing they shouldn’t speak ill of their ex, many people continue to do so, often in earshot of their children. Let’s take a deeper look at the reasons why ex-bashing hurts kids and explore ways to stop yourself — before you say something your children won’t forget.
Bashing Your Ex Hurts Your Kids Because…
Your ex is part of your children. Whether your ex is your child’s biological or adoptive parent, he is still part of your child, and your child sees him that way. Telling kids that their other parent is some variation of stupid, evil and crazy is like telling them they are too. Accept that you are now co-parents.
It instills shame. When you bash your ex, you make your kids feel ashamed of who they are and where they came from. This toxic emotion is at the root of most addictions (people rely on substances and addictive processes to mask shame). It leads to a breakdown in genuine intimacy; who wants to get close to anyone when they feel fundamentally defective? Shame-based people tend to manifest unhealthy relationships. They either shame the people they’re with or choose people who reinforce their own self-loathing.
It’s abusive. Most divorced people slip up on occasion and say things that are less than kind about their ex. But repeated bad-mouthing in front of children is emotionally abusive. Bashing undermines their relationship with their other parent.
They deserve a healthy relationship with their other parent. Just because you had a bad relationship with your ex doesn’t mean your child will. No matter what you think of him, and even if he has issues that legitimately impact his parenting ability, your child has a fundamental right to love him. Chipping away at that relationship by trashing your ex violates your child’s rights.
It puts them in the middle. When you bash your ex, kids feel that they have to take sides. If they say nothing, they align with you. If they defend their other parent, they align with their dad. It is a lose-lose situation that pockmarks what should be a normal childhood.
How To Stop Ex-Bashing During & After Your Divorce
Learn to sweep your own side of the street. Our grievances with others tend to be reflections of things we don’t like about ourselves. Take a look at the complaints you have about your spouse: arrogance, rigidity, unreliability, greed, selfishness, etc. Do you share any of these traits, to any degree? Even if you don’t (but be honest!), you certainly have things about yourself you could change. We all do. Instead of obsessing about what a jerk your ex is, focus on your own self-improvement.
Practice mindfulness. Your hate for your ex might be such a constant in your life that you are not even aware of the things you say, how your statements come across, or the impact they have on your kids. You don’t have to like your ex, but you do have to accept that he exists and your kids have a right to have a relationship with him. Since you can’t change these circumstances, why not change the way you react to people and things you can’t control? Start by checking in with yourself and notice when you’re obsessing about your ex. What unpleasant physical sensations are you aware of? What opportunities are you missing because you’re fixated on your ex? Start creating space between feelings and knee-jerk responses by acknowledging your experience. When you learn to pause, you become more conscious of your choices and may choose not to bash your ex within earshot of your kids.
Use coping skills. Bashing your ex is a habit. In order to break it, you need to replace it with healthy alternatives. That’s where coping skills come in. Make a list of positive things you can do when you feel like trashing your ex: physical exercise, journaling, meditation, calling a friend, taking a time-out (going into your room for five minutes until you calm down). The more you use your coping skills, the more in control you will feel in all areas of your life – not just when you’re dealing with your ex.
Get support. If you are compulsively bashing your child’s other parent, you cannot possibly be happy. Get professional help to alleviate your depression and anxiety during your divorce. If you can’t afford therapy, consider a 12-step group such as Alanon or Codependents Anonymous. These groups provide support for managing the toxic people in your life, as well as for your own toxic feelings and behaviors.
If these reasons aren’t enough to stop you from speaking badly about your ex, consider this: bad-mouthing often backfires. Your kids can end up siding with your ex against you, and your divorce and child custody negotiations can become even more tense. So if you want to maintain a healthy relationship with your children, keep your feelings about your ex to yourself, or share them only with your therapist, your best friends, and your journal.