The Ex Files: How To Deal With a High-Conflict Co-Parent

Dealing with a high-conflict co-parent can be mentally, physically, emotionally, and sometimes financially draining. If you don’t find strategies to manage your relationship with your ex, you can descend into a vat of resentment. Don’t let that happen! Read on to learn five effective ways to deal with your co-parent so you can thrive after divorce.

Accept that you cannot change your co-parent. Most of the headache that accompanies a high-conflict co-parent comes from the inability to accept how this person thinks and acts. As much as you would like him to “get over it, and “put the kids first,” these things are probably not ever going to happen. If you can reframe the problem from “my ex is Evil Incarnate” to “I don’t know how to deal with my co-parent and it’s making me crazy,” there’s hope! And here’s why: no one has ever successfully changed another person…because change has to come from within. Once you realize that your ex will only change if he wants, you will stop trying to control him and instead control your own reactions and choices.

Set boundaries. High-conflict personalities (HCPs) love to steamroll over other people’s boundaries, so you’ll have to be vigilant about keeping yours. HCPs often whip up drama to keep you engaged with them, so you may have gotten into a habit of matching your ex’s intensity with your own: responding emotionally and immediately. You need to stop this! Unless there’s a true emergency, most things can wait. Don’t reply to every text and email on demand, especially if you’re upset. Wait till you cool down. Limit your ex’s access to your home life: she has her rules at her house, and you have yours at your house. Do not defend yourself or try to persuade your ex of the error of his parenting ways. If your ex is being dodgy with child support or playing games with visitation, don’t deal with him directly; notify your attorney and let them handle it.

Develop a low-conflict communication style. When you’re getting dressed down in person or in writing, it’s easy to become defensive, sarcastic, angry, and teary. But, remember: matching your ex’s intensity with your own with just make the conflict worse. No matter what crazy, nasty things your ex says, take the high road. Stick to facts and logistics: “According to our custody schedule, Dylan is with me this weekend and will not be able to go to the movies with you on Sunday.” End of story. Don’t share your feelings or try to reason with someone who isn’t reasonable.

Don’t take what your co-parent says personally. This is key to disengaging from conflict. Your ex is probably projecting his or her own issues onto you. That means that his sense of reality is skewed. If you understand this, then there’s no need to get wounded or try to get him to understand you, which is a colossal waste of time. You can’t change what your ex thinks about your parenting or worth as a person, so stop giving him space in your head. If you need assurance or encouragement, talk to people you trust and who care about you. A lot of the conflict in your co-parenting relationship will simmer down when you stop reacting to your ex’s nonsense.

Talk to your children in age-appropriate ways. One question that people with difficult co-parents ask is: “what do I do when my ex bad-mouths and lies about me to my kids?” Contrary to old-school conventional wisdom, saying nothing is not always the best policy. If your children hear things that are scary and upsetting, or they just sense that you and your ex are mad at each other, they’ll be confused when you don’t acknowledge reality.

Help kids trust their feelings and intuition. So confirm what they already know: your ex is angry with you. Give only as much information as needed. Little kids can be told: “Mommy is angry, and sometimes when people are angry they can only see their sides of things. If you want to know something about me, please ask me and not your mom.”

Instill critical thinking skills. With older kids, you can teach them critical thinking skills by saying something like: “When Dad says bad things about me, realize that’s he’s angry. His feelings are real, but feelings are not facts. They’re just feelings, which are subjective. You have the right to tell your dad you don’t like it when he talks about me and ask him to stop.”

As difficult as your high-conflict co-parent may be, you have the power to choose how you relate to him (or her). The more you practice setting limits and managing your emotional reactivity, the more you will be able to disengage from the craziness, parent your children effectively, and enjoy life!

Are things not working with your co-parent quite the way you had hoped? We can help you asses your rights and options, and map out a strategy for a plan that truly put your child’s best interests first. To speak with one of our experienced family law attorneys, please contact us to schedule your initial consultation.

Read More:

5 Things I Would Tell My Former Self About Co-Parenting

Co-Parenting With An Unreliable Ex: 5 Steps For Keeping Your Kids Secure