Parenting with a high-conflict ex can be crazy-making , but there are steps you can take to keep yourself sane so you can be the best parent you can be. Here are 10 strategies for success:
1. Divorce curfew. Keep thoughts of your ex from consuming every waking moment by heeding a “divorce curfew:” do nothing related to your divorce, or your ex, after 8 p.m. Don’t answer emails, don’t read divorce books, don’t vent to your friends on the phone. Shift your focus to something positive and relaxing so you can let your nervous system calm down and get a good night’s sleep.
2. Communication protocol. Co-parenting communication should be focused on information and logistics – doctor appointments, holiday plans, playdates – not opinions, feelings, or debate. If your ex barrages you with insults and threats, don’t take the bait and participate in an email volley. Just stick to the facts and resist the urge to defend yourself, since doing so will only invite more attacks.
3. Keep firm boundaries. High-conflict personalities try to mow down boundaries, so you must be vigilant about maintaining yours. You don’t need to answer emails 24/7, or let your ex into your home, or tailor your house rules to appease your co-parent. Part of setting boundaries is also accepting that you can’t change what your ex does, either. Keeping your focus on your own behaviors will make you feel more in control.
4. Don’t take things personally. Being married to your high-conflict ex probably took a toll on your self-esteem. If you were a victim of gas-lighting, you may believe that everything is your “fault.” High-conflict people are blamers, so try not to take your ex’s insults personally – their comments most likely have little to do with you, and more to do with their own distorted interpretation of reality.
5. Teach your kids relationship skills. High-conflict exes love to triangulate the kids by using them as messengers. Keep your kids out of the middle by directing them to come to you when they have a problem with you, instead of going to your ex to run interference. This will help them learn how responsible adults address problems.
6. Teach your kids critical thinking skills. Worried that your ex’s bad-mouthing will turn your kids against you? You can’t control what your former spouse says, but you can teach your kids how to think for themselves: instead of parroting back propaganda, analyze evidence before deciding what’s true.
7. Be a good role model. Don’t let your ex’s bad behavior provoke the same from you. Your kids are watching you, so show them how adults handle adversity. Use your coping skills, don’t engage in verbal outbursts (especially around your children!), and don’t go for revenge. Instead, do the next right thing.
8. Practice self-care. Co-parenting with a high-conflict ex is draining, so make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat properly, exercise, and stay current with medical and dental care. You’ll feel better able to wrangle your ex when you’re in good mental and physical health.
9. Manage your emotions. If you react to your ex’s power plays, you’ll make yourself crazy and invite more drama. Acknowledge the discomfort, and observe the feeling while you decide how best to respond. Will it really help to send a fiery, knee-jerk email? Or will you be better served utilizing some coping skills to calm yourself down?
10. Practice radical acceptance. Suffering comes from the refusal to accept that your high-conflict co-parent is anyone other than who they are. Nothing you do or say will give them an epiphany, or turn them into a reasonable person. Accepting reality will free you up to focus on the choices actually available to you.
Thinking of your ex as your teacher will keep you from feeling victimized. Difficult as it is, co-parenting with a high-conflict ex is an opportunity to change your own problem behaviors so you can empower yourself.
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