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Do You Have an Impossible Ex?

Has your ex turned your divorce into a minefield?

Recently, I wrote an article about the Malignant Divorce. These are cases that spin out of control in dark and often dangerous ways. Over the next few months I'll continue this conversation, because even when a divorce is not particularly toxic, there are still moments in most divorces when you have to protect yourself. And if you are in the midst of a Malignant Divorce, forewarned is forearmed. This post offers a direct follow up to the first tip that was referenced in the article. In simple words: if you're trapped in a malignant situation, you must come to terms with the kind of person your ex spouse has become. And if you don't, you're in trouble.

The Intelligent Divorce book series promotes a rational approach to dissolving a family even though feelings are charged. We are not looking for perfect behavior here. Parents under the stress of money worries, legal concerns, stories of betrayal, and uncertainty about the future are going to make mistakes—even big mistakes. But there is so much at stake for their children, that it is worth stepping back and trying to divorce in as intelligent a way as possible. I am not arguing for the easy divorce, just a more intelligent one.

For the record (and, if it's not obvious), intelligent does not mean stupid. There are cases in which the intelligent thing to do is to hang tough, not be particularly friendly, and set good limits. There are cases in which the intelligent thing to do is to recognize that you are dealing with a spouse who is out to hurt you or your children. And, there are cases when all your communication must be done through attorneys because a moment on the phone or in person is just too loaded. A Malignant Divorce is instigated when one party simply wants to win at all costs. In these cases, intelligence is using all of your wits just to survive.

Here is the first point (of seven) that I made in the original overview of The Malignant Divorce.

You are dealing with an ex-spouse who just wants to win. If you are the healthier spouse, then you are trapped in a surreal life, largely not of your own making. It may not be fair, but it's time that you deal with it. Laying back and hoping it will all go away is probably a poor strategy.

When getting a divorce you must be aware of who you are dealing with. This may not be as easy as it appears; after all, you were living with him for a number of years and may perceive his behavior as normal—or at least tolerable—when it is anything but.

More fundamentally, your ex-husband or ex-wife may not be quite the same person he or she was during the marriage. It is called regression, and it is not a good thing.

The stress of divorce, which includes the instinct of self-preservation, can make your ex (or you, for that matter) function at a more primitive and less healthy manner. The Intelligent Divorce: Taking Care of Yourself outlines ten common Character Traps that people fall into when regressed. For those professionals reading this piece, I use the concept of a Character Trap, instead of the more diagnostic term, Personality Disorder, because these primitive, and sometimes, dangerous regressions are often time-limited to the years surrounding the divorce. Unlike Personality Disorders, which have a strong degree of permanence, Character Traps describes a phenomenon of stress-induced dysfunction that is often less obvious beforehand or years later.

Character Traps are a construct that can provide something to hang your hat on, because they make sense. People who have dropped into a Character Trap are potentially dangerous because they (like those with Personality Disorders) are not vulnerable, as a rule, to ambivalence. This can be disastrous to the healthier spouse in a divorce. If an unambivalent person is in a conflict with a person who is more open minded, it can be very bad for the healthier person.

If you are the healthier spouse, then you are trapped in a surreal life, largely not of your own making.

You will give him the benefit of the doubt (which in normal cases builds trust) and he exploits it. She says something bad about you to the kids, and you let it pass (which in normal cases may just be an isolated incident) and she sees herself as vindicated by your silence. That is why it is so important to wake up and realize with whom you may be dealing. Regressed people often "know" that they are right, and therefore have a powerful moral authority to do as they please. This is a dangerous recipe for abuse that can range from financial manipulation, to parental alienation (from mild to severe), to kidnapping or even, rarely—murder.

Today, we'll go over the Character Traps (your ex can have more than one) that can set off a Malignant Divorce:

Ø The Victim: This Character Trap is dominated by the certainty and injustice of being wronged. She believes that she lost precious years with you or that you are unfit to have anything to do with the children, because of what you've done (This Character Trap only applies when it is a distortion of the truth—note that this behavior can be adaptive if an ex-spouse is truly dangerous). Victims are paradoxically ruthless in victimizing anyone who they believe hurt them. They have a powerful sense of justice and self-righteousness. They also work from a kernel of truth, which makes their claims that much more powerful; this can be conscious and manipulative or more unconscious and even psychotic. I have seen terrible things done in the name of victimhood. If you are dealing with any Character Trap therapy is a must, so you have a chance to objectively decide how to stay safe and have a shot at having a relationship with your children. Many perpetrators of parent alienation have these features. Victims, paradoxically, can have a lot of power. They are often supported by family, attorneys, and even therapists who fail to see that there is another side to the story.

Ø The Control Freak: He was probably always controlling during your marriage, and because of regression, he has become far worse. In these cases, the control freak is really very anxious, but manages it by planning everything so that he cannot lose. He may set you up and then document your "incompetence," bringing copious notes to court to prove how capable he is and how irresponsible you are (for an example, turn to the film Gaslight). The control freak can easily hide your mutual monies, because many are good businessmen who have control of the accounts. The control freak is unambivalent in his wish to win, and the more capable they are, the more work you will have in protecting yourself. Since you were married to him for a number of years, you may also be intimidated by the power of his relentless assault on your very legitimacy. Once again, therapy is mandatory.

Ø The Narcissist: This Character Trap carries the same name as the personality disorder. The narcissist is completely self-centered and self-serving. In this case, your husband probably had some narcissistic tendencies before the divorce. Some warning signs include: a need for admiration, a need to be right, a need to be seen by the community as a great guy, and a need to criticize you privately for not meeting his standards. In addition, he's probably a charismatic and successful guy (maybe that's why you fell for him in the first place) who casually uses his charisma to get what he wants—often at the expense of other people. Now, your ex has regressed into a more severe form of narcissism. With the divorce, he completely dismisses any of your needs, or all the years of devotion and mutual companionship that you had built together. Normal people remember the good from the past. It informs a sense of balance and fairness during a divorce (even through a betrayal). You may be getting a divorce, but that doesn't mean that you don't have valuable memories and a life story together. For the narcissist, it is all gone; like it never happened. You will have to understand this if you are to deal effectively with him. The narcissist can undermine you with your friends and your children and steal your money, all while looking sincere and generating good will among the community. And, need I say it? An excellent therapist can help.

Ø The Avenger: This character trap is very dangerous and can be a natural extension of the victim, the control freak or the narcissist—if taken to an extreme. The avenger doesn't just want to win, she wants you to lose. She will not be satisfied until you are hurting. Many roads lead to Rome and many paths lead to the avenger. Melanie Klein, the great British psychoanalyst, wrote about this psychology when she talked about envy, which she defined as "the pleasure one gets in destroying the good that another person has." There is a sense of urgency with an avenger. In a divorce, most people have a moment when they may consider some kind of revenge. It is normal to want to hurt a person who hurt you. But the vast majority of people see that there are two sides to most stories, and furthermore they just want to move on with their lives, if for no other reason than to give their children a brighter future. The avenger sees revenge as an end in itself. In my experience, when the avenger is combined with the victim Character Trap, such people can lose touch with reality. She will stop at nothing to make sure that you cannot be happy. At its worse, the kids become pawns in an evil game. In recent years, the politically charged label of parental alienation has been buttressed by research supporting that this insidious dynamic is probably a real phenomenon. Parental alienation is an attempt to deprive you of your children through a form of brainwashing. And what about kidnapping or murder? The avenger may really think, "If I can't have them, he sure won't." Or, "If I don't keep them from him, no one will." If you think that you are dealing with an ex-spouse who has these tendencies, then you will need a good attorney, a great therapist, and a familiarly with how to constructively use the police and the legal system.

Forewarned is forearmed; and that is the intelligent approach to a Malignant Divorce. Years from now, your ex may be surprisingly easy to deal with. Time sometimes heals, as long as not too much damage has been done along the way.