How to survive an impossible ex spouse
Posted Mar 13, 2018
No one knows you better than your ex, and often in unhappy ways.
- She knows how to get under your skin.
- He knows how to leave you threatened.
- She knows how to harness the children’s feelings towards her and against you.
- He knows how to do the same.
The vast majority of divorces are civil and reasonable. You were married to someone and it didn’t work out. You both deserve another chance.
While it is true that the one leaving (the leave-er) is usually less burdened by the divorce than the one being left (the leave-ee), an intelligent divorce is a possibility. Most people grieve, get some therapy or support, and sooner or later, call it a day and move on.
There is life to live.
Not so when you have an impossibly difficult ex spouse.
People Regress in Divorce:
People regress during divorce.
If you were angry, you may become explosive. If he was selfish, he may become narcissistic. If she was narcissistic, she may become sociopathic. If you were anxious, you may become more so. If he had been mean, he could become viscous. And if she had been dependent, she may become helpless.
While you may have been married to someone with a personality disorder like a Narcissist or a Borderline, it is more likely you were married to someone with some of these traits that have morphed into the full blown version, at least for the foreseeable future.
Because divorce brings up many worries, including a fear of abandonment, an over-ripened sense of justice, fears of never being loved again, worries about money, the house, and, of course, the children. These pressure bear on the psych like the proverbial straws on a camel’s back.
And many people break.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt …and Dysfunction:
That is why I argue strongly for The Intelligent Divorce. We must think from our heads and not from our hearts during divorce because feelings are often so muddled and the mistakes that people make are so predictable.
Familiarity breeds contempt and dysfunction.
Your ex may trigger you and you may trigger him or her. Yet, you have to arrange for a financial settlement and continue to interact, particularly if there are children in the picture. Some people need to keep the divorce going…and going… and going. Character problems make people self righteous and self serving, even if it can injure their children. And the legal system with its endless continuances, discovery, exposure and pain, can sometimes add insult to injury.
In severe cases, like Parental Alienation Syndrome or physical abuse, you will have to bring in outside resources to make things better. But, in most cases, you are facing a person that you must interact with, and yet, is difficult and undermining of that very effort.
So, what are the guidelines for dealing with a difficult ex?
The SIR System (Safety, Integrity & Relationship):
In every interaction with your ex spouse, consider three things in descending order: safety, your own integrity, and when possible, fostering a good relationship with your ex spouse. If you work the relationship in that order, you are off to a good start.
- Safety: It is always good to start the relationship with your ex conservatively. Have him come to the house only when invited. Keep phone conversations and emails professional and clean of accusations, and only about the issue at hand. And make sure that you are safe. Do not enter a conversation or a setting with him or her if you feel unsafe. It will lead to nothing good.
If you believe that safety is an issue, then get a great therapist to help you navigate things with your ex spouse. Sometimes, outside help is needed, the police, court orders, a clergy intervention. Once your ex understands that he or she cannot intimidate or frighten, then you are in a better position to deal with him or her effectively. Or, if it is consistent, use the courts and law enforcement to change the custody or visitation schedule to ensure safety.
- Integrity: Look carefully at yourself and your values. Now that you are divorcing, you are entitled to ask how you want to raise children, or live your life. Ask yourself if you have regressed significantly and are part of the problem as well. And when you interact with your ex, know what you are asking for and don’t try to solve all the problems of your failed marriage. It is over. Now you want a successful divorce. If you are safe with your ex, and you know what you want, there may be room for meaningful conversation.
There is much grief work in divorce, anger, depression, regrets, denial and the like. Do that work with friends, family, clergy or a therapist. When it comes to your ex, try to be clear about what you want to accomplish in each and every interaction. Scoring points or looking for love usually backfires.
That is part of divorcing intelligently.
- Relationship: Finally, if you have children together, there will be student conferences, graduations, parties, weddings, medical problems and much more. You may be divorced, but you remain parents together forever.
It is best to try to nurture the relationship to a better place. This is particularly true is you are the leave-er and not the leave-ee.This is because the one being left carries a lot of pain and emotional baggage, and he or she is likely to act out if not careful. The leave-er on the other hand, had probably been mourning a failed marriage for years and is feeling relief. Have compassion, as long as you are safe and maintain your integrity.
Relationships work in positive and negative cycles. The more we withhold or judge, the more we are rejected or dismissed. And then we withhold and judge some more…and on it goes.
On the other hand, if you protect yourself, and yet deal with your ex with healthy limits, appropriate patience, and some thoughtfulness, he or she may just change their tune. If your ex is truly regressed, he or she will take advantage of your good will, and then you’ll have to revert to being careful again.
I have seen many good divorces.
Protect yourself, but be open to something good if it appears.
The SIR system (Safety, Integrity & Relationship) is a simple acronym to keep in mind while dealing with a difficult ex spouse. Always put safety is always first. Then carefully consider your role in the dysfunction of the marriage and the divorce, and make changes if possible. Plus, look inside and make sure that you know what you want in every interaction with your ex. It will make it all easier, because you won’t get sucked into old conversations about your failed marriage.
Finally, remember that you valued this person once. And that person may be still there, covered over with hurt, anger and self righteousness. It may take years, but many couples are able to transition successfully to an intelligent divorce, despite a failed marriage.
It is not an easy road. My wishes for a safe and wholesome future.