“I want to co-parent with my ex, but his emails are out of control! Last week he sent a ten-pager — ten words of which were about the kids. How can I make him understand I don’t want to talk about ‘us’ anymore?”
“My ex hates that I’m dating. She calls incessantly to “check in.” If she can’t reach me, she leaves messages telling me what a bad father I am!”
“Last night my ex texted to ask what I was feeding the kids for dinner. Before I knew it I’d fired back: ‘None of your damn business!’”
It might not make logical sense, but it’s true: If your ex pounces on every opportunity to lure you into a fraught exchange, they’re having a hard time letting go. After all, if they can keep you emotionally engaged — even against your will — they can avoid the painful awareness that you’re no longer a couple.
Fighting is an intimate act.
The fact that we now have so many ways to be “in touch” is a double-edged sword for divorcing parents.
On the one hand, electronic communications (voicemail, text, email) offer a more controlled alternative to in-person contact — helpful if you can’t be civil in each other’s presence. On the other hand, they’re loaded with potential problems. Electronic communications:
- Allow a needy spouse to be in too-frequent contact
- Allow an angry spouse a forum for unfettered verbal attack
- Are notoriously easy to misinterpret
- Establish an unhelpful expectation of immediate response (“It’s been a full hour of radio silence!”)
- Allow for impulsive, destructive responses without offering the possibility of quick repair (ever wish you had a magic “I take it back” button on your keyboard?)
If you’re co-parenting with an ex who’s hell-bent on pulling you into unproductive, upsetting communications, you’re facing a challenge.
It’s tough, but with practice you can learn to avoid being sucked into the vortex.
You need some New Rules:
New Rule #1: Know Thyself
We all have pesky vulnerabilities in our characters which, when activated, throw our emotion into overdrive and our judgment into idle. And no one knows your soft spots better than your ex. If you’re someone who craves approval, a zinger like “Everyone knows what a terrible person you are for leaving this family!” will send your heart rate through the roof. If your sense of guilt is over-developed, a well-aimed “I hope you can live with yourself — our kids will never be able to trust anyone again!” may plunge you into depression. Learn your trigger points, so you can resist rising to the bait.
New Rule #2: Adopt “The Boundaried Response”
When it comes to communicating with an over-emotional ex, most of us err in one of two directions:
Mistake #1: The Defensive Response
The recipient responds with irrelevant, wordy rationalizations that invite further attacks.
Watch out for this if you’re insecure or conflict averse.
Mistake #2: The Retaliatory Response
The recipient responds with sarcasm and/or counter-accusations, thus upping the ante.
Watch out for this if you’re quick-tempered or still hurt and angry.
What we are aiming for is:
#3: The Boundaried Response
The recipient ignores all emotional content and responds only to relevant child-related issues — using few words and a neutral, business-like tone.
This response establishes appropriate limits and sets the stage for healthier communication in the future.
To give you the idea, here’s an example of a provocative email followed by Defensive, Retaliatory, and (finally) Boundaried responses:
The Provocative Email:
“When I picked Tommy up from school today he had a fever. I took him to the doctor — he has strep. Apparently he told you this morning that he didn’t feel well. What kind of mother takes a sick child to school just so she can get to work on time?”
The Defensive Response:
“Last night Tommy had a cough and a slight sniffle. I asked him how he felt and he said ‘fine.’ I took his temperature and it was one hundred degrees. I told myself I’d wait until morning to decide what to do. This morning his temperature was normal. I considered calling the doctor, but Tommy said he didn’t want to miss his science presentation today. I resent your insinuation that I’m not a good mother because I made a different judgment call than you would!”
The Retaliatory Response:
“Sorry you had to take time off from watching ESPN to take your son to the doctor, but someone has to make a living.”
The Boundaried Response:
“Tommy seemed fine this morning, slight sniffle. Sorry about the strep. I’ll give him a call later to check in. Tomorrow’s my day, so let me know if you’re keeping him home from school so we can coordinate pick-up. I’ll assume you’re sending him with meds unless I hear otherwise.”
New Rule #3: Don’t answer the phone
If your ex’s number shows up on caller ID, let it go to voicemail every time. Then check the message right away. If it’s your kids (or a true emergency), call back. If it’s a rant, ignore it.
New Rule #4: If every call is a rant, tell your ex you’ll only respond to written communications.
New Rule #5: Set a communication protocol
Ask your ex if he/she prefers email or text (don’t offer telephone), and stick to that format. Tell him or her you’ll respond to child-related communications within twenty-four hours, then do.
New Rule #6: Ignore petty communications
A text such as: “Sally arrived home with filthy hair. There’s this new product called ‘shampoo,’ ever heard of it?” requires no response.
New Rule #7: Impose a mandatory waiting period
When replying to a provocative email, wait at least one hour before pressing “send.” After you’ve calmed down (assuming you still want to reply), edit aggressively — using The Boundaried Response as your guide. If your second draft is one-tenth the length of the original, you’re in the zone.
New Rule #8: Give yourself a break
Divorce is rough, and you’re only human — you will get pulled into old dynamics once in a while. When you find yourself in a fruitless tug of war with your ex, breathe — then let go of the rope.
“Will I be able to protect my children? Can I ease their pain?” If you’re a divorcing parent, these primal anxieties dominate your daily thoughts and inhabit your dreams. Especially if you’re the product of a badly handled divorce or have seen others flounder in the wake of family upheaval, you’re desperate to get this right.
But you’re only human.
At its best, parenting is a series of educated guesses and course corrections. Parenting during divorce? It’s like trying to paint a still life in a sandstorm. Delicate business amidst pain and chaos.
Keeping your children’s needs front and center while your own feelings roil is a tough emotional balancing act. Especially early on while you’re still shaky, it won’t take much to throw you off kilter. One nasty email from your ex can land you on your butt.
It makes sense that the most common post-split parenting errors happen when we’re in the most common kinds of post-split distress. I’ve grouped the list below with that in mind — some classic “Awful Feelings” along with the “Botch-Ups” they often engender:
Awful Feeling #1: Anxiety About Separation From Your Kids
- The clingy goodbye: Your kids need to feel they have your blessing to go, and your confidence that they (and their other parent) can manage the time away. Lingering hugs, plaintive “I’ll miss you’s,” hyperbolic expressions of affection (“I love you to the moon and back again!”) and excessive reassurance (“Call me whenever you want, even in the middle of the night!”) can turn an otherwise steady child into a nail-biting mess.
- Too many phone calls/texts/emails: Especially if your kids are still little or you’ve never spent much time apart, you’ll want to be in touch. And maybe you should be; for some children regular check-ins create a helpful emotional bridge. But when your dialing finger tingles, ask yourself: “Who needs this call, me or them?” Lots of kids deal with separations by temporarily putting thoughts of the “away” parent on the back burner and focusing on their here-and-now. Consider whether frequent communication will disrupt a helpful coping strategy.
Awful Feeling #2: Loneliness
- Leaning on older kids: You lost your go-to companion and confidant when your marriage ended. A concerned teenager is a tempting substitute, and may want to shore you up (“I was gonna go to a party, but it’ll be lame. I’ll hang here.”) or be excited to play what feels like a grown-up role. But a teen’s focus should be outward (school, activities, friends), and they’ll suffer if the parent/child boundary is blurred. Find adult sources of comfort, and encourage your kids to choose the lame party over the lamer evening at home with you.
- Babying the little ones: I’m all for physical affection; your kids need reassurance now more than ever. But post-separation (while you’re craving contact and painfully nostalgic), “just right” can easily slide into “over-the-top.” Excessive hugs and kisses, lap-sitting when a child is ready for their own chair, bed-sharing at any age (I get it, they’re really cuddly)… These behaviors are driven by and infused with your emotional needs. Unlike run-of-the-mill expressions of parental love, they have a confusing intensity that can make your kids anxious and regressed.
Awful Feeling #3: Anger at Your Ex
- Subtle disparagement in front of the kids: I don’t know one separated parent who hasn’t, say, muttered “Since when are chicken nuggets a food group?” upon hearing a recitation of the dinner specials at Bistro d’Ex. Try to check yourself. Kids have emotional satellite dishes on their heads—no eyeball roll or disdainful groan escapes detection.
- Trash talking your ex: From time to time, you’ll need to vent. But when shopping for sympathetic ears, don’t buy in bulk. Rushing to ensure that everyone in your social circle knows your side of things generates nasty gossip that reflects badly on you and finds its way back to your kids. Regardless of their merit, divorce stories always sound like the ravings of a bitter lunatic when delivered on the sidelines of a little league game.
Awful Feeling #4: You’re Losing Control Over Your Kids’ Lives
- The interrogation: You gave up knowledge of the totality of our kids’ life experiences the first time you dropped them at day care. It felt weird then, and it feels weirder now. But I don’t need to explain the difference between asking your son or daughter if they had a nice weekend and asking if they watched “crappy television” the whole time.
- The post drop-off freak out: From time to time your kids will return with upsetting news. Even if it sends your blood pressure sky-high (“Guess what! Mom let us ride in the convertible without car seats or seat belts… again!”), don’t have a conniption and run to the phone. Manage things later, when you’re calmer (and alone).
As a therapist, I’m not big on self-disclosure — and this is about as public as it gets. But it’s important, so here goes: It’s been awhile, but there is no blooper, blunder, or boo-boo described above that I haven’t committed. Not one. And it’s not even a comprehensive list; it’s really more of a sampling.
Any newly-divorced parent who won’t admit to screwing up on a regular basis is either ashamed or out to lunch.
Here’s the good news:
- If you want to improve your post-split parenting skills, you will, and…
- The fact that you want to improve means you’re already doing a lot right. The ongoing act of trying to separate your own emotional needs from those of your children (so you can stay kid-focused) earns more parenting points than hitting the perfect note in any given moment.
In the meantime, the occasional “I’m sorry I behaved that way, I’ll work on doing better” goes a long way. Take it from me.
We’ve been divorced almost 2 years now and my ex still won’t make eye contact when he drops the kids off at my house. I always ask him how he’s doing or invite him in for coffee, but he just grunts “no thanks” and heads back to his car. I don’t get it- he must know it would be better for our kids if they could see their parents getting along! What can I do to get him to change his tune?”
As a therapist, I hear complaints like this every day from well-meaning folks desperate to establish friendly relationships with unresponsive, angry exes. Of course a collaborative co-parenting partnership is best for children. But it’s not always possible, especially when wounds are fresh.
You already know, at least intellectually, that you can’t turn your ex into someone you would’ve wanted to stay married to. So if you repeatedly extend olive branches only to have them chopped off, set on fire, and thrown back in your face, it’s time to ask yourself some tough questions:
- Is my ex ready for, or even capable of, the co-parenting relationship I wish we could have?
- Am I reallybeing nice by reaching out, or am being insensitive to my ex and (without intending to) making things worse or extending the period of time that they push back on my efforts to be friends?
- Why have I tried to be friends for so long, when it’s clearly not working?
- Is there a better way to get what I want?
We’ve all heard the hackneyed-but-true aphorism: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome.” There’s nothing “insane” about wanting (and striving for) a good relationship with your ex. It really is better for everyone when a post-split couple can think of themselves as a restructured family- rather than two separate households who can’t communicate. But let’s face it: If you’re stuck pursuing a friendship with an ex-spouse who rejects you time and time again, it’s because you can’t, for some reason, let go.
Over the years I’ve learned that when a divorced parent falls into the “friendly but frustrated” category (in other words, sticks with a long-term, ineffective strategy for getting their ex to at least “fake it ” for the kids), there’s something going on under the emotional surface. In order to give you the idea of what I mean, below I’ve listed a few “Common Awful Feelings” that accompany divorce (not a comprehensive list, just a sampling). Under each “Awful Feeling” I’ve described a “Typical Complaint” from a “nice” but frustrated former spouse, followed by the suggestion of “A Less Nice, But Better Way” to cope.
COMMON AWFUL FEELING #1: GUILT
“My ex often finds a parenting-related pretext to call, then launches into a marathon rant about how I’ve destroyed her life. No amount of reassurance (“Yes, you’re the mother of my children. Yes, I’ll always care about you!”) calms her for long.”
A LESS “NICE” BUT BETTER WAY
Especially if you initiated the split or hale from a family in which divorce “isn’t done,” you may be haunted by a sense of failure. But don’t let self-recrimination hold you in destructive patterns of behavior. Engaging in painful, looping conversations about how you’ve let your spouse down keeps both of you from grieving, moving on, and re-tooling your relationship from an intimate partnership into a respectful co-parenting partnership. Kindly but firmly tell your spouse that you’re done talking about your marriage. Then direct your attention where it belongs— towards your kids.
COMMON AWFUL FEELING #2: LOSS OF CONTROL
“Taking solo care of the kids is new for my ex. So I give him a weekly list of local child-friendly activities, send electronic reminders of school events, and email recipes for easy-to-prepare, healthy alternatives to pizza and cheeseburgers. He ignores every suggestion.”
A LESS “NICE” BUT BETTER WAY
Giving up control when you’ve been the everyday go-to parent is rough. Especially if your former spouse hasn’t logged many hours in the kitchen or carpool lane or you think his or her parenting hard drive is faulty, you’ll worry. But even if your ex’s best Saturday plan involves pizza and Xbox, if he or she experiences your well-intended advice as patronizing and intrusive back off. Lash yourself to the mast and stay out of the mix. Your kids and your ex need time and space to navigate new territory, and let’s face it— so do you.
COMMON AWFUL FEELING #3: LOSING YOUR INTACT FAMILY
“I want our kids to see that even though we’re divorced their mom and I are still friends. So I save a seat at back-to-school night, bring an extra mug of coffee to soccer games, even invite her for Sunday dinner. She’ll have none of it. It seems the harder I try the madder she gets.”
A LESS “NICE” BUT BETTER WAY
One of the toughest aspects of divorce is that partners rarely cross the emotional finish line together. You may have grieved your losses and feel ready to spend easy social time with your former spouse. But if he or she is still reeling, pushing for more togetherness is not only insensitive, it’s short sighted. Especially early on, too much family time sends mixed messages to a grieving spouse still secretly hoping for a reconciliation. It delays repair and recovery. Respecting your ex’s boundaries now gives you your best shot at being able to dance together at your daughter’s wedding.
COMMON AWFUL FEELING #4: FEAR OF YOUR EX
“On weekdays I work brutal hours and rarely see my kids. So I hate my ex’s frequent last minute attempts to sabotage my weekends (“There’s a neighborhood camping trip. Do you really want to tell the girls they can’t go?”). If I stand firm, she flies into a rage and threatens to tell the kids I left the marriage because I don’t love them anymore. I just can’t take the risk.”
A LESS “NICE” BUT BETTER WAY
During the raw days of early divorce, we all make a few unreasonable demands. But most of us calm down and don’t follow through. If your ex tries to blackmail you into making concessions you’re not comfortable with, you know better than anyone if he or she is the type to make good on the threat. But think about it: What good can come from giving in to terrorist tactics? Whatever you’re afraid of, trust me— if it’s in your ex’s character and ability to do it, he or she already has. Instead of capitulating out of fear that your ex will disparage you to your kids, assume it’s happening now and find a way to address the misinformation directly. Stop making fear-based concessions, and start making independent, pro-active parenting decisions.
No one wants to re-create their marriage in their divorce. But changing established relationship patterns with a former life partner is tough. And not just because old habits die hard, but because dismantling a marriage, even by choice, represents the death of a dream. Acknowledging that loss-whatever it means to you-is the first step toward relinquishing stale dynamics, accepting current reality, and crafting a new and better co-parenting relationship over time.