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Dealing with a Difficult Ex-Spouse: 10 Tips to Help You Cope


By Ron L. Deal, LMFT, LPC

Author, The Smart Stepfamily


Wouldn’t it be nice if adults could remember that parenting is not about them, and that it is about the children?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the pain of the broken personal relationships of the past could be kept separate from the practical parental concerns of the present.  Wouldn’t it be nice…


         Yes, it would.  But sometimes people aren’t nice. 


         Dealing with a difficult ex-spouse can be very discouraging and defeating.  Yet, we are called to continue trying to pursue good, to “turn the other cheek”, and “walk the extra mile.”  Hopefully the following tips can aid you in your efforts to cope—because it’s all about the children.


1.      Be sure to notice your own part of the ongoing conflict.  Christian ex-spouses, for example, often feel justified in their anger toward their irresponsible ex-spouse.  It’s easy, then, to also feel justified in your efforts to change them in whatever ways you feel are morally or practically necessary.  Unfortunately, this sense of “rightness” often blinds good-hearted Christians from seeing just how their own behavior contributes to the ongoing cycle of conflict.  Any time you try to change a difficult ex-spouse—even if for understandable moral reasons—you inadvertently invite hostility or a lack of cooperation in return.  Learn to let go of what you can’t change so you don’t unknowingly keep the between home power struggles alive. 


2.      Stepparents should communicate a “non-threatening posture to the same-gender ex-spouse.  An ex-wife, for example, may continue negativity because she is threatened by the presence of the new stepmother.  It is helpful if the stepmother will communicate the following either by phone or email: “I just want you to know that I value your role with your children and I will never try to replace you.  You are their mother and I’m not.  I will support your decisions with the children, have them to your house on time, and never talk badly about you to the children.  You have my word on that.”  This helps to alleviate the need of the biological mother to bad-mouth the stepparent or the new marriage in order to keep her children’s loyalties.


3.      Keep your “business meetings” impersonal to avoid excessive conflict.  Face-to-face interaction has the most potential for conflict.  Use the phone when possible or even talk to their answering machine if personal communication erupts into arguments.  Use email or faxes when possible.  Keep children from being exposed to negative interaction when it’s within your power.


4.      Use a script to help you through negotiations.  This strategy has helped thousands of parents.  Before making a phone call, take the time to write out your thoughts including what you’ll say and not say.  Also, anticipate what the other might say that will hurt or anger you.  Stick to the business at hand and don’t get hooked into old arguments that won’t be solved with another fight.  (For more on how to do this, see the “Be Prepared by Borrowing a Script and Sticking to It” section of the free Common Steps for Co-Parents e-booklet.)


5.      Whenever possible, agree with some aspect of what you ex-spouse is suggesting.  This good business principle applies in parenting as well.  Even if you disagree with the main point, find some common ground. 


6.      Manage conversations by staying on matters of parenting.  It is common for the conversations of “angry associate” co-parents to gravitate back toward negative personal matters of the past.  Actively work to keep conversations focused on the children.  If the conversation digresses to “old marital junk,” say something like, “I’d rather we discuss the schedule for this weekend.  Where would you like to meet?”   If the other continues to shift the conversation back to hurtful matters assertively say, “I’m sorry.  I’m not interested in discussing us again.  Let’s try this again later when we can focus on the weekend schedule.”  Then, politely hang up the phone or walk away.  Come back later and try again to stay on the parenting subject at hand.


7.      When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don’t capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent.  Listen and help them explore their hurt feelings.  If you can’t make positive statements about the other parent, strive for neutral ones.  Let God’s statutes offer any necessary indictments on a parent’s behavior.


8.      Remember that for children, choosing sides stinks!   Children don’t want to compare their parents or choose one over the other.  They simply want your permission to love each of you.  This is especially important when the two of you can’t get along. 


9.      Wrestle with forgiveness.  Hurt feelings from the past are the number one reason your ex—and you—overreact with one another.  Do your part by striving to forgive them for the offenses of the past (and present).  This will help you manage your emotions when dealing with them in the present.


10. Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household.  For your kids sake, find ways of being respectable even if you honestly can’t respect your ex-spouses lifestyle or choices.  Do not personally criticize them, but don’t make excuses for their behavior either. 



Ron L. Deal is the author The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family and President of www.SmartStepfamilies.com.  He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor who specializes in stepfamily education and therapy.  He presents conferences around the country and equips churches to minister to stepfamilies.


Comments ( 6 )
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#6: by Ron Deal on 04.23.2013 @ 10:25am CDT

What the mother is doing and what the child is doing (e.g., not communicating with you when at mom's house) do not surprise me at all. Loyalty wins the day. Again, continue to be cooperative and available, but don't get your hopes up that your stepdaughter will show you honor when at her moms. Not fair? Yes. Remember, stepmoms are women who do a lot of mothering, but frequently don't get to be the mom.
#5: by Lilian on 04.23.2013 @ 09:59am CDT

This is really helpful. Thank you Ron.
I was getting a little frustrated because everybody made me feel, she was so perfect and it was just me who was getting jealous and not wanting to work with her. I'll try to speak with my husband on this behind the scences and let him communicate with her as much as she loves to. He is trusted indeed and I bless God. Actually, ex-wife and in-laws adoring her like she is a goddess makes it alittke bit difficult. Do I ignore this also? I also notice that my step-daughter communicates with me when she is at our place. When she is at her moms, she calls only her dad. SHe tells him she loves him and I feel left out. I take it out on my husband. (we don't have a kid of our own yet). Resently, i deceided not to respond to her calling my husband, and told him to stop saying I said hi, if she wont ask after me. To the best of my knowledge we are good friends but i dont know why she would not communicate with me when she is at her mums. Her mum is actually nice, just not to me, to include me in her child upbringing even though like I noted earlier, I do all the taking care of when her daughter is at my home.
#4: by Ron Deal on 04.23.2013 @ 08:43am CDT

Lilian, it's great that you are trying to cooperate with your ex-wife-in-law. The attitude is to be commended. However, it is apparently more difficult for her to work with you. Continue to do what you can, but don't be surprised if she keeps communicating through your husband -- he is the father of their children and the co-parenting responsibilities are primarily theirs. Talk with your husband a lot behind the scenes so you feel united and he is representing your household when he works out details with his ex. For more on this, read The Smart Stepmom. There's a whole chapter on ex-wife-in-laws!
#3: by Lilian on 04.23.2013 @ 07:20am CDT

Nice site. Really helpful with meaningful information on how to relate in a step family. SStepfamilies can be a really happy and fun one too.
My question is, how much should my husband ex be allowed to relate with my husband and his siblings? She seems to be extremely too nice to them and ignores my presence. I think I've made efforts to be friends with her, but she will almost never call me to ask about her daugther. She rather calls her ex husband, who is now my husband. He has asked her to try calling me since I am the one almost always at home with the kid who has just turned 13. But its still a struggle for her. I had confronted her once when I felt she over stepped her boundaries and made a decision for my husband when he was not around without even asking me. Resently she asked that they all take a family picture, according to her, it was because her daugther requested for it. I'm a little bit confused on how to deal with her. She is nice, but to only my husband and his family, not to me, atleast to the best of my knowledge she trys to ignore that I should wokr with her for her daughters good. How do I relate with and to her? Please help me.
To put this clearer, this is a recent example, we had to prepare for her daughters birthday and I called her to make plans on cake baking and all, she did not pick up but later returned to call. I talked with her, the conversersion was very nice and warm. I told her I would be at the party to help out at 5 pm with decoration and that my usband will be there at 6 pm. She said ok. But to my surprise, she called my husband at 5.15 or so to ask him to come to help that she could not do it on her own. I was still busy trying to finish up witht he baking so I let my husband go. But I felt she would have called me since we both had a plan that she agreed with. I was pissed off, but later wen tto the party at 7pm(that was the starting time). And we worked civilly together.
What do you think?
Very kind Regards,
#2: by Kenell Caesar on 01.22.2010 @ 01:02pm CST


I totally feel you my situation has began to change but i think it"s because i put GOD first then my sons. I had began to idolize my sons which took me away from life and the rest of the world which caused me to indulged in everything my ex-wife decided to do! Give it to GOD and allow him to handle it and move forward in your own happiness and also let the boys know that you will always love their mother as the mother of your kids. Even if it'not so reason being LOVE conquers all things!!!! When she complains and keep calling react out of love, because this will also carry over to your boys who are important. The question will arrive why does MOM put down DAD but DAD continues to be happy and still tell us to respect and love our mother the right way! Thats power and it will teach your sons regaurdless what others do you have to be in control over you! Man i'm praying for you!
#1: by Rafael Contreras Jr on 01.06.2009 @ 05:17pm CST

We have been divorced for 41/2 years and have two sons 11 and 13.Their mother is bipolar and besides that has made it her lifelong goal to make my life miserable,while simultaneously hurting our sons ,especially the 13 year old.The younger does not buy in to all her accusations of me but she has been successful in alienating my older son to the point that he refused to go skiing to North carolina and stayed with his mother while his brother and I went.Even though I tell her she is only hurting the children she is relentless and will not stop.I think to hear negative things about their father from their mother is horrible.When my sons and I are together after her 2nd or third phone call I unplug the house phone and have them turn of their cell phones for peace.My older son hAS ALIENATED HIMSELF FROM ME and we do not share things we used to enjoy together like watching football etc.I know you cannot control the other person . What else can I do to help my sons with this situation?He is 13 which is difficult enough besides the relentless negativity.I have a girlfriend that I told my sons are my number one priority and will not share my weekends with anybody else when it is our weekend together.She is very understanding and supports me greatly.
Please let me know what else I can do.
Thank you

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