You’ve been through the divorce process, the paperwork is signed, and the divorce is final. Time to move forward and put all that behind you, right? Not always. If your ex-spouse hasn’t been able to navigate the divorce in an emotionally healthy way, you may see a continuation of conflict long after the divorce has been finalized.
An unreasonable ex can make life miserable for you and your kids. Child visitation, child support, and following divorce decree orders are just a few tools at your ex’s disposal when it comes to prolonging conflict after divorce. To disengage and move on with your life, you need to recognize certain behaviors that are attempting to pull you back into a relationship you’ve already decided wasn't right for you.
Read on for six ways to protect yourself from a bitter ex.
Don't Engage in the Conflict
Words can wound, and it's not uncommon for a bitter ex to launch a verbal or written attack aimed at your character and behaviors, whether directly (via a text or phone call) or indirectly (by blasting you on social media). And while it's only human to want to defend yourself, doing so only adds fuel to the fire; you're giving your ex the satisfaction of seeing you in distress, and, if you speak out of anger, new ammo to use against you down the road.
"Don't threaten, name call or belittle. Having a mature and respectful relationship with your ex is healthy for you, for the, and for your current relationship," says Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D.
Remember: You may not be able to control your ex's words and actions, but you can control your response to their bad behavior. If you receive nasty emails, don’t respond. No response from you will stop your ex, and if they have no one to play with, the cycle is broken.
Don’t Allow Yourself To Be Manipulated
Few people know you better than your ex. There's no more powerful tool at their disposal when it comes to controlling you than your own fears. They know your weaknesses and might try to push your buttons. In many cases, a bitter ex is fueled by a toxic cocktail of shame, anger, rejection, abandonment, and sadness—even if they were the one who initiated the divorce. Their hostility and attempts at manipulation won't end until they stop viewing themselves as a victim and accept their role in your relationship's demise. Knowing this, don't allow fear to get the best of you and derail your ability to rebuild your life after divorce. The next time your ex tries to manipulate you, step back and look at the situation objectively. Recognize when you're being triggered, and do your best not to take the bait.
Act in Your Children's Best Interest
Even if you're able to sever the legal and emotional ties that linked you to your ex, they'll always be a parent to your children, so it's important to create a harmonious rapport with your ex that will help you avoid years of stress and drama, not only for you, but for your kids, too.
If you've given it your best and you and your ex are still unable to see eye to eye, remember to keep the kids out of the drama. Be prepared to talk to your kids about your divorce, encourage their questions, and remind them that they're not to blame. Above all else, don't badmouth your ex in front of your kids. And if your ex won't do the same for you, give your kids the green light to opt-out of the dysfunction.
"Encourage your children to put their own boundaries in place by either talking to the parent who is saying the disturbing things or by choosing to not listen or to ignore what is being said," suggests marriage and family therapist Jane Greer Ph.D.
The anger your ex displays toward you can be an indication of how much pain they are in, so it could be helpful to respond with compassion. Try to view things from their side and acknowledge their feelings, however ridiculous or unreasonable they may be.
If your ex doesn't want your children to meet your new partner, understand that it probably has less to do with your kids and more to do with your ex's fear of being replaced as a parent. Respond with sensitivity and a willingness to establish firm boundaries as they pertain to your children's relationship with your new S.O.
"Getting upset and angry is not going to help you get your point across. Remember that there are probably some hurt feelings lingering so the more gentle you are (without becoming a doormat) the more likely you will arrive at a mutually beneficial decision," Goldsmith says.
Don't Give in To Guilt
If the divorce was your idea, you may feel quite a bit of guilt over your decision. It isn’t easy to watch another person suffer as a result of a decision you made, especially when the person is someone you once shared a life with and loved (and perhaps still do, to some degree).
Your ex's expressions of sorrow, remorse, and angst can easily send you into a guilt spiral, but try to resist it. Show your ex compassion, but don’t indulge feelings of guilt or shame, because you aren’t responsible for their pain. Practice self-care and acceptance in order to move forward.
Take Care of Yourself
As with any breakup, the post-divorce period should be a time of reflection and healing. Now that you're single again, take the time to get reacquainted with yourself. Who are you? What are your goals? What do you want out of future relationships? Consider getting professional therapy to help you unpack the emotional impact of your divorce. This will help equip you with coping strategies so you can deal with your ex, and it'll also prevent you from carrying any baggage into a new relationship.