You’ve been through the divorce process, the paperwork is signed, and it’s final. Time to move forward and put all that behind you, right? Not always. If your ex-husband or -wife hasn’t been able to navigate the divorce in an emotionally healthy manner, you may see a continuation of conflict long after the divorce has been finalized.
The main focus of an angry ex is to keep you engaged in a relationship that has legally ended. An unreasonable ex, if intent, can make life miserable for you and your children. 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 for what they are: attempts 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 when lies are being spread, 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.
Remember: You may be unable to control your ex's words and actions, but you can control your response to their bad behavior; this allows you to take ownership of the narrative. If you receive nasty emails, threats of taking the children away, or anything that causes you concern and stress, don’t respond. No response from you will stop your ex in their tracks. If they have no one to play with, the cycle is broken, and the game is over.
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 will push those buttons in an attempt to punish you or as means to an end.
The motivation behind their emotional blackmail? 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 exploit your soft spots, step back and look at the situation objectively. Recognize when you're being triggered, and do your best not to take the bait.
When your ex has you seeing red, try this writing exercise suggested by divorce coach Martha Bodyfelt: Jot down your feelings, then reframe them into something positive. For example, "I feel hurt and angry that my ex has found a new partner" becomes "I'm relieved that my ex is no longer a source of toxicity in my life."
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, the fact remains that he or she will always be a parent to your children—now and forever. When you feel your blood pressure starting to rise on account of your ex, weigh your options. You could waste energy, emotions, and time contributing to a toxic dynamic, or you could apply those same resources toward establishing an amicable relationship with your ex. Creating a harmonious rapport with your ex 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 melee. 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. Your children deserve to have healthy, loving relationships with both of their parents; these tactics will help give them the tools needed to sustain functional, happy relationships of their own as adults.
The anger your ex displays toward you is an indication of how much pain they are in. After all, most mean people are hurting people. The most effective response you can give to an ex who vilifies and maligns you to others is compassion. Try to view things from their side and acknowledge their feelings, however ridiculous or unreasonable they may be.
If, for example, 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.
Another technique is to practice "“compassionate reappraisal”—the act of reflecting on past harms and offenses done to you, then forgiving the person(s) responsible by sending them positive, healing thoughts. Not only is compassionate reappraisal linked to increased empathy and feelings of control, it's been shown to support one's overall positive mental outlook.
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 resist the urge to be a guest at their pity party. Show your ex compassion, once again, but don’t indulge feelings of guilt or shame, because you aren’t responsible for their pain. The onus is on your ex to practice self-care and acceptance in order to move forward, just as you took the step toward freeing yourself from an unfulfilling marriage.
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.
vanOyen Witvliet, C., DeYoung, N. J., Hofelich, A. J., & DeYoung, P. A. (2011). Compassionate reappraisal and emotion suppression as alternatives to offense-focused rumination: Implications for forgiveness and psychophysiological well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology.