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Dealing With a Destructive Ex-Spouse

One of the most menacing dynamics attacking the health of a stepfamily is a destructive parent in the other home.
By Ron L. Deal

Sarah called my office with a question I have heard a thousand times. “My husband’s ex-wife is a very unhealthy person. She attacks us frequently in front of the kids and manipulates them constantly. How do we deal with this?”

Without question, one of the most menacing dynamics in a stepfamily is a destructive parent in the other home. A parent, for example, with a personality disorder or drug or porn addiction is exceedingly difficult to deal with. So, too, is someone who is just plain unreasonable, irresponsible, and selfish. The temptation, of course, is to get drawn into the emotional game-playing and try to out-fox the fox. But God’s Word suggests a better way.

In His infinite wisdom, God gives us specific instructions in the latter section of Romans 12 on how to love a difficult person. His prescription for overcoming evil is direct: overcome evil with good (verse 21). The goal, then, in spite of the hurt we experience at the hands of others, is to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice and repay evil with good.

But what about revenge? Isn’t that justified? 

Aggressive with good

Romans 12:19 makes it clear that revenge is not in keeping with the mercies God has shown us (verse 1).  God is the only one who should seek vengeance. He is the only one who is pure and holy, with no ulterior motives. He always desires our higher good. If a parent in the other home chooses evil, it is God’s job to handle the situation. Not yours. 

So what is your role in the meantime?  Are you supposed to sit around and passively wait for more persecution? No, the answer is to become aggressive with good.

When wicked behavior is running rampant, it feels like it is in control. However God’s Word tells us that good is more powerful than evil. God does not say that doing good to others will help us tolerate their evil. He says that we can overcome it.

Romans 12:21 tells us, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (NIV). Light overwhelms darkness. Hope triumphs over discouragement. Love casts our fear.

It is our task, in the face of evil, to offer good. Why? Because good invites repentance.

Consider Romans 12:20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (NIV). The phrase “heap burning coals on his head” referred to awakening the conscience of another. With good, we can melt the heart of evil with burning shame. Constantly repaying evil with good holds a mirror up to the perpetrator reflecting only their evil; in some cases this will bring about a change of heart.

I’ll never forget receiving a call from a woman I’ll call Carrie. She had recently remarried and needed some marital counseling. But what caught me off guard was the fact that she was referred by her children’s stepmother, Patty.

“I have come to trust Patty and her recommendations,” Carrie said. “But it didn’t start out that way—when she first married my ex-husband, I thought she was the enemy and I was threatened by her. But she has proven herself time and again to be decent and pure of heart. I actually consider her a friend at this point.” Wow! There is power in stubborn goodness.

Trusting God

What if repentance does not happen in the heart of the destructive parent? Then that behavior is between that person and the Almighty. In the meantime, you may suffer, but you must trust God to do what is right and to see you through the trial.

And what do you get for your obedience? Another passage in Scripture, Proverbs 25:22, concludes that the Lord will reward those who do good to those who are evil. The evil of some parents can be overcome in this life with good, others cannot.  Either way, the Lord will notice your sacrifice and reward you. 

Until then live this way (see Romans 12:14-20):

  • Bless and do not curse.
  • Do everything you can to live in harmony.
  • Do not be proud, and be willing to associate with her despite her behavior.
  • Do not become conceited.
  • In public be careful to do what is right.
  • Do not take revenge.
  • “Feed” and “give her something to drink” even when undeserved.

Taking action


1. Maintain flexible boundaries. At times you will choose to “go the extra mile” and at other times you will say, “No.”

2. Notice your part of the ongoing conflict. Any time you try to change a difficult ex-spouse—even if for understandable moral reasons—you inadvertently invite resistance.  Learn to let go of what you can’t change (if you couldn’t change him or her when you were married, what makes you think you can now?) so you don’t unknowingly keep the between-home power struggles alive. 

3. Keep “business meetings” impersonal to avoid excessive conflict. Face-to-face interaction has the most potential for conflict.  Use phone, email, or fax when possible.  Keep children from being exposed to negative interaction when it’s within your power.

4. Use a script to help you manage yourself. Before making a phone call, take time to write out your thoughts including what you’ll say and not say. Stick to the business at hand and don’t get hooked into old arguments.

5. 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 your ex for the offenses of the past (and present). This will help you manage your emotions in current negotiations.


Relationship skills training should not overlook the menacing impact of a destructive ex-spouse. When conducting premarital counseling, help couples anticipate how a destructive parent can add stress to their home. When teaching conflict resolution skills, role-play dealing with an unreasonable parent. Support stepcouples as they wrestle with these stressors and you’ll see a decline in divorce.


© 2011 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

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Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is Founder and President of As For Me And My House Ministries, LLC ( and now serves as director of FamilyLife Blended.

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepmom (coauthored with Laura Petherbridge)The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (coauthored with Dr. David Olson), and The Smart Stepdad. His latest book is Dating and the Single Parent. A recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with nearly 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative).

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Remarriage Checkup (Deal & Olson, 2010), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples the Couple Checkup Conference

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the US and Canada. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g., ABC and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., New York Daily News). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column Can This Marriage Be Saved? Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a number of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, and Christianity Today. He also writes a monthly feature article in HomeLife magazine and is an expert “Love Guru” for Love On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron Deal is husband to Nan (since 1986) and proud father of Braden, Connor, and Brennan. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue children in Ghana, West Africa from slave trafficking. They would be honored if you help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. To host a seminar, contact him at 1-800-FL-Today (358-6329).



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