Subscribe to our newsletter

Save a Marriage Today

Connect with us

Coping With a Difficult Ex-Spouse

These 10 tips will help you in your discouragement.
By Ron L. Deal


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:

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-spouses. It’s easy, then, to also feel justified in your efforts to change him or her 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 e-mail: “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 the ex-spouse’s answering machine if personal communication erupts into arguments. Use e-mail 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 your 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 your ex-spouse for the offenses of the past (and present). This will help you manage your emotions when dealing with him or her in the present.

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

© 2013 by Ron L. Deal.  All rights reserved.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family.



Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit www.RonDeal.org and www.FamilyLife.com). 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, 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 over 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) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

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 Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), 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 U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s 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., ABCNews.com, Today.com), in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). 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 variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. 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 and his wife, Nan, have three boys. 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 and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to 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. Learn more here.

 

 

Save a Marriage Today

Subscribe to our newsletter