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.
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” refers to awakening the conscience of another. With good, we can melt the heart of evil with burning conviction. Constantly repaying evil with good holds a mirror up to the perpetrator, reflecting 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.
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 him something to drink” even when it’s undeserved.
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.