Your Questions Answered: Difficult Exes

19 11 2009

Hi Jacque,

Could you offer some advice (or point me to the right place) for how to handle an extremely difficult ex-wife/bio Mom? In our case, my dh’s ex-wife is stunningly cruel and disrespectful. She sends us horrible emails with all sorts of untrue accusations and we are also convinced that she makes my stepdaughter fully aware of her feelings towards us. We have never retaliated with disrespectful behavior and we have, on several occasions, asked her to join us in therapy sessions so that we can learn how to better co-parent. She refuses. With this said, I have come to understand that I cannot change her behavior but I can change how I respond to it. Unfortunately, lately I am doing an awful job and I am allowing this behavior to occupy my consciousness much more than it should (ruminating thoughts, etc.). I have practiced some of the excellent tips that you offered to me in the past to disrupt the ruminations. I am now wondering if you have any advice that is geared towards this very situation (or, again, if you can point me to the right place for some thoughtful guidance/support). Thank you very much!

Dear Reader: You raise a lot of issues in your short email! Unfortunately as so many of you know, the more challenging the ex is the more difficult it is for stepmother and dad to create a stable stepfamily home. Putting together a system that works for you and your family will largely depend on the particular dynamics in your home mixed with old-fashioned trial and error.

Take the 100-year view. You didn’t mention how old your stepdaughter is, but remember this: Someday she will be 18. You will still have to deal with the ex but it will be a lot less than you have to now (assuming your stepdaughter is younger than 18).

Create a sanctuary in your home. Make your home a relaxing and fun place to be for you, your spouse, and your stepdaughter. When stressful things happen with the ex, turn toward your husband, not away. Find ways to spend time together. A good relationship with your spouse is the strongest antidote to a tough ex.

Develop a thought-management plan. For a few days, carry a notebook and jot down the times you think about the ex. What sparked it? What did you think? Write down what those thoughts make you feel. Now, make a deal with yourself. Allow the thoughts about the ex only at certain times. (For instance, for a half hour on Saturday at 2 p.m.) Then on Saturday at 2, rant and rave about the ex. At all other times, practice training your brain to stop the nasty thoughts. Here are things that might help:

  • Distract yourself with something else. Call your best friend, go for a run, walk your dog, turn up your favorite music really loud, send a prayer of gratitude to the ex for signing the divorce papers.
  • Practice gratitude. A simple thing really, but research has proven that by making lists every day of the things you are thankful for it can really help alleviate the negative spirals we get ourselves into.
  • Ask yourself who you would be without those thoughts. This is straight from Byron Katie’s wonderful theory which she calls, “The Work.” You have the power to choose the direction of your thoughts. It takes practice, like anything else, but you CAN do it.
  • Add a ritual or reward system that reminds you of your intention to think less negatively about the ex. Every time the ex pops up in your head, do some physical ritual to help you remember. For instance, light a candle and blow it out. When the light extinguishes, so do the negative thoughts. Or track the number of times you successful banish negative thoughts. Then set up rewards when you hit certain numbers. The 10th time you start thinking, “That B*&(#!!” and end up wishing her peace or distracting yourself with thoughts of the day’s tasks or a newspaper story you read, then reward yourself with something wonderful.

Employ your empathy. People are not all good or all bad so work to find something about the ex that you can empathize with. Try putting yourself in her shoes to see if you can understand why she might be feeling threatened. Remember she’s a woman who has been through divorce (even if she wanted it) and that is painful. She likely feels guilt about the breakup of the family and how it will affect her children. She could be scared to be a single mom or afraid that she’ll like your house better than hers. Find your compassion for her and it will make giving up negative thoughs much easier.

Other resources: Besides Byron Katie’s work, you might check out Positivity by Barbara Frederickson and The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Both authors are researchers who have tested out their theories on hundreds of people.



5 responses

22 11 2009

Wow. I really feel like I could have written that exact letter. I’m really struggling with this right now.
I keep trying to be grateful to her for divorcing my husband, but I feel like it gets harder and harder, not easier…not because my husband isn’t wonderful, but because she gets nastier, more manipulative, and more ruthless.
Thank you for your letter and the response.

22 11 2009
Mary Beth

Thank you for yet another excellent and thoughtful post. So very helpful….and most sincerely appreciated. Best wishes, Mary Beth

23 11 2009

I’ve got one more thing for all of you lovely ladies who are feeling the downward spiral of negativity each time the ex causes a ruckus: Every time you allow yourself to stay with those thoughts, you are allowing the ex to control what happens in your home. That’s not what you want! Am I right?! Protect yourself, your home, and your marriage by consciously working to flip those negative thoughts. They are certainly not hurting the ex. They will only end up hurting you and possibly your relationship with your spouse and the kids. (This is hard to do, I know!!!)

23 11 2009

Thank you again Jacque. You are SO right!

25 11 2009
Peggy Nolan

Do you mind if I add a tip?

Grap a piece of paper and write down everything that’s good in your life. All the good stuff – because it’s when we focus on the good that we create more of it. What we think about, we bring about, so if you’re always focused on the negative – you’ll create more of it.

There’s a great DVD called “What the Bleep Do We Know” you may want to check it out.


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