Tips and Strategies for managing conflict with a difficult co-parent
Updated: Jun 6
Do you regret having to contact your ex because you know that it will end in insults or putdowns? Does it feel like no matter what you do, the other parent will find something wrong with your parenting decisions? Are the children constantly being put in the middle by the other parent? Is the other parent purposely disobeying court rules? Does the other parent forget to communicate important events with you? If one or many of these sounds familiar to you, you might be co-parenting with a difficult ex.
When co-parenting with a difficult ex, this may cause anxiety or a negative reaction to interacting with your ex. You may dread interacting with the other parent or may become defensive each time you interact with your ex. This may lead to you having panic attacks or feeling you are walking on egg shells. You may feel preoccupied on what the other parent said or did rather than being present for your child.
The following are strategies or tips that will assist with managing conflict and dealing with a difficult ex. These strategies are recommended to help minimize conflict and learn to cope when interacting with your co-parent. However, these are just suggestions and not legal advice. Check with your lawyer on any of these strategies before to make sure that you are following all court orders.
Tip #1: Minimize contact:
When dealing with a difficult co-parent, it is highly recommended to minimize contact. If communication is required to discuss your children, then it will be recommended to communicate via text, e-mail, google calendar, or another online platform (Talking Parents or Family Wizards).
I read from some parents that they created an e-mail specifically for the co-parent so that they can keep all e-mails under one. This makes it easy to manage and you avoid accidently sending an e-mail or viewing an e-mail when you are responding to e-mails for private or profressional reasons. Text messages should only be used for emergency and short messages.
If the other parent refuses to communicate via any of these electronic platforms, that is okay. Just simply say to him or her, “Thank you for that information and I would get back to you shortly.” Then respond using the electronic platform.
If possible, choose a neutral location for pick up and drop off. Sometimes to minimize the contact with the other parent, it helps if pick up and drop off is at the school. You avoid having any interactions with the other parent when picking or dropping the children off/up at the school.
Tip #2: Engage in Self-Care:
Self-care is key to managing conflict and interacting with your ex. Try to take advantage when the kids are with the other parent by engaging in self-care activities, such as joining a yoga or dance class, go out with friends, take time for yourself, go hiking, or engage any other relaxing activity.
Having a friend that you can vent your frustration may help with managing your conflict. However, be cautious with the friend you choose to vent. Although our friends may try to be helpful, they may accidently become a negative advocate and can make us feel more angry, resentful, or hopeless of the situation. A positive advocate is a friend that provides a backboard to help bounce our ideas and feelings while making us feel heard. This friend may help us become reasonable and remind us of the goals instead of encouraging us to create more conflict with the ex.
Tip #3: Learn skills to cope when interacting with your ex:
Dialectical Behavioral skills may help with managing our emotions and interactions. The STOP skill stands for S-Stop; T-Take a step back; O-Observe the situation; P-Proceed mindfully. Before responding to the ex, take a step back and observe what you are feeling and thinking. It may be helpful to write down what you would like to say to the ex and then review it to see if that would be helpful for your situation. You could make a list of your options on how you could handle this situation and the pros and cons of each option. Stay focused on what your goal is, which is to engage in problem-solving rather than conflict. Your urge will be to defend yourself, but this will only exacerbate the conflict. Try to focus on what your goal is, which may be to focus on the children, engage in problem-solving skill, and minimize conflict. If you are dealing with a difficult ex, that ex will not care how you feel and this is why it is important to leave emotion out of it. It is best to focus on the facts and business-like communication. After reviewing these options, reminding yourself of your goal, and sticking to the facts (leaving emotion out of your communication), you can proceed mindfully with responding to your ex.
This is easier to do when communication is done online. You do not have to respond right away. This provides you with space to check in on the emotions that are coming up after reading the communication request. However, it may not be as easy in person. If communication cannot be done in writing and must be done in person, a trick that I provide is taking three breaths before responding. As you take those breaths notice the air that is coming in and out and check in with yourself. What are you feeling in that moment? Are you able to proceed or do you need time to respond? Once you respond, try giving a half smile. The half-smile helps IMPROVE the moment and reduce the stressful situation. I would suggest practicing in front of mirror responding with a half-smile to you ex.
If you need more time to respond because you feel dysregulated, you can try some grounding techniques while you are taking those three breaths. You can ground yourself by noticing the objects around yourself. I like to play with my keys in my hand or have a hot or cold beverage. You can take a drink and that would provide you with some space before responding. If you still need more time, you can say something like “thank you for the feedback and I will get back to you shortly.” Try to remove yourself as soon as possible. If they continue to persist, just be a broken record by repeating the same thing. After you remove yourself from the situation and feel better, you can proceed with a response via e-mail or another online platform.
Tip #4: Keep communication short and business-like:
All communication should be matter of fact and business like. Try to stay away from making advice, reprimanding, or defending yourself. If there is misinformation, then correct that information by providing facts rather than opinions on the matter. It is best to keep communication precise and straight to the point. Avoid writing essays when communicating. Remember to keep it friendly and try to direct the conversation to what you would like the co-parent to do rather than what they are not doing. For example, instead of “please stop putting the children in the middle and focus on their needs” say “I am confident that we can work together and make decision that are in the children’s best interest. Thank you for your consideration in the matter”.
Tip #5: Set appropriate boundaries:
Learn to set appropriate boundaries and be consistent. Follow the parenting plan and try to avoid making changes. Setting appropriate boundaries at times may mean to put yourself first. This could be difficult because that may mean that your child may suffer the consequences. Many high conflict parents tend to put blame on the other parent. This may make you feel like you are responsible for the consequences. You are not responsible for the other parents’ decision.
There are no wrong or right decisions. The only decision is the decision you are comfortable for and reminding yourself of the reason you made that decision.
Many times, we become stuck on the idea that we are doing this for our children but this may lead to resentment, anxiety, and depression that in the long run might hurt the child. I had a parent who was asked by the co-parent not to attend his kid’s extracurricular activities on the co-parent’s time because it made the co-parent’s family uncomfortable. The co-parent threatened to remove the children from all extra-curricular activities if he continued to at
tend. This parent felt conflicted because he did not want his children to think he did not care and he did not want them to be punished because he attended his children’s extracurricular activities. I said to that parent you are not responsible for the co-parent’s decision and choices. Help your children cope with the consequences of the co-parent and continue being there for them. He did exactly that and it made him become closer to his children. He also enrolled them in extracurricular activities that fell under his time so that they did not have to miss out.
Tip #6: Seek professional help when necessary:
Seek professional help or support when needed. If you find yourself easily triggered by the other parent, than it might be beneficial to seek professional help. Signs that you may benefit from professional help are that you are hypervigilant when your ex is around, you take a long time to return to baseline after having an encounter with your ex, you find yourself feeling anxious before and after an encounter, and you ruminate about your interactions. Healing from the relationship will help you become better equipped with dealing with your ex.
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Please review my website and feel free to contact me if you like additional information on co-parenting with a difficult ex, or if you are interested in consultation, individual or group therapy.
The following is a list of books that provides further guidance on co-parenting with a difficult ex:
· Eddy, Bill. BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People Their Personal Attacks, Hostile, Email, and Social Media Meltdowns.
· Warshak, Dr., Richard. Divorce Poison: How to protect your children from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing
· Ross, July A., & Corcoran, Judy. Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a child with an uncooperative Ex A hands-on, Practical Guide to Communicating with a Difficult Ex-Spouse
· Baker, Amy. Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You