The Conflict Connection: Figuring out What Makes Your Difficult Ex Tick

The Conflict Connection: Figuring out What Makes Your Difficult Ex Tick

Joe was at his wits end. Ever since his divorce he tried to do everything he could think of to get along with his ex, Maria. It seemed like no matter how hard he tried nothing worked.

While they would go through periods where things were fine, it usually didn’t last for long. Eventually Maria would unexpectedly explode over something trivial and a slew of angry email, texts and voicemails would ensue.

When this happened, Joe would usually drop what he was doing and immediately respond to Maria’s outburst. Most of the time Joe did his best to calm Maria down and work things out. If she sent him an accusatory email, he would reply with an equally long email explaining his perspective point by point.  Every voicemail and text she left, he would return, resulting in numerous back and forth exchanges and heated debates.

Joe knew none of it was good for his 10-year-old son, Sammy.  While he wasn’t willing to be Maria’s doormat, he desperately wanted to do right by his son.

What Joe didn’t get (and most parents don’t) is that he was giving Maria lots of incentive to keep stirring the pot.

REMOVE THE PAYOFF

When dealing with a contentious ex it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the drama and miss what’s really driving the train. Let’s take another look at our buddy Joe.

Every time he and Maria got into a spat, Joe unknowingly was giving Maria exactly what she wanted, his undivided attention. This dynamic is sometimes referred to as negative intimacy. In other words, since Maria no longer passionately loved Joe, she put her energy into passionately agitating Joe.  For Maria, the conflict had become the primary outlet for keeping her connection to Joe alive.

Keep in mind that there can be lots of different payoffs for a conflictual ex.  For some, it may be the need to feel in control or powerful. Others may try to offset feelings of helplessness while another may use the ongoing conflict to assert a false sense of superiority or importance.

Without a doubt, dealing with the unrelenting antics of a contentious ex can be exhausting. If you’re tired of feeling emotionally drained, frustrated and hopeless, here are a couple of tips for minimizing the BIG payoff and curbing divorce drama.

Respond don’t react
Just because you share parenting responsibilities doesn’t mean you have to be at your ex’s beck and call 24/7. Aside from emergencies, very few situations require your immediate response. When a demanding email from your ex pops into your inbox, resist the impulse to rifle one back.  Instead give yourself some time to consider what the issue is and if it truly requires a response.  Remember you don’t need to swing at every pitch your ex tosses your way.

Stay consistent
If your ex has a track record of playing nice one day and nasty the next, do your best to make your interactions consistent.  Regardless of how your ex behaves establish healthy boundaries for day-to-day interactions.

Be realistic
While it’s fine to hope that someday things will change, be realistic about your situation.  Come to terms with the fact that you cannot change what your ex does, the choices they make or how they behave.  Instead of turning yourself inside out, stay focused on what matters most — how you handle the conflict, the way you process the issues with your kids and limiting the energy that you give to divorce drama.

Remember it won’t get better overnight
When you repeatedly refuse to take the bait, expect your ex to up the ante.  Do your best not to impulsively respond to situations that come up.  Over time as you continue to hold your ground chances are your ex’s conflictual behavior will become less frequent and intense.

Keep your eye on the prize.
Dealing with a contentious ex is without a doubt mentally and emotionally draining. Make sure you have other supports in your life to help you go the distance when your ex is being especially difficult. Often working with a good life coach or counselor can help your gain clarity and emotionally disconnect from the conflict.

Although you may not see the results of your efforts immediately, in the long run staying committed will pay big dividends for your kids.

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About Christina McGhee

Christina McGhee, MSW is an internationally recognized divorce coach, speaker and author of the highly acclaimed book, Parenting Apart: How separated and divorced parents can raise happy and secure kids.

Christina, dubbed the “divorce coach by the UK press, gained worldwide attention for her work with three British families in the Channel 4 documentary “How to Divorce Without Screwing Up Your Kids.” She has been featured on television, radio and in print around the US and abroad.

When she is not speaking or coaching, Christina does outreach around the documentary SPLIT, a compelling film about how divorce really feels for kids.

Married for over twenty-years, Christina and her husband live near Houston, Texas. As a stepmom and a mom of four, she has extensive on-the-job training as a chauffeur, negotiator, short-order cook, scheduler extraordinaire and finder of all things lost.

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