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How to Deal With a Difficult Ex-Spouse

Divorce does not automatically put an end to strife between the formally married couple, and parenting issues may not unfold easily. Unfortunately, it is often the children who become the reason for continued contact and can be the excuse to continue the unhealthy patterns that broke up the marriage in the first place.

What do you do if your ex-spouse remains uncooperative after your divorce is finalized, custody issues have been decided and a settlement has been reached? In the case of parents who cannot communicate with civility, joint custody is probably not an option. This means that one parent will become the residential parent and the other will have part-time involvement with the children. This will still mean continued contact, as the children change locations, and information is shared. How can you protect your own peace of mind and the well-being of your children, if your ex-partner will not settle down into acceptable behaviour?

The main rule: protect your children from the conflict as much as possible. However, it is possible that the bitter party may denigrate the other in front of the children and create conflicts when both parents are together. How do you prepare your children to deal with this without also denigrating the other parent?

You cannot expect your children to champion you, or to keep what the other spouse is saying a secret. Let your children express what is going on. Find counselling or support for them that is independent of your family dynamic so they can speak freely. Refuse to repay your partner in kind, no matter how hard you are provoked. Find counselling and support for yourself and take the high road with your partner.

Continued mediation or counselling may help a couple resolve the past issues enough to parent effectively. The roles of each in the new situation can be found; ground rules for communication can be laid, and basic parenting rules can be established. Residential and non-residential parents have different but valid concerns. Both sides need to understand and address those issues.

Residential parents may feel they have to work harder to maintain the family, often on a reduced income. They have less “quality time” with the children and more maintenance time. They feel responsible for the routines and the discipline and feel be forced to be “the bad guy” by the other parent. Non-residential parents often feel that they have been ousted from the parental role and the upbringing of their children. They may feel that they are obliged to parent by appointment and the residential parent has all the power in the situation. Once both spouses recognize the dissatisfaction each have with their roles, solutions may be found to ease the worries of both.

However, despite the available resources, there are still lots of cases where one partner refuses to be reasonable and remains stuck in past conflicts. There are limited options in these circumstances. This family may need a third party to help exchange the children and communicate to both parents. The reasonable parent may need to ignore the comments and behaviours of the other and find ways to help the children deal with the anxieties of the conflict. They may even have to petition the courts for changes in the custody arrangements since subjecting the children to this prolonged conflict may not be good for their wellbeing! However this needs to be balanced out with the harm caused by reducing or ending visitation with the other parents.

Sometimes, time itself resolves the situation as the hard feelings burn out and as the disgruntled spouse finds new friends, new interests and maybe a new partner. Sometimes the challenges are long term. However, with humour, support, wisdom and self restraint, the negatives effects of dealing with a difficult ex partner can be addressed and each parent can enjoy time with the children, without too many effects of the baggage from the marriage.

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