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  • Writer's picturepaulamwaterman

How to Manage Your Relationship with a Toxic Ex-Spouse After Divorce

As a mediator, I have learned that no two divorces are the same, and anyone who tries to place glib, cliché formulas on why people get divorced simply are naïve or arrogant. They don’t know what they don’t know.

Some couples come to see me, and they are laughing and joking and going out to get drinks after they sign the paperwork. Others need to be placed into separate rooms either physically or virtually so as to even be able to make good decisions without being triggered. Other couples simply can’t get anything accomplished without the assistance of attorneys and that’s ok too. We all have different journeys in life. “Different, not wrong” as I sometimes like to say.

Unfortunately for me, my divorce fell into the last category; it was as toxic and horrifying as any divorce I have ever witnessed. My divorce attorney used to tell me jokingly that my file was the largest one she had in her office. Thankfully (not really, I guess) she has gone on to other high-conflict couples and my file is no longer the title holder of the “largest file” that it once used to be.

My divorce was so toxic mostly because it was being driven by my husband’s limerence with his affair partner and the affair partner herself. He told my ten-year-old daughter on her first Thanksgiving with him (before we were separated and not yet divorced) that he was going to marry his affair partner. She returned home to me stressed and depressed and unable to process this inappropriate information. I was infuriated.

Because my husband was fully ensnared in the “affair fog” he was unable or perhaps unwilling to be present for our children after he informed us all of his intent to divorce. Consequently, almost every holiday was absent his presence because of his move to another state to be with his “soul mate.” Neither of my older boys 16 and 20 seemed outwardly to mind his absence but my young daughter felt trapped between worlds. She wanted to be with her family for Christmas and important holidays, but at the same time, felt like she needed to protect her father from the disapproval of everybody else.

It came out years later that my ex-husband’s affair partner was verbally and emotionally abusive to my daughter who was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Order (for which she took prescribed anti-anxiety medicine since the 4th grade). She would constantly ridicule my daughter and berate her for her anxiety, saying that my daughter was faking it and using her anxiety to manipulate her father. It was heartbreaking for me to watch my daughter fly away to another state, knowing her deep anxiety and wonder if her father would be there for her in any tangible way.

Here Are Some Tips I Have for Surviving the Things We Can’t Control About Our Ex-Spouses Toxic Behavior:

-Try to be as positive about your ex-spouse as you possibly can, even if it is an unbelievable stretch. Maybe he/she is a narcissist, a cheater, and substance abuser, etc. I get it, but you want your children to see you as a safe place to tell you about possible abuse or neglect happening so you can intervene if necessary. One of my biggest regrets is not compartmentalizing my grief and outrage in such a way that my daughter felt like she couldn’t talk to me about the abuse going on. Had I known, I could have taken steps to address the abuse and possibly restructured or limited the time she spent with the abusive person. Knowing what I know now, I would have paid for a CFI (child and family investigator) to investigate my ex-spouse’s household to substantiate and eliminate the abuse.

-As much as you can, and this is super hard, try to stay off the crazy train. Oftentimes, an ex-spouse will engage in the wildest crazy making you’ve ever seen. What I’ve seen over and over with my divorce as well as others is this particular technique called “kick the dog”. If your ex-spouse is struggling in their new relationship, instead of dealing with it, they attack and criticize someone else, which is usually the former spouse. It’s hard to not take the bait, with this kind of behavior, but it is critical if you are ever going to be free from their crazy-making. Here is the key, DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. I know that can be next to impossible, but the more calm, cool, and collected you are, the fewer places their crazy has to land. In the end, it’s not about you, it’s about the consequences of their own bad choices.

-Join a support group. Find a church group, therapy group, or Facebook group, but find a group of people that have gone before you, or at least know what you are thinking and feeling. STOP asking for advice from people who have never experienced this level of toxicity. What you are dealing with is over and above the normal level of conflict that former spouses deal with. You need specialized advice and support. You need people that can understand your obsessive thinking and share their strategies for dealing with it. And most importantly, a group will help you to compartmentalize in a healthy way your frustrations and anger so your children can feel like you are a safe place for them to share their questions and concerns about the toxicity that might overflow onto them.

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