How to Handle an Ex Who Won’t Emotionally Divorce

How to Handle an Ex Who Won’t Emotionally Divorce

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Strategies that allow you to move forward with your life even if your ex can’t

“You are a loathsome, miserable, pitiful, and insecure person.”

“You are a compulsive liar.”

“You are a manipulative, dishonest, contemptible human being.”

Sound familiar? Those are real messages sent to a woman several years after her divorce was final. And for her, that’s just a sampling of what she received in one month. When a former spouse cannot emotionally divorce, basic communication and coparenting become a challenge. Managing your ex so that you and your children can move forward requires several different strategies, depending on your specific dynamics. Therapy can be a great way to determine what will work for your situation, but this article offers some tips for getting started while you sort everything out.

Understand the situation. Although there may be many specific reasons why your former spouse isn’t capable of moving forward, usually it’s because of one of the following: your ex is still upset or abusive.

Sometimes, even though the divorce is final, one parent may still be depressed and angry about the failed marriage. In those cases, your ex’s feelings are hurt, and it is possible that you will be able to work cooperatively once your ex heals emotionally.

However, those who were abusive during their marriage often remain abusive after the divorce. For them, it’s about power and control, and they continue the verbal and emotional abuse you experienced during your marriage.

“Their sole purpose is to punish you and make you feel bad for divorcing them and moving on with your life,” explains Julie Owens, a domestic violence survivor and consultant. “Abusers are attracted to drama and conflict. Their actions keep the survivor feeling confused and frustrated by continuing to create conflict. This way, the survivor never gets to have any peace or move on.”

Choose your communication mode. You know your situation best, so choosing the right method in which to communicate with your ex is a personal decision. There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation. Reflect on how the two of you have communicated to date, and determine if that has worked. For example, do you end up in a verbal argument during every phone call? Do you hang up feeling overwhelmed and confused? If so, changing the method through which you communicate may help minimize conflict. Some may find that texting is best, while others prefer email.

“The positives about an email or a text is that you don’t have to look at it when you first receive it,” says Debbie Lauro-Conn, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of community services at Hope’s Door, a domestic violence center in Hawthorne, New York. “You have control over when you decide to open it. You can wait until you have a quiet space to read it. Then you can decide how to say something in the best manner so the person can hear it.”

Owens recommends using Talking Parents, a free program that records all communication between the parties. “Everything is captured, and nothing is erased,” she explains. “All dialogue is date and time stamped. As a result, your ex knows you are using this to communicate, and there’s a record. They are less likely to harass and threaten you here than on a private cell phone or email. This program does not provide your phone number or email address—it’s just strictly for communication.”

Stick to your goal. With each communication, you should have a goal. Do you need to arrange a special pickup time? Are you determining who will have the children during the next holiday? Is a child in need of medical attention? Whatever the topic, discuss only the facts. Keep your emotions out of it—no matter how important this may be to you or your children.

“As soon as you put emotions or your feelings in an email or text, you have provided something to be targeted and used against you,” Lauro-Conn advises. “And be aware that just because you want something or hope to achieve something, it doesn’t mean this person will respond positively. When that happens, separate the emotional reaction from what you want to achieve. Instead of being reactive, be proactive and focus on your needs.”

This means that you must ignore whatever insults are slung at you. Doing this can be difficult, so give yourself time before you respond. Sometimes 30 minutes may be all you need, while other times several hours or even a day is necessary to compose your thoughts and respond in a simple and factual manner, focusing only on what you want to achieve.

Be a gray rock. Responding with simple facts and no emotion is the first step to implementing a technique called “gray rock.”

“Abusers thrive on drama, and they thrive on conflict,” Owens explains. “So you have to bore them and become invisible. This is the gray rock strategy. The idea is that you become as boring as a gray rock. When you walk through the world and you pass a gray rock, you don’t even notice it, so you want to become one of those. Because he’s attracted to shiny things, he’ll eventually move on to other women who will give him attention.”

Practicing this strategy must be done not only through communications about your children but also each time you see him. If you are required to engage in polite conversation, choose to discuss boring topics, such as laundry or taxes. Topics that may make him jealous, such as an upcoming vacation, or that he can engage in, such as your child’s next soccer game, are off limits. If he tries to push your buttons, don’t react. When there is nothing interesting about you or the children, there is nothing available to create any drama or chaos.

Ask for help only if you really need it. Whether it’s requesting additional financial help to support the children or logistical help with transportation, reaching out for help often will create unnecessary drama. When trying to end the manipulation and harassment, your best option is to disengage. However, if you require the support, then ask, but if you can find an alternative, such as financial aid or a carpool, choose that instead.

“When asking for help, you create this dialogue that will maintain engagement with him and may or may not result in you getting anything,” says Owens. “But it will keep you up at night, give you stomach pains, and make you an emotional wreck. Everything should be spelled out in the decree as to what they are required to do. They don’t see it as supporting the child, they see it as helping you.”

Speak to professionals together. You took your child to the doctor, received a recommendation, and emailed the information to your ex. Two days later, you receive a response stating that your ex called the doctor and heard something completely different! Or, your child’s teacher recommends testing for a possible learning disorder; however, the teacher told your ex everything is fine, and now your ex claims that you are simply trying to create drama.

This is called “splitting,” and it creates a triangle between the three parties involved. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon, and it drains both time and energy. If your ex chooses to present all communications in a distorted manner that is designed to make you look bad, then private conversations must end.

“Do not talk to anyone individually, insist on a conference call so you both hear the same information,” suggests Lauro-Conn. “Whenever there is a medical discussion, unless it’s an emergency, you should both be involved every time. Schedule a time that works for everyone, or put him on the phone during doctor’s appointments. When you both hear the same words out of the mouth of the doctor, they cannot be distorted.”

Learning how to manage an ex who cannot emotionally divorce requires dedication, patience, and time—but it can be done.

“It’s not easy,” Lauro-Conn sympathizes. “It’s really challenging and very hard to coparent with someone who is much more invested in not making it work versus in making it work.”

ESME’s Gia Miller is a Solo Mom to a nine-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy. She writes about health and wellness, parenting, divorce, food, and general lifestyle. Her work has been featured in online publications including the Washington Post, Healthline, Paste, Headspace, and more.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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