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5 Tips for Communicating with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

5 Tips for Communicating with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

Sometimes when life hands you a divorce, you end up with a difficult ex. One person’s description of difficult can vary from another’s, but it typically will include situations such as reoccurring emotional exchanges, threats, bringing up past transgressions, rehashing old marital arguments, late night nasty messages or conflicts with custody agreements. The hope is that time will heal all wounds and the level of conflict will decrease as people move on and focus more firmly on their own households. In the meantime, here are some tips that may help when dealing with a difficult ex-husband or ex-wife…

Know What You Can Control

The first step in managing difficult relationships is having a reality check. Sit down and truly think through the areas that you can control. You may hope for certain reactions or responses but you cannot make them happen. Understanding the truth that you can only truly control your own responses can be powerful. Another person cannot make you doubt, push you to your limit or cause you to act in an inappropriate manner. How a person acts is their choice, how you respond is yours. The amount of control or real estate that you let someone have in your life is up to you. You can choose to let go of the anger or resentment that comes from their actions.

Don’t Dive Into Emotions

Keep a business-like tone. I know this one is said a lot, but it’s an important one. You don’t have to resort to bitter or emotional tactics when having a difficult conversation. Keeping your tone neutral and respectful may help to stop a situation from escalating and it will definitely help you in the long run. Whether it is returning a heated email or engaging in yet another conversation about a past situation, you are only adding fuel to the fire and strengthening the emotional bond. Some people react in an emotional way due to their own hurt and others in an attempt to keep some sort of emotional connection. The core issue or reason doesn’t really matter, but what does matter is that you are able to move on in a healthy way. It’s difficult to recover emotionally from a divorce if the reason for the divorce (anger, fighting, bitterness, etc) continues.

Avoid Hot Zones

If you are in a difficult relationship, you probably have an idea of the cycles and times when the situation is worse than others. This might be late at night, during holidays or when one person is drinking. If you recognize these patterns, do what you can to avoid them. If you know that every Christmas for the past 3 years has been a fight, plan for it ahead of time. Layout the plan for the kids in advance, decide to meet at a neutral location and be mentally prepared to calmly manage the situation you are expecting. Many times it is difficult to react calmly when a situation catches you off guard. Plan ahead for how you may respond and have a Plan B already mapped out.

Create Rules

If you find yourself struggling to respond calmly or you have difficulty avoiding arguments, take a look at your current communication methods and think about tweaking them. It may be beneficial to set up rules for yourself based on past situations. For example, you will not respond to phone calls, emails or text messages after 10pm (outside of an emergency situation). Another tip that helps many people is to set a time for when you will respond to messages. It might be a good idea to wait 30 minutes before responding to an email or even 24 hours if it is particularly upsetting. This is assuming that it is something that warrants a response, which brings us to the last point…

Set Boundaries

Decide ahead of time what areas of your life and topics are open for discussion. You obviously need to discussion situations about the kids, but be careful where the lines are drawn. Medical information, school reports or vacation plans are necessary conversations but information on your last date doesn’t have to be covered. This will likely be a trial and error type situation so be open to changes to ensure the necessary communication lines are working. If it’s a borderline topic such as a situation in your own life, but one that can impact the kids, err on the side of caution. If the roles were reversed and you would want to know, give the other parent the same courtesy. For example, your ex deserve to hear from you about an engagement but they don’t have to be the very first person you tell. Or, the fact that you are building a house across town should be discussed due to the fact that it is a major change in your child’s life and could impact travel times for exchanges.

Remember that the goal is to create a respectful environment that your children can thrive in. It may not be the perfect situation, but there are ways to help curb some of the conflict.

5 Tips for Communicating with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

Amy Bellows, PhD

Amy Bellows holds a PhD in Psychology and has had the opportunity to work in various settings including leading adolescent group therapy sessions, working with victims of sexual assault, helping woman inmates adjust to post-prison life, conducting parenting education classes and assisting with drug and alcohol dependency treatment plans. The unique challenges and opportunities that come along with being a part of a step-family is a special interest of hers. Amy is currently working in the corporate environment with a interest in group dynamics and change management. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @AmyBellowsPhD.

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APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2016). 5 Tips for Communicating with a Difficult Ex-Spouse. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Mar 2016
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