Co-parenting with an ex can be a stressful and emotional endeavor, even when things are civil. Unfortunately, it is common that breakups are rough, and the co-parenting relationship involves friction, arguments, disagreements about parenting choices, general opposition, manipulation, and so on.
Identifying a Difficult Ex
A “difficult ex” can describe several personality types — and if you’re dealing with a difficult ex, you probably already know. Some may generally oppose any decisions or suggestions you make, wanting to make sure that all ideas implemented in parenting are their own, in an attempt to control the parenting; some try to actively diminish the influence you may have on parenting decisions by making important decisions without collaboration; some also have a need to constantly compete and win against you, rather than focusing on the best interest of the child or children.
Some may also act out defiantly against you by inappropriately using the children as the vessel — purposefully trying to manipulate the children to love them more than you (giving sweets; more play time and less routines, boundaries, guidelines, etc.); or talking negatively about you in front of the children.
Co-Parenting and Dealing with the Ex
There are ways to effectively co-parent with a difficult ex. I’ve seen people with difficult ex’s attempt to beat their ex at their own game — e.g., trying to manipulate them first and creatively set the environment so the ex actually ends up doing what you want. But this tactic lowers yourself to their level, preemptively creates a battle between you and your ex, and is emotionally and mentally stressful.
Also, your children will eventually pick up on this behavior and end up learning manipulation as a regular and acceptable form of communication. This could also have a negative impact on decision-making, if your children witness decision-making skills based on manipulative intent. So I wouldn’t encourage trying to outsmart the difficult ex.
Here are some ways to effectively co-parent with a difficult ex:
1) Know your boundaries. It’s important to know in advance what your boundaries are. If you’re used to being manipulated, abused, dominated, or otherwise by your ex, remember that any communication you have with your ex at this point is about your child or children. Personal counseling can be very helpful for learning to set and enforce boundaries. This includes setting limits for how your ex treats you during co-parenting, and how decisions are made for the children.
2) Enforce your boundaries. If your boundaries are blurry or flexible, a difficult ex will most likely be able to break through them. With difficult people, there’s little doubt that they will test your boundaries and try to gain control over the situation.
3) Start or continue couples counseling. Couples counseling isn’t only there to save relationships, it’s also there to help people separate amicably, when necessary. With divorces and breakups involving children, couples therapy offers the opportunity to discuss terms of divorce and co-parenting together, with the help of the therapist to foster effective communication in this process.
4) Set everything in advance. When dealing with a person who you know is going to work against you personally and as a parent, it’s important that as many parenting details as possible are worked out in advance. This can help limit the amount of communication you’ll need with your ex later, help prevent further manipulation, and establish clarity on both sides about parenting expectations and agreements.
5) Use legal documentation. Anything worked out in advance should be documented. Legal documentation will be necessary anyway as part of a divorce and custody process. The more details that are documented up front (which can be worked out in couples therapy, and documented legally with a lawyer), the less opportunity your ex will have to manipulate the situation later.
6) Accept reality — negative influences are unavoidable. It’s inevitable that a person co-parenting with a difficult personality will be concerned about the influence that the ex may have on the child. Ultimately, there is only so much that is within our control. You can’t be there at every moment, and it’s actually better for your children if you are not there at every moment. Negative influences are going to be present in many forms throughout a children’s upbringing, and unfortunately, it is quite common that a parent can be a part of this, at times.
Being a positive role model and influence for your children, and leading by example will benefit your children more than engaging in competition with your ex (either directly, or indirectly). Keep in mind what you want your children to see, rather than what you want your ex to do. Also, striving to be a complete and well-rounded parent is generally important. This is more effective than trying to figure out and counterbalance the type of parent your ex is being.
Overall, it’s not easy to go through a partnership process with a person who sees and treats you like an enemy. When dealing with a difficult co-parent, the best interest of the children needs to stay the center of focus. The suggestions above will hopefully limit the amount of opportunity for your ex to battle with you for control, limit the amount of future interaction that will be needed with your ex, and help to ensure the focus will remain on the best interest of the children.