Custody With a Difficult Ex

by Eve Kilmer, Ph.D.

On their honeymoon when Donna’s husband, Steve, professed how much he wanted to have children with her, she never imagined that she would be attending her son’s 3rd grade school play alone while her ex and his new wife were away on another romantic getaway. She didn’t expect to get repeated last minute cancellations of her ex’s weekend time with their children because of another work emergency which she knew were really golf matches and drinking sessions with his buddies. And she certainly never anticipated her ex being the “fun” parent — letting their kids stay up late on school nights playing video games and gobbling up chips and candy bars, while she was the “strict” parent, making sure they did their homework and ate nutritious meals.

Parenting is challenging enough in a family where two parents respect and love one another. In divorce, where the respect can be diminished and the love can turn to intense dislike, co-parenting can be extremely frustrating. So how can you react constructively to what may be infuriating behavior? Take these seven steps to improve communication with your ex and find personal peace.


“What?” you may be saying. “You’ve got to be kidding!” Donna fumed, “It was my ex’s parenting weekend. He and his wife wanted to go skiing in Aspen. When I told him that I already have plans that weekend, he screamed at me that I’m an irresponsible parent if I’m not willing to take the kids.” “When we were married, he’d blame me when he was late picking up the kids from school; it’s still my fault when he’s late picking up the kids from school!”

Who wouldn’t feel infuriated. It’s not fair. When I suggest let go of your anger, I’m not talking about being a doormat, making excuses for or tolerating bad behavior. Anger is a good thing when it motivates us to stand up for ourselves and not be taken advantage of. But once you’ve been assertive, and things don’t change, swimming in a toxic pool of anger and resentment hurts you more then it does your ex (in fact, Steve seemed to enjoy it when he got Donna’s goat — at least she was engaged. He loved a war). So you don’t do this for your ex. You do it for yourself. Bearing a grudge, is drinking the poison meant for the other person. Neil Knnock wisely said, “Resentment is an extremely bitter diet, and eventually poisonous. I have no desire to make my own toxins.” Letting go of your bitterness allows you to move on with your life. Refocus that energy on bettering your life and your childrens’.

So how do you do this? See the world through your ex’s eyes. See them as a human being — someone who is also fumbling around in this world trying to feel good about themselves. Donna softened when she was able to see that underlying Steve’s explosive defensiveness when she asked him to please get the kids to bed at 9 pm on school nights, was vulnerability to feeling inadequate and not good enough as a parent. When she could see under his always playing victim, his need to distort or even create reality to feel better about himself, she also softened. Once she understood what was driving his behavior, although his behavior was still upsetting, she was able to take it less personally. This wasn’t easy and Donna found help with this from her therapist indispensable at times.


It’s exposure to parental conflict — not divorce itself — that places children at risk, from low self-esteem to school performance. Children of divorce who witness little conflict between their parents do as well as children from intact homes. When there was the potential for conflict, Donna learned to discuss it with him when the kid’s weren’t present. When he was determined to fight in front of the kids, she used the broken record technique. She validated his feelings and stayed with her position without defending herself. I understand that you’re frustrated, and I’ll call you at 2pm to discuss it. When he persisted, she responded, I understand and I’ll call you at 2pm.


Approach the relationship as you would a business and your objective is to raise emotionally healthy and happy children. Before you approach your ex with an issue, consider: if this were a resistant business partner or client that I was trying to sell something to, or if my ex had a million dollar account that I wanted to procure, what would be my approach? Most businesspeople aren’t going to get into a fight with a difficult client, not if they want to have any success. Rather, a difficult client is treated with kid gloves, especially if you are trying to sell them on something. Also, before going into a potential difficult sales meeting with a client, will it likely be a successful pitch if you are ruminating about what a jerk that client is and how much you dislike them. Others pick up on what we’re feeling unconsciously more then we think. Rather, focus on your children’s needs and what you want to accomplish for them with this interaction.


Expect and accept that there are going to be differences between your parenting styles. Accept that you’re not going to change your ex or what happens at their home. If your ex didn’t modify the things that irritated you when you were married, he certainly isn’t going to now. Unless it’s a safety issue (i.e. he’s leaving your nine-year-old alone to watch your five-year-old), you want it to be none of your business what happens at his home. Imagine the increased peace and freedom you’d feel if you took that psychological energy trying to change something over which you ultimately have no control, how he chooses to parent, and instead invested that energy in the quality of your own parenting where you can make a difference. Rather then focus on the constant tv watching at dad’s home, Donna put energy into planning fun outings to the aquarium and zoo.


When pressured, make it a rule of thumb, to not make on the spot decisions. When someone is controlling, they use the element of surprise, and demand an immediate response. Your tendency may be to say “yes,” yet when given time to think about it, realize that it doesn’t work for you. A good response is, “let me get back to you on that. I’ll call you in an hour.” and give yourself space to figure out what your needs are.


Two things always escalate conflict. One is criticism. If you want your ex to hear you, criticize him and he’s probably going to shut down, get defensive and maybe go on the offensive. Second, try not to get defensive yourself. When you defend yourself, the other person typically doesn’t feel heard, makes their point more adamantly, you get more defensive and it quickly escalates. Also, defensiveness is a form of criticism — you’re the problem, not me..


Donna’s disabling preoccupation with her ex’s frustrating behavior had been an energy suck all last year, she realized, spoiling the present. No more, she resolved. She was making an empowerment shift; she was refocusing her energies . She no longer wanted to miss out on the moments of her life and her children’s lives.

This year was different. She was fully present to enjoy the, wild sled ride down the snowy hill with her son on Xmas morning to sipping steaming hot coco afterwards. She relished the warm fuzzies of cuddling and toasting marshmallows in front of the roaring fire. She enjoyed her daughter’s wonder at observing the bees pollinate the flower beds. She realized that the problem she had the best chance of resolving weren’t her ex’s behavior, but her own beliefs and attitudes. Her choice; her focus. She was back in charge. You can be too!

Dr. Eve Kilmer

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