Co-Parenting with Your Hated Ex-Spouse

Tips on Teens #012

Finally, it was the last straw.  Both you and your spouse decided to call it quits.  Just get through the divorce and there will be no more fights, no more arguments and no more misunderstandings… except about your kids!  

Those arguments don’t seem to go away. More than likely, they get even worse.  You fight about how to discipline the kids, who gets them for visits, what schools they will attend and it goes on and on.  Those fights start to overflow into every aspect of your life.  The dream of being rid of that despicable person that you had married gets farther and farther away.

You now view that person as your archenemy and the enemy of your children.  The reoccurring fantasy of that spouse moving to Timbuktu or some other distant land seems to be the only thing keeping you from pounding your head into the wall.

Well, of course we’re fighting.  My ex is crazy.  What do you expect?

I expect that your kids will feel trapped in the middle of a devastating battlefield between two parents who they love very much.  I know it’s hard to believe, but your teenager still loves that other parent, no matter how much of a yutz you think he or she is.  

comic showing angry teen getting caught between parents' fighting

Yes, but my kid says that he despises my good-for-nothing ex just as much as I do.  I’m not telling him anything he doesn’t already know.

Even if your teen is angry at the other parent and says that he hates The Evil One Who’s Name Must Not Be Mentioned; that person will always be your kid’s parent whether either of you like it or not.  No matter how bad things get between adolescents and parents, deep down inside they want to reconcile with their moms and dads.  

Often kids feel pressured to hate one parent out of fear of hurting or being rejected by the other.  Regardless of how well you try to shield your kids, this pressure may come from their own poor attempts to deal with overwhelming feelings of sadness and anger about the divorce.  On the other hand, this burden can also come from you denigrating or talking badly about your ex in front of your kids.  

But my child needs to know what a horrible person her other parent is. Don’t I have to protect my teenager from getting hurt?

Trying to convince your teen that her other parent is the bad one and you are the good one generally leads to tremendous resentment towards YOU.  It may not start out that way, and perhaps you will succeed in turning her against your former companion.  However, eventually she will probably hate and mistrust the both of you.  When this happens, your teen is in danger of turning towards unhealthy coping strategies such as drugs and alcohol, making matters even worse.

Besides, it is almost impossible for you to protect your teen from her other parent.  If that parent is engaging in criminal activity or physically endangering your child, then by all means get help from law enforcement immediately.  Otherwise, you can’t stop the other parent from disappointing your kid anymore than you could get him or her to stop disappointing you.  

If your ex-spouse really is letting your kid down, she’ll realize it without you pointing it out.  The more you try to convince her to hate your ex, the more confused and resentful she’ll feel.  In fact, it could backfire and she could even start defending and siding with your dastardly nemesis over you!

But what should I do when my teen asks me, “Why does Mom/Dad always act like that?”

This is not the time to say how you really feel about your ex.  What’s more important is trying to show an understanding for how your teen feels.  I know you desperately want your kid to understand your feelings about your ex.  You also want to shield your teen from unnecessary disappointment because it crushes you every time he gets stepped on emotionally.  

Generally the best answer you can give is something along the lines of, “I don’t know.”  Besides, your teen is not really looking for concrete answers.  What he’s really looking for is emotional support.  When he’s hurting as a result of a disappointing interaction with your ex, try to acknowledge those feelings in a nurturing way by listening (notice I didn’t say talking) and maybe a hug or two or seven.  

Well, what am I supposed to do when my ex keeps brainwashing my kids against me?

This is never easy.  You feel like you’re getting emotionally beat up by your whole family and that you don’t deserve it.  You feel wrongly accused and convicted of being a monster.  If your ex would just shut-up, maybe you could rebuild your relationship with your kids.  If this sounds like you, there is a way to handle this but it takes amazing courage, strength and patience.  Your best approach in a nutshell is… don’t play the game.  

“Don’t play the game?”  What does that mean?

You know who you are and who you aren’t.  If you truly want to prove to your kids that you are a good person and that you love them… show them, don’t tell them.  

Like I always say, “Lead by example… especially when your kids don’t follow.”  Your ex may be spreading lies, but you have the opportunity when you are with your kids to prove them all wrong.  Not with your passionate defense, but with your respect, compassion, understanding and setting appropriate boundaries with your kids.  

In other words, be the good parent that you know you are.  In time, your kids will see through the lies because they won’t match your behavior and they’ll come around to seeing and loving the real you.  Just be aware that it might take a while.

I don’t know.  This all seems so overwhelming.  Is there anything that could make this easier?

Possibly.  Here’s the almost impossible suggestion.  Try to improve the communication between you and your ex.  I know… I know!  If you could have done that you’d probably still be married.  However, the more you and your spouse fight (especially in your kids’ presence), the more your teens will become casualties in this epic, unwinnable battle of right and wrong.  

Remember, you are a role model for your kids. They are mirrors of you.  The way you treat and interact with people in your life shows your children what you consider acceptable ways of relating to others.  If they see you constantly battling with your ex, they learn that’s the proper way to exist within major relationships.  You can’t stop your ex from behaving inappropriately; but you don’t have to get caught up in the drama either (good luck).  Someone has to take the high road and set an example, not only for your kids but for the $#@^% that used to share your bed.  Otherwise, your kids will ultimately be the biggest losers.  

What do you mean by my kids will be the biggest losers?

Right now your teens are going through tremendous emotional and mental growth.  Living in an environment where they constantly feel unsafe and confused can shatter their self-esteem and disrupt a healthy development of identity (the big challenge in adolescent maturity).  When this happens, unhappy kids can grow up into dysfunctional adults and follow your footsteps into unhealthy relationships.

So my recommendation to you is to find a way to make peace and collaborate with your sworn enemy.  Break the cycle of mistrust and unhappiness in order save your kids from making the same mistakes you and your ex are making now.

(updated article from October 2007) 

Remember that adolescence is a temporary mental disorder... and it will pass within a few years.


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