Dealing With a High Conflict Ex-Wife in 5 Easy Steps
You float down the aisle on your wedding day, smiling radiantly at your knight in shining armor. Absolutely nothing can ruin this moment. Except the ex-wife.
As you look lovingly at your groom, you remember the 55 text messages his ex-wife sent that morning outlining exactly how she was going to make his life (and therefore yours) a living hell if he had the audacity to marry you. Never mind that their divorce was 10 years ago. You glance around the church to make sure she isn't camped out behind the nearest flower arrangement with a bazooka pointed at your head. You wonder if you can survive this much drama.
Not to worry. With a little effort and some strong boundaries, you can.
Girlfriends, Wives, and Stepmoms: Dealing With His Toxic Ex
Even if you're not married yet, being in a relationship with a man who has a high-conflict ex-wife or girlfriend is not for the faint-of-heart. I know because I am married to a man whose ex-wife is bat shit crazy. I met him years after his divorce and I could not fathom that there was still this much animosity and abuse from his toxic ex.
I have dealt with everything from the ex trying to punch my husband to her beating on my door at 6 a.m. to see if he was at home. (He was, by the way.) I've been yelled at and received unsolicited phone calls telling me what a loser I married. I've been blamed for things I've never heard of and called a horrible human being. For the longest time, she referred to me as "the chick around your dick." She threatened to keep my husband and his son apart for the rest of the kid's life if the kid was ever going to be around me for even 5 seconds because she was not going to have "her son" around another woman. Odd, since all I've ever said to her is "Hello," and eventually, "Stop knocking on my door at 6:00 a.m."
Sound familiar? If yes, keep reading to learn how to minimize the stress caused by a vindictive ex-wife, maximize your own sanity, and keep your focus where it should be—on your relationship or marriage and children.
How Can You Deal With an Ex's High Drama?
According Rachel Stapleton, PLLC, a mental health therapist in private practice, sometimes you can't:
"Accept the fact you cannot control your ex. She may (albeit unfortunate, immature, and unfair to the children) choose to continue to act in a dramatic manner, but know that you do not have to respond in a dramatic way, nor do you have to participate."
If you're still trying to deal with the ex, and especially if kids are involved, I share these five steps that might help you.
Step 1: Recognize the Crazy
If your husband frequently receives 10 to 15 ranting and abusive emails (manifestos) from the ex-wife in a 24 hour period, this is not normal. If the ex-wife has ever texted your husband to the point that his phone battery dies, this is not normal. If you have ever accompanied your husband to drop off the kids and the ex-wife starts beating on his car. Yep, you guessed it. Not normal!
The first step is to recognize who and what you are dealing with. Any time two people with kids get divorced, there are going to be some squabbles over the years. Minor, and even a few major, disagreements are completely normal. Do not expect your husband and his ex to co-parent in perfect harmony all the time. Do, however, expect that there will be no cussing, name calling, threats, withholding the chidren, or banging on your door for no apparent reason. If any of this has happened, keep reading.
Is she "crazy" or has she actually been diagnosed with a mental illness? If so, you might like to read about When the Ex-Wife Has Borderline Personality Disorder.
For exes who are experiencing difficulty moving forward or letting go of the past, it's a common response to not want the former partner to be happy. There can be a sense of wanting to punish the old partner for things they may or may not have done in the relationship.— Rachel Stapleton, PLLC, mental health therapist
Step 2: Get on the Same Page as Your Husband
High conflict ex-wives intrude into every last fiber of your being and into every last corner of your home. If you have one in your life, then you are all too familiar with that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach when your husband or boyfriend lets you know she is at it again. If you let it, the drama will consume you and bury you in a big pile of steaming high-conflict poo.
Tell your boyfriend or husband that the constant drama stresses you out, and tell him you need it to end. Some men take an exceptionally long time to understand the havoc an ex-wife is wreaking on the current relationship. I don't care if you have to use smoke signals: get him to understand what the drama is doing to your well-being, to his well-being, and to your relationship. Most importantly, get him to understand the negative effects the drama is having on the children. Kids are very aware, even from a young age, when mom and dad do not get along. It's up to him to end the drama for his children. He has to stop waiting for the other party to calm down, and he must take action now.
Step 3: Find Someone to Talk To
Like-minded women are out there! In droves! I had no idea that there were so many stepmoms who were in exactly the same position, married to a man with an ex-wife who had vowed to make his life a living hell.
If you have attempted to vent or sob about the crazy in your life and the other person has backed away from you slowly, then you are talking to the wrong people. Adults who have not been stepparents or who do not deal with a high-conflict ex will not understand what you are going through (lucky ducks!).
Spend some time searching for online support forums. Try out a few until you find a group of like-minded women who are a good fit for you. After spending a year lurking online, I started reaching out to some of the women I had met, and now they are real friends. These women are my saviors! When the ex decided to dance on my front porch at 6:30 a.m., they were there for me. When, one week after our wedding, she started mailing photos of her on her wedding night, shots of her wearing. . . well, less than I ever wanted to see. . . these other stepmoms knew exactly what I was going through. I cannot overemphasize the importance of finding friends who really get it and get you.
Who do you talk to the most about your stepmom problems?
Boundaries are often important; however, you must focus on what you can control, which is yourself.— Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and couples counselor
Step 4: End the Drama
The cycle-o-drama will continue as long as you and your husband let it. It took my husband and me almost four years to figure out how to break the cycle and end the drama. Although these measures may seem drastic or difficult, they are very effective and can be implemented quickly. Remember, the point is not to "win" when it comes to the ex; the point is to minimize the conflict so the children are not exposed to the fighting.
- If you are personally communicating with the ex, stop. Like stop yesterday. Do not email her, text her, talk to her on the phone, or speak to her in person. In all likelihood, it is not you that she hates. She would hate whatever woman was in your shoes. Remove yourself from her crosshairs. This is easy. Simply quit interacting with her this very second. There are no excuses for communicating with someone who wants to blow your head off with a bazooka on your wedding day.
- If he can get it ordered through a court, your husband should only communicate with her via email or on a website like Our Family Wizard. He should not text her, talk to her on the phone, or have conversations with her in person. It's easy. Simply stop. What will the ex do? Nothing. She can call all day long, but that does not mean your husband has to answer the phone. Let her leave messages and then email a response if one is needed.
- Follow the custody agreement exactly as it is written. Do not deviate. Do not switch weekends. Do not do anything not written down on that piece of paper. (See Creating a Parenting Plan When the Ex-Wife Is High-Conflict for examples of how to create a more specific custody agreement.) If everything is followed 100%, that removes much of the back and forth. If your husband has a horrible and vague court order, then it is time to head back to court. If there is any wiggle room, a high-conflict ex will use it to stir up trouble and continue the conflict. In our house, we have a motto or two that get us through: we don't do favors for assholes, and we don't negotiate with terrorists.
- Go "low contact." Do not respond to anything that does not require a response per the custody agreement or unless it directly relates to the health or safety of the children. Do not write more than four short and direct sentences per email. Today, my husband can get by on as few as four emails per month.
A word of warning: There will be an extinction burst. The bitter ex will use any means necessary to engage and continue the conflict. She will call, text, email, and likely call your husband every name under the sun plus a few made-up ones. Ignore.
Step 5: Let It Go
She may be a vindictive, narcissistic, and controlling bully. She might scream and cry and break things, but don't engage. Channel your inner zen place, whether it's the beach, the mountains, or on top of a fluffy cloud.
I can hear the outcries now: "But the children! We have to be the bigger people and try to work with their mother! If we do not switch weekends, they will miss a birthday party or a family reunion! If we keep trying, she will be reasonable." Or (my favorite): "But sometimes she is so reasonable!" Yeah, well, the ex in my life called to offer an extra overnight and then, two weeks later, punched my husband in front of their son. Being reasonable sometimes isn't good enough. You have to accept that, no matter what you do, his ex-wife will hate you.
I do not advocate following these steps because I think they will work. I suggest them because I know they will work. My husband and I are living proof! Now that we have minimized the intrusion of the high-conflict ex-wife in our life, my husband and I can have normal married-people squabbles over things like who left the milk on the counter or why the toilet seat is up. We also saw a positive change in the children, which was the goal of eliminating the crazy in the first place.
Accept the fact you cannot control your ex. She may (albeit unfortunate, immature, and unfair to the children) choose to continue to act in a dramatic manner, but know that you do not have to respond in a dramatic way, nor do you have to participate.— Rachel Stapleton, PLLC, mental health therapist
Can You Get a Restraining Order Against His Ex-Wife? Are There Legal Solutions?
You have many legal options if he and his ex didn't have children. But if they did, your legal options are limited. When kids are involved, you'll have to follow the court orders precisely, and if there is shared custody, there will have to be at least some communication. You might get restraining or anti-harassment orders, but it's hard to get a court to issue these when parents share custody. If you have a good case, you might win, but you might need a good lawyer.
- An anti-harassment order is a type of civil court-ordered restraining order that's available only to victims of harassment.
- A restraining order (also called an order of protection) might help establish boundaries in a violent situation. They can put more limits on a harasser's actions and might help if you have been threatened and feel like you or the children could be in danger. There is usually no cost to file these. You can get the forms from a courthouse. Police officers not enforce these orders.
- A civil injunction is the divorce court's version of a personal protection order. They usually require both parents to desist from disparaging one another, in front of their kids or anywhere else. They can also prevent exes from talking to or appearing at the other’s home unannounced. Police officers will not enforce these orders.
Either way, if you involve the courts, you'll probably also need to file a petition to make a major modification of the parenting plan.