Heather felt that familiar sense of dread. December was always the worst. Although she and Brian had been divorced for over three years, the holidays continued to be complicated and miserable.
Despite her best efforts to keep things friendly, there was zero flexibility. If Molly or Jack had holiday parties or special events, Brian would insist on following court orders to the tee. Anytime she tried to talk to him about adjusting the schedule he would end up calling her every name in the book and accuse her of interfering with his relationship with the kids.
Of course, it didn’t stop there. Last year, Brian bought both of the kids brand new iphones so they could call him whenever they wanted. Heather was beside herself, Jack and Molly were only seven and nine-years-old. Brian also told them that since he paid for the phones Mom couldn’t take them away. If she tried, the kids had been instructed to let him know right away.
The worst part was how the conflict was impacting Molly and Jack. After a huge meltdown over bedtime, Jack blurted out, “Dad thinks you’re a bad mom. He wants us to use our phones to take videos of you when you’re doing things wrong but I don’t want to. I think you’re a good mom.”
Heather felt hopeless, helpless and overwhelmed by Brian’s unrelenting antics. She just didn’t understand why it had to be this way.
Although your Ex’s holiday hate campaign may feel up close and personal, the truth is it’s often not about you. High-conflict parents usually have a lot more going on under the hood than the fact that they were once married to you. Typically, there is a host of underlying issues that contribute to their “my way or the highway” attitudes such as an intense need for control, depression, low self-esteem, inability to tolerate rejection, unresolved bitterness, family history or mental health issues.
Coparents with high-conflict personalities don’t know how to manage their emotions effectively. They tend to use anger, blame and shame as outlets for their own frustration and fear. Not surprisingly when the holidays hit, emotions go into overdrive. Instead of managing their feelings responsibly, high-conflict parents set their sights on making you miserable.
This holiday season, if you have an Ex that seems dedicated to cultivating chaos, here are a few strategies worth considering.
While understanding the dynamics of high-conflict can be extremely helpful, trying to psychoanalyze your Ex is not. In my coaching practice, I encourage parents to stop spending precious time and energy trying to change their Ex’s hateful behavior. The truth is the only person who can change your Ex, is your Ex.
Instead, it’s far more helpful to you and your kids if you conserve your energy, shift your expectations and practice acceptance. While there’s nothing wrong with being hopeful that someday things will change, for now, consider adopting the philosophy, “It is what It is.” Focus on what you can control this holiday season, your own behavior and choices.
Practice making small shifts in your expectations to help you get some emotional distance from your Ex’s contentious behavior.
Keep your holiday communication consistent
No matter how your Ex behaves this holiday season, do your best to maintain consistency in your communication.
When your Ex sends you a snarky email or text filled with personal jabs and insults, resist the urge to hit reply and defend yourself. Instead, do your best to practice positive co-parenting etiquette and focus on crafting a KIND reply (Kid-Centered, Informational, Nice and Direct).
Not sure where to start? Try this.
Evaluate what part of the email or text has to do with the kids and response to that first.
When things heat up, you may feel a strong urge to set the record straight. Keep in mind that sending back a logical, rational response outlining your version of the truth probably isn’t going to help. Most likely your Ex will just view it as an invitation to ramp up the nastiness. Best to avoid getting personal. Instead, focus on being INFORMATIONAL and only respond to what needs to be addressed.
Keep it Nice
Does your Ex deserve a polite, friendly response? Probably not, but that’s not the point. Throwing a little shade your Ex’s way may make you feel better in the moment, but in the long-run, it won’t help your kids. During the holiday season (and all year long actually) do what you can to keep the tone of your communication respectful and civil.
For the record, being nice doesn’t mean saying you’re sorry. Avoid apologizing when things get intense. High-conflict parents will view it as a weakness, put their own spin on it and use it against you.
This is where less is more. To keep things short and sweet, think of your response as a series of tweets.
After you write your reply, re-read it and edit out anything that isn’t absolutely necessary. If the issue at hand isn’t time-sensitive, let it sit for a few hours and then re-read it with a fresh set of eyes.
If you have been dealing with a difficult Ex, chances are you have a pretty good idea of what to expect when holidays or special events crop up. Although you can’t plan for every possible situation, do what you can to make holiday events a worry-free experience for your kids.
Imagine Leyla has a starring role in the school’s holiday play and both you and your Ex will be there. Without a doubt, Leyla has enough to be anxious about without worrying which parent she will walk up to after the program is over.
Suppose Dad knows Mom isn’t gracious about sharing time. One way Dad could help Leyla out is by letting her off the hook before the big night. He could offer Mom the opportunity to take Leyla for ice cream after the play. When Mom drops Leyla off, he could spend some extra time chatting with Leyla about her big night while tucking her in bed.
He could also say something like, “Since both your Mom and I will be at the play tonight, why don’t you go say hi to her first, and I’ll wait for you by the front office.” Either way, Leyla gets to focus on the play instead of her parents.
Put kids in the center not the middle
Conflict between parents is incredibly confusing and anxiety provoking for kids. Most really struggle to make sense of a parent’s hateful reaction. After all don’t we routinely tell our kids to be nice even when they don’t feel like it?
When things are intense between parents, some kids may handle their anxiety by taking sides and get mad at you (“Why do you have to make everything so difficult?”). Others may completely shut down, withdraw or go into avoidance mode (“I don’t want to talk about it”) or feel a strong pull to be loyal and tell each parent what they think they want to hear.
If a holiday clash comes up, shift your attention to how the situation feels for your kids. Do your best to help them process their feelings about the problem without involving them in the disagreement.
Suppose Dad wants to take Hugh and Owen skiing over the winter break but needs Mom to give up some of her time with the kids. Let’s say Dad tells the boys about the trip without talking to Mom first. To add a little pressure Dad adds, “I hope your Mom won’t be selfish and ruin this for us. It’s going to be such a fun trip. I don’t know why she always has to a make a big deal out of us spending time together. It’s just a couple of days.” Let’s assume Mom has already made plans for her holiday time with the boys. Mom could really blow her top and give Hugh and Owen an earful about how Dad should have talked to her first.
Instead, Mom considers how all this feels for Hugh and Owen. While it’s tempting to tell them her side of the story she stays committed to keeping them out of the middle and stay focused on how this feels for them. Maybe she says something like, “I wish Dad had talked to me first about his plans, this must totally suck for you. I know how much you both enjoy skiing. While I‘m open to hearing what you want to do, the holiday schedule is something your Dad, and I need to work out. I don’t agree with how Dad has handled this.” Notice the focus is on the problem, Dad not communicating with Mom…not the person, Dad.
Be willing to bend not break
While coparenting involves a certain degree of flexibility, it doesn’t mean you should never stand your ground. When dealing with a difficult and demanding Ex, it can be tempting to give them what they want just to avoid another confrontation.
The problem with giving in and giving up is you’re ultimately reinforcing bullying behavior. It won’t take long for your Ex to figure out they can get whatever they want if they just keep being nasty.
Instead of basing your flexibility on what your Ex may or may not do, consider asking yourself, “How will my being flexible benefit the kids?” If your Ex is asking you to change the holiday pick-up time and it makes life easier for your children, then switching is a no-brainer. However, if changing times makes things complicated for them, then you’re probably better off holding firm on what time the kids get picked up.
Dealing with a conflictual coparent can be both mentally and emotionally exhausting. During this holiday season make sure you’re paying attention to your own needs so you can go the distance and shield your kids from holiday hassles. If the tension and conflict seem to be getting worse, consider getting some professional support or working with a divorce coach to help you up your conflict management game.
Do you have any success strategies for dealing with a difficult Ex? Chime in below! Have questions about how to handle holiday hassles? Drop by my facebook page and get a conversation started.