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When Your "Ex" Is A "Jerk"

Do you have joint custody with a "jerk?" Is your ex uncooperative and difficult? You're not alone. And the task of raising a child - negotiating the details of visitation, school, money, health issues, etc. with a an uncooperative ex-spouse is, more than likely, the most difficult task you've ever faced. If your ex is a jerk, then when you say "black," she says "white." World War III erupts when you speak with him. Her maturity has regressed to the level of an eight year old. His values are so different from yours that you can't believe you ever married him in the first place. And if your ex is a jerk, then your reaction to him or her is likely to be highly emotionally charged. Your heart may race, your palms may become sweaty, you may clench your jaw or fists at the very mention of your ex's name.

If this sounds familiar, then here's some practical advice which may lighten your load, keep your child out of your battles, and give you some emotional distance.

* Choose your battles. This sage advice not only holds true when dealing with your child, but also with your ex. Before going to war with all your guns blazing, ask yourself if this is something that's really worth fighting for, or if you're only digging in your heels because your ego is involved. Richard's wife, Ann, abandoned him and their infant son. Five years later, she reestablished contact, began paying child-support and requesting visitation. Ann lived in a different town, and asked Richard if he would share the driving responsibilities with her. Richard was furious because he thought that it should be entirely her responsibility. In reframing it for him, I asked him what would happen if his son had a good friend who moved to a different town? Would he be willing to make the drive for his son to see the friend - at least half the time? Put in this context, Richard saw that he was only resisting because he was still so angry and hurt at his ex. Unfortunately, this misdirected anger will only wind up hurting the child. Sometimes reframing a situation - asking yourself how you would feel if the issue involved someone other than your ex - can put it in perspective and help you choose your battles. You might also consider whether this is a battle that can be won, or if it will inevitably end in a stalemate. Then save your energy for the really important issues.

* Limit contact with your ex. Susan discovered that every time she spoke with her ex - even about the simplest issues - he would blow up at her, calling her names, degrading her in every possible way. Invariably, she'd leave these encounters angry and defensive. She'd create scenarios in her head to get back at him. Then, the next time they spoke, she already had an angry, defensive tone in her voice, which usually escalated his reaction and perpetuated the cycle. Eventually, she discovered that it was easier to either speak to him through his new wife or write him notes instead of speaking to him directly.

* Change the dance. Imagine that you're dancing with a partner. She consistently steps on your toes, yet you keep dancing, hoping it will get better. What would happen if you suddenly ducked under her arm and left the room? Without someone to dance with, she'd have to stop dancing. (And your toes would stop being sore.) Many times we engage repetitively with another person. We use the same tone of voice, the same body language, even the same words. Yet each time, we expect the outcome of the communication to be different. Changing the dance means breaking out of the pattern so that you can achieve different results. To do this, ask yourself what your normal reaction is to your ex. Then come up with a reaction that is different and implement it. Ben discovered that he normally responded to his ex with sarcasm, especially when she threw a sarcastic remark his way first. This was their dance. He decided to change the steps. The next time she was sarcastic, he looked at her blankly, nodded his head, and in a slightly puzzled voice said "Uh-huh", then continued with what he was saying. She was stunned into silence. Twice more she tried to provoke him. When she got the same response each time, she finally gave up and began relating to him about the subject, which was their child.

* Think of your relationship as a business relationship, not a personal one. This will give you some emotional distance. If your ex was a client who had a million dollar account that you want to secure, how would you treat him? No matter how "jerky" the client, you'd undoubtedly behave respectfully, choose your words carefully and think through the possible outcomes ahead of time in order to be prepared prior to speaking with him. Likewise, you'd probably keep your own feelings to yourself, not sharing your loneliness, anxiety, anger, sadness. Elizabeth had difficulty keeping her feelings out of conversations with her ex-husband. When it was time for him to take their son away on a two week vacation, which he'd never done before, Elizabeth shared that she was anxious, and would be a "wreck" the whole time. He blew up at her, asking why she didn't trust him, screaming that he was a good father, and more. In a business relationship you wouldn't reveal that you were uncomfortable or anxious about a deal going through. Share your anxieties and other feelings with a good friend, not your ex.

* Script yourself. Divorce often leaves you vulnerable and sensitive. Your feelings about your ex are very close to the surface. When caught unawares, or when you feel attacked, it's often difficult to be proactive and think clearly. When you know that you're going to have a conversation with your ex, write down ahead of time what you plan to say, and what her possible responses might be. Memorize the script and rehearse with a friend. While the conversation with your ex won't go exactly the way your script does, you'll feel better prepared and calmer if you have a plan of action ahead of time.

* Give yourself an "out". Not all conversations are planned, but perhaps they should be! If your ex unexpectedly confronts or calls you about something, give yourself time to think by telling him it's not a convenient time to talk, then scheduling an appointment for later in the day or shortly thereafter so that you can prepare yourself. By memorizing an "out" (as in "Now is not a convenient time for me to talk, I'm on my way to the dentist") you give yourself an opportunity to prepare and put yourself in a more powerful position where you can think more clearly.

* Never let your children hear you argue with your ex. Regardless of how you feel about your ex, he or she is still your child's other parent. Acting disrespectfully towards your ex, arguing with or yelling at him or her puts your children in an awkward bind. They experience a conflict of loyalties - feeling as though they must take a side, but knowing that taking one parent's side means being against the other parent. This is not only uncomfortable for your child, but potentially damaging. While you can't control your ex, you should make every effort to control yourself.