Widely considered to be the ultimate divorce movie, 'The War of the Roses' paints an outlandishly vivid portrait of ex-spouses engaging in everything from home destruction to pet abuse in their attempts to exact revenge on one another. Those coping with a hostile ex off the screen, however, will often find the damage more emotional in nature, though no less scarring.
“It takes a lot of maturity to make amends with the person who has torn apart your life, or who has been a monster in court,” says Lillian Messinger
, a marriage counselor specializing in post-divorce relationships. “Just as it took two to determine the marriage dynamic, it takes two to make a good- or bad -divorce.” Yet how do you better the situation with your ex turning every encounter into an argument? “Every couple has their own relationship dance,” says Barbara Quick, author of "Still Friends: Living Happily ever After…Even if your Marriage Falls
Apart", “All you have to do is change your part in that dance.” Here are ways to avoid stepping on each other’s toes, and forge a post-divorce relationship that works for you. 1. Recognize your role in the conflict.
But…it’s all your ex’s fault, right? Think again. “There isn’t a marriage on earth that one person single-handedly destroyed,” says Kindred Beisinger, a noted author and fellow ex war survivor. Accepting your share of responsibility for a marriage’s failure can mean tackling feelings of guilt, shame and grief formerly held at bay via blaming an ex. Hard as it may be to give up the crutch, being honest with yourself is the first step in creating a lasting truce. Let go of the past by confiding in a close friend, family member, or professional therapist. Support organizations like DivorceCare
host services such as coping seminars and meetings tackling common issues with others going through the process.
2. Keep the kids out of it.
“Children don’t want to compare their parents or choose one over the other,” says Ron L. Deal
, author of "The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family
". “They simply want your permission to love each of you.” Use extreme caution when deciding whether to share information with your child depicting the other parent in a negative light. “You may have a legitimate grievance about your ex-spouse, but there is no reason to share this with the children if they are not hurt by the behavior in question,” says Dr. Richard Warshak
, author of "Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex (Regan Books, 2002
." If, after analyzing the pros and cons you are still unable to reach a decision…that in itself may be the answer. Ultimately, no matter how great the differences, both parents must work together for the best interests of the child. “Effective parenting often involves putting yourself second,” says Rick Tivers, co-director of the Center for Divorce Recovery in Chicago
. 3. Set boundaries
The end of a marriage should herald a fresh start in relating to your ex. For many new singles, however, breaking ingrained patterns of communication can be a task nearly as difficult as the split itself. “Learn to recognize the baiting signs,” counsels Beisinger. “If the ex begins an old familiar taunt, end the interaction, and give the reason for doing so.” Think of your former spouse as a business associate engaged in the task of helping raise the children and manage family affairs, and be prepared to act on consequences in the event of non-compliance. “Use the phone or even talk to their answering machine if personal communication erupts into arguments,” says Deal. Write out exactly what you intend to say, along with answers to anticipated responses. If your ex continues to resist your efforts, consider using a professional mediator. 4. Be consistent.
Following through on your commitments is the single greatest step you can take towards forging a stable relationship with your ex. “If you’ve made specific promises about spending time with the children, or helping your ex with a certain task, do everything you can to keep your word,” says parenting coach Jennifer Wolf. “If there’s a valid reason why you can’t keep a promise, speak with your ex openly and honestly about it.” Establishing a track record of consistency shows your ex that you’re ready to make peace, while removing the excuses he needs to keep fighting. And while this can be a tall order if you believe court judgments on matters favor your former spouse, experts believe it’s a sacrifice well worth making. “No amount of anger over agreements is worth contaminating your relationship with your ex or children,” says Wolf. 5. Be considerate.
Undoing the damage of a trying divorce requires making a conscious effort to foster goodwill
, according to divorce mediator Cathy Meyer. Begin with a return to basic courtesies such as listening at least as much as you speak during interactions, soliciting your ex’s opinion on joint issues, and trying to see things from their perspective. “Be willing to give instead of standing your ground,” Meyer says. “You may no longer be married but the concept of give and take still applies.” A further step which can work wonders is affirming an ex-spouse’s role in your life… by telling them. “It’s amazing how powerful this one step can be in moving your relationship away from being adversaries and toward collaboration,” says Meyer. 6. Plan for the future.
Coming years will bring a host of challenges ranging from new partners to relocation and additional child-rearing responsibilities. Minimizing their effects requires careful planning with your ex, not only on logistics, but ways in which (surprise, surprise) you can help each other. Write out future plans in as much detail as possible, then trade. Now home in on common goals such as we want the children to grow up happy, and decide on ground rules to help accomplish them. These can range from the everyday, like we will support each other’s household rules, to special events like co-hosting a family brunch once a month. Okay, so maybe the last one’s pushing it, but the momentum created by coordination can truly open up some exciting possibilities. A person who feels invested in the future of his child and ex-spouse will go the extra mile in helping manage it.
In the end, whether you and your former spouse become bitter enemies or good friends depends largely on where you wish to end up. Take your children, friends and family into account. If your spouse has a previous history of emotional or physical abuse, then cutting contact may very well be the best course of action. Regardless of what you choose, remember that your primary goal is to leave bitterness and anger behind. “Everyone has a unique healing process,” says Quick. “Some people go through it on their hands and knees, while others race through at high speed. Go easy on yourself.” MORE FROM DIVORCE360.COMTIps for divorced parents
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.Anish Majumdar has spent more than seven years in freelance journalism, contributing to magazines such as Maclean's and Psychology Today, as well as The Toronto Star and various Web sites. He is currently based in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.