7 Things Never to Say to Someone Going Through a High-Conflict Divorce – Written by Pauline Gaines
Not all divorces are ugly. Some exes mediate instead of hiring pit bull attorneys, sit comfortably together at their kids’ school performances and maintain the same rules in each household.
Child support is paid on time. Neither parent speaks ill of the other in front of the children. Timeshares are flexible to support children’s changing needs as they grow.
These types of exes genuinely want their kids to have a good relationship with the other parent. And bottom line: they get tired of being angry and get on with their lives.
To borrow from Nora Ephron, “In my next life I must get one of those divorces.” Nine years after we split up, my ex still thrives on anger and revenge — despite getting all the property, the timeshare he wanted, essentially full custody of one of our children and finding a legal way not to pay child support. He’s remarried to a nice, accomodating woman, and the two of them globe-trot and hobnob to their hearts’ content.
What, then, does he have to be angry about? Nothing! My ex, like most high-conflict personalities, isn’t happy unless he has a target. While I certainly could have, and should have, handled some post-divorce issues better, my behavior isn’t really the issue. His anger isn’t about me; it’s about his need to be in control and to rip me into teeny-tiny pieces. He will never, ever change.
Friends and family want to comfort those in the cross-hairs of a high-conflict ex, so they offer conventional wisdom. They believe they’re dispensing sound advice because they’re reasonable people and it doesn’t occur to them that not everyone is capable of being reasonable.
These well-meaning statements often have the opposite effect than is intended. Instead of offering hope, the conventional wisdom sound bytes minimize the reality of those of us who are stuck with high-conflict exes.
I have compiled a list of 7 things never to say to someone going through a gnarly divorce. If you know anyone extricating herself from a union with Attila the Hun, please consider deleting these comments from your reservoir of comforting phrases. (Note that I’m using I’m using the pronoun “he” in the examples below, but this certainly applies to both genders.)
1. He’ll Get Over it When He Gets a Girlfriend/Remarries
No, he won’t! For the hostile ex, a new beloved will not lessen his animosity towards his former partner. The new partner will become the template for All That is Good, further cementing the former partner’s status as the template for All That is Bad. Often, the ex convinces the new love that the former partner is evil/incompetent/dangerous and the new girlfriend jumps on the slash-and-burn bandwagon.
2. Just use a Parenting Coordinator. My sister/cousin/next-door neighbor had one of those and they were able to resolve all their co-parenting problems.
This statement makes it sound like getting an effective PC is as easy as asking for an iced soy latte at Starbucks. In the state where I live, for example, a judge cannot enforce the use of a parenting coordinator. That means if one party wants to be collaborative, and the other party doesn’t want to cede control to anyone, there will be no PC. The other problem with this statement is the presumption that a Parenting Coordinator will make things better. There are effective Parenting Coordinators and there are burned-out Parenting Coordinators, who can make a bad situation even worse.
3. Of course he has to pay child support! My sister/cousin/next-door neighbor took her ex back to court and the judge ordered the court to garnish his wages.
Again, a statement brewed in the tea bags of Reason and Fairness. People who are determined to avoid paying child support are crafty. They render themselves unemployable, yet have access to separate funds from wealthy family or significant others. Further, if they work for themselves, or their income is erratic, there are no steady paychecks from which to garner.
4. You should go to court and get full custody. Mothers always get full custody! Besides, the judge will see that he doesn’t have the kids’ best interests at heart.
It’s a myth that mothers “always” get primary custody. One mother I know went to court recently because her ex-husband was petitioning for 50-50 custody in order to lower child support. She had clearly documented his lack of interest in the children as well as his questionable parenting techniques. The result? The judge didn’t even read her pleadings and ordered 50-50 custody because he believed fathers should have joint custody. The trial was over in five minutes.
There are many reasons less-fit parents gain custody: they’re charming; they’re rich and can bleed the other parent dry in legal fees; custody evaluators fall for allegations of false abuse; alienated parents don’t always present well due to being traumatized. Bottom line: being a mother does not guarantee that a woman will get primary custody.
5. Don’t let the obnoxious things he tells your kids get to you! They’ll figure out the truth eventually.
This depends on the degree of bad-mouthing. Even conscientious exes utter snarky comments about the other parent once in awhile. These garden-variety slips are entirely different from relentless, derogatory statements intended to destroy the other parent’s reputation and relationship with the children. In these instances, some children don’t “figure it out,” ever. And the ones who do often don’t get it until they’re adults and are able to form their own opinions.
My son wasn’t able to talk about the things his dad said about me until he went to wilderness camp and got support from his therapists. Now we’re able to acknowledge the elephant in the room but our relationship will never be the same. Parental Alienation (PA) expert Richard Warshak offers great advice on how to address PA with children. And targeted parents should. Although he may intend to take the high road, not addressing a hostile ex’s slanderous remarks can make a targeted parent appear guilty.
6. Keep all his nasty e-mails, then go to court and the judge will make him stop writing you.
My attorney once told me, “You don’t go to family court to get justice. You go to get answers.” And sometimes the answers suck. Egregious behaviors are often minimized. Emotional abuse is slippery, subjective, and difficult to prove. Hostile exes can be wily and persuasive in the courtroom. Where I live, family court cases are backlogged due to budget cuts. Judges are more interested in addressing big-ticket items like child abuse and moveaway orders than cyber-bullying. And even if the judge does order an end to e-mail contact, an ex who tends to defy rules will likely just find other, craftier ways to torment the former spouse.
7. You’re giving him way too much power! Sure, he’s a jerk, but what can he really do to hurt you?
A lot, actually. Dealing with a relentless, toxic ex is financially, emotionally and physically draining. Being unable to save your children from the collateral damage is devastating. Yes, exes can and should limit contact with a high-conflict ex as much as possible, but they will still have to deal with shenanigans until the children turn eighteen. Telling the target of a high-conflict ex to just man up invalidates his experience.
So what should you say? Say less. Listen more. Don’t judge. Ask your friend how she’s found the strength to make it through the fire. In this teaching moment, you’re not the teacher — you’re the student.
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