“He’s horrible to me; why should I be nice?”
“I have to respond to her accusations, because if I don’t, everyone will assume they’re true.”
“She just gets me so worked up. When she starts screaming in front of the kids, I get so mad I can’t help myself.”
Lots of sources try to offer advice about co-parenting, and some of it, like this article from HuffPost Divorce, is helpful where both parents are really trying. The more hardcore cases need resources like Bill Eddy. A book called Joint Custody With A Jerk has been around for years, and it’s pretty good. But some Amazon reviews of it claim that even with that great title, the book doesn’t deliver on how to deal with a truly mean person who’s your co-parent. Suggestions like “tell the other person that the behavior makes you ‘feel upset’” seem ridiculous if the ex is routinely telling you to go screw yourself. They KNOW they’re making you ‘feel upset’— that’s the point.
We have to accept that some people are out to make your life miserable, or worse. Some love the hostility and use every co-parenting opportunity to inflict pain. And you still have to deal with him or her, so work on the only thing you can change: yourself.
1. Recognize you can’t change the other person. Say it out loud and surround yourself with friends who will repeat that to you. If you stop trying to change him, he might (eventually) stop trying to control you. Even if he doesn’t stop, changing what you can (you and your own attitudes) will make your life less stressful. That’s winning.
2. Give up the need to get her approval, to prove you are right, and to get an apology. That’s never going to happen. Seek the solution that you know is best for your kids OR a resolution that you can live with (even if you don’t think it’s the best one), and get the fight done with. And then let it go.
3. Stick to the topic at hand. Keep it simple. Quit preaching. If preached to, learn to ignore, ignore, ignore.
4. Avoid words like “always” and “never”. They diminish your ability to resolve the issue by making it bigger and more dramatic than it is. “You’ve always made it difficult for me to go on vacation” is just another way of rehashing the past and showing that you can’t get over it.
5. And in that vein: Keep the conversations in the present. Do not bring up the past. It’s done. Move on.
6. Leave sarcasm at the door (or the office, or wherever it’s appreciated). Pissing someone off never got them to agree with you. In fact, if you’re communicating with a truly bad person who likes the fight, sarcasm is giving them the fuel to continue it.
7. Don’t get defensive or side tracked. If your co-parent is a dirty fighter—bringing up the past, calling you names, blaming — don’t get sucked in. Try to sit back and examine, with some sense of detachment, what the other person is trying to do to you. What’s that old joke? Don’t wrestle with a pig, because you’ll get filthy and the pig just likes it.
8. Focus on your kids’ needs, not your own. If you find yourself saying how important it is to the kids that the parenting plan be strictly followed, and therefore they are staying home with a babysitter on Saturday afternoon instead of attending the Diamondbacks game with Dad (because it’s not officially his parenting time), you’re failing.
9. Don’t play games. Be as accountable, responsible and reliable as you want your co-parent to be, even if you feel the favor is never, ever returned. This isn’t being soft; it’s good common sense. I’m not telling you to be a doormat, just an adult.
10. NEVER fight in front of your children, or involve them in any way in the conflict. This includes bad mouthing, sarcasm and even eye rolling. If the other parent is doing that in front of the kids, remove them as quickly as possible. Don’t fall to the other person’s level. Try to pretend that you and your kids are witnessing a stranger acting badly, and you have to be the grown-up and get them out of the situation as quickly and safely as possible. Then don’t bad-mouth the misbehaving parent. Just tell the kids “I’m sorry you had to see that” and go on with life.
11. Stay calm. Even if your co-parent is screaming, you don’t have to scream back. It really does take two to fight. If the other parent tries to bait you (always, right?) ignore it and go back to all the numbers above. FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT.
12. If you truly can’t stop yourself from reacting to their venom, accusations, screaming or whatever, then admit you have a problem and get help. If a person has the kind of control over you that means you don’t have control over yourself, you need professional help to find out why and how to change.