The Ex Files: How and why to get along with your former mate

by Joan Norton, J.D.

Although childless couples often find there is really nothing left to interact over, if you have children, divorce changes rather than ends the relationship you share.  Your happiness now rests on making your divorce succeed even if your marriage failed.   But how?  


1. Make a U-Turn: From intimate partners to business acquaintances  

Once upon a time, perhaps many years ago, you and your Ex probably started out as acquaintances.  You went from knowing little about one another to gradually forming the emotional attachment called intimacy. You likely enjoyed its positive aspects, including high levels of caring and trust.

 But when the relationship dissolved and positive intimacy disappeared, negative intimacy remained. Like an invisible lasso, anger, bitterness, the desire for revenge, or unfounded hopes that the former spouse will return can tie a couple together just as surely as their love once did. 

Continuing emotional attachments to your Ex keeps your life in limbo, consuming your energy and preventing you from finding happiness and a new, better relationship. And continuing to battle means your adult vendettas affect your children deeply:  Ongoing parental conflict is the #1 cause of suffering, stress, and maladjustment in children of divorce. 


So turn around:   

It will feel strange at first, but treating your former intimate as a business partner or acquaintance is your ticket to a happy future. 

Consciously rewind your relationship back to its early stages of acquaintanceship when the emotional climate was more formal, polite, structured, cooperative, limited, and somewhat impersonal —or at least a lot less personal than it is now.


An acquaintance is the pharmacist, the waiter, or the business associate we interact with only for work.  When we speak to the pharmacist, we give her the prescription, and she fills it. The pharmacist presents us with the bill, and we pay it. If the pharmacist asks how we’re doing, we reply, “Fine, thank you,” even if we’re having a lousy day. Business associates do their business courteously and efficiently while maintaining a low emotional profile.

You and your former mate are now business partners in life’s ultimate enterprise, a shared career your divorce does not dissolve:  parenting.  Now that you’re divorced, cut the intimacy and start behaving as business partners in a business-like acquaintanceship even if your feelings disagree; behave formally, politely, non-emotionally, and (wherever possible) cooperatively.  


2. Disengage Your Emotions:  Some suggestions

Clearly, there’s no automatic breaker switch to flip. Even in the healthiest of cases, it generally takes about 18 months to turn off that physical “alarm” that is triggered each time we see our former mate or hear his or her voice on the telephone.

But even if your feelings lag behind, your actions must show disengagement so you can have a better life.  How can you get your emotions to follow suit?  


—Tear Up the “Intimacy Contract”

Focus on your children and your role as their parent. Mentally tear up the “intimacy contract” with your Ex.  Consciously replace it with a new contract as business partners for the purpose of raising healthy, well-adjusted children.


—Find New Sources of Emotional Support

Make new friends, join a faith community, find a formal or informal divorce support group, and reconnect with family members whose company you enjoy. Avoid leaning on your children for emotional support, however. It’s vitally important to reassure your children you will take care of them (not the other way around) and to stay firmly in the “parent position.”


—Work on You

Working on yourself can mean taking a class, learning a new skill or taking up a hobby.  It can also mean doing some important emotional work to ready yourself for your new life, such as learning ways to improve communication, resolve conflicts, and manage anger. Not only are your children counting on you to minimize and avoid fighting with your Ex, you’re probably weary of it, too.  


—Turn Your Attention Outward

Research shows that when we focus on the needs of others instead of our own, we receive much more than we give away. Whether it’s volunteering at your child’s school or cutting the lawn for an elderly neighbor, we are happier when we are needed and connected with others.  


—Explore Resources

This could mean finding a therapist, reading a book, or taking a specialty course for divorced parents online. Your county’s Domestic Relations Office can be a goldmine of information, as well as your state’s Department of Family Services. 


—Make a Temporary Clean Break

Having no direct contact with your Ex for a finite timeframe can help you jump-start the new business-like relationship.  But cutting your Ex completely out of your life is a poor permanent solution because children need the love, guidance, and support of both parents for their optimal development.  Of course, the exception to this is when your Ex creates an unsafe or abusive situation for your child. In that case, abuse specialists are available via the telephone without charge; the number in the US and Canada is 1-800-799-SAFE.  



3. Change The Game: Courtesy and respect—no matter what

Give this one 10 gold ***stars***.  In your new role as professional business partners, you must treat each other with courtesy and respect. No matter what.  

While business partners may differ significantly in the way they think and live, they do not interrupt, ridicule, criticize, or raise their voices in anger at one another. These are signs of negative intimacy. As you now know, intimacy has no place in your new business-like relationship. 


Otherwise known as the “Fake It ‘Til You Make It” plan, this rule does require a good deal of faking —at least initially— to respond with a kind word to a sarcastic one when your instinct is to hurl and spit insults.

However, responding with kindness is marvelously empowering. No matter how your Ex behaves, your plan of action remains clear and unchanged. You don’t need to wait helplessly by, hoping your Ex will act like less of a jerk tomorrow than yesterday, nor do you have to accept cruel language directed at you.  You can simply be kind and respectful yourself and set a boundary to speak later if your business partner crosses the line:  “I want to discuss Sasha’s game schedule with you; let’s do it tomorrow.” 

It feels good to be the bigger person. You can come away from the interaction feeling good about how you handled yourself, free of any guilt or regrets.


As a big bonus, treating your Ex with courtesy models positive social behavior that will carry your children through their own future relationships, and it offers an island of safety to your child. While your Ex’s behavior may remain frightening and unpredictable, the child knows that you will always remain in control and speak respectfully. One fool is better than two! 



In short, your path to freedom involves emotionally disengaging from your Ex and behaving courteously as you collaborate in the ongoing business of parenting.  Many people have done this even after the bitterest of divorces. 

Join them; make your divorce work even though your marriage didn’t.  Your children will be happier, and you will, too.


About Joan Norton, J.D.:

Ms. Norton is the creator and managing editor of TXparent.com, a website offering online resources to divorced, separated, and never-married parents.  TxParent.com presents The Texas Cooperative Parenting Course:  Happy Children, 2 Homestm, the only online parenting course written by a Texas Domestic Relations Office and court-approved to help divorced couples learn ways to end conflict and successfully co-parent children between 2 homes.  Norton resides in Austin, Texas, with her husband, daughter, and West Highland Terrier.  



The author wishes to acknowledge the following scientists and sources:  

 Interparental Discord and Child Adjustment: Prospective Investigations of Emotional Security as an Explanatory Mechanism (Child Development, vol. 77, issue 1, pp. 132-152 Jan/Feb 2006) by http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00861.x/full


The Truth About Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive  by Robert E. Emery, Ph.D.  You can buy the book as linked, or access his website, where Dr. Emery answers your questions, at www.EmeryOnDivorce.com


 Marital Conflict and Support Seeking by Parents in Adolescence: Empirical Support for the Parentification Construct by Tara S. Peris, Marcie C. Goeke-Morey, E. Mark Cummings, and Robert E. Emery


Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., for his research on Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment and its relationship to doing for others


Child Trends for summarizing research findings on the relationship between father involvement and child outcomes. 


Recommended Reading:

Getting Divorced Without Ruining Your Life: A Reasoned, Practical Guide to the Legal, Emotional and Financial Ins and Outs of Negotiating a Divorce Settlement  by Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D.


Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child  by Isolina Ricci, Ph.D. 


Mom’s House, Dad’s House for Kids: Feeling at Home in One Home or Two  by Isolina Ricci, Ph.D.



 If this article inspired, educated, assisted or elevated your understanding of relationships, please click “share article” below to distribute to your favorite social media websites. 


Do you have a question for Duana?  Email her at Duana@LoveScienceMedia.com.  

All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., and Love Science Media, 2011.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

« Q&A from "The Ex Files: How and why to get along with your former mate" | Main | Q&A from "Ignorance or Ignore-ance? How to prevent abuse" »

Reader Comments (34)

Wise Readers, how do couples--even under the bitterest circumstances-- make their divorce work where their marriage wrecked? The answer is, many of them do, and I've long wanted to write an article about how it happens--and why, if you want to be happy, it *must*.

Then it occurred to me: The right author for this piece is someone every avid Love Science reader already knows through her relevant comments on many an article: Joan Norton, J.D. Through her creation of TXparent.com, a website offering online resources to divorced, separated and never-married parents, Joan developed expertise on the topic.

I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did, and that you'll continue this discussion with both Joan and me here in the comments.


April 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Treating each other with courtesy and respect is important even if the couple no longer has children. It is very upsetting to me when people speak poorly of my ex. That is an insult to my judgement and taste.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSally-Page Stuck

Sally-Page, what an excellent observation. Whatever may have gone wrong, you two did love each other once, and you chose each other for good reasons.

I like your clear emphasis on Kindness & Respect--whether from others or (implied) from you. One of the things that really got to me in this article is the observation, yet again, that all adult relationships require Kindness & Respect. We can behave that way during the marriage while intimacy is high, or after the divorce, when intimacy needs to disengage--but eventually, K&R is where we're headed if we want to be happy.

You also bring up a really interesting point about couples who still speak post-divorce when children were not part of the marriage. It's unusual enough that I haven't found much to read about it; most of the research has focused on former partners who are parents. Am wondering what your experience has been, or if you know more about the case where childless couples still connect post-divorce?

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

I must of love him once, or was it just circumstances. I was 1 month away from being married, and my fiance was killed in front of me. I found comfort in the arms of his best friend. over a year later we are married and expecting. He was 10 years older than me, and his mom HATED me. After 2 years of fighting for the married we talked for 3 years about a divorce (even while enduring his abusive tendencies I still fought for MY 1st husband I had vowed to), at the end we both had an affair and both of us ended up expecting but not each others baby. (we tried for 3 years to have another baby, and FAILED so this was a huge shock to both of us)...We have been divorced for over 5 years now... I am still VERY HAPPILY married to the same guy I had the affair with and we have more children. It was the best mistake of my life and truly believe it was a blessing in disguise. My ex and I still don't get along and we share a child together. It's been over 5 years and I still cringe at anything that has anything to remotely do with him, directly or indirectly. (oh and him....he's been thru 3 more after me in 5 years and I was his 3rd wife).

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMisty R

How cool to have a guest author!

I love the information on setting boundaries.

My ex and I didn't have children (I never see him), but there are plenty of other people (a/k/a family members) who push my buttons. I'm wondering: where's the line between cooperating and being a pushover? While intellectually I see the value in cooperating, my emotions sometimes want to get in that person's face and tell her a thing or 2 ... or 5.

Duana, you mention many people make their divorces work even under the bitterest circumstances ... Then surely I could learn to set some boundaries in my daily life and with my other family members. ...Can you give us more examples and info how to do that?

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

Misty, that's a lot of trauma to go through, what with witnessing your first fiance's murder, marrying his friend under stress of pregnancy and hostile in-laws, then enduring a marriage-and-divorce situation rife with drama.

The 18-month "alarms-off" figure given in the article is best-case. Your case was far from that ideal--there was just too much change and trauma. No wonder you still cringe, it's taken five years, and the negative intimacy is still there!

I wonder, though, if using the techniques in this article will help. I've known cases of people who have gone through mountains of unkindness, disrespect, abuse (whether or substances or people)--and still followed the U-Turn to create a more distant, but still kind and respectful relationship that made their divorce workable even though their marriage had not been. I've written much more about that in my comment to Gillian, below.

Also, I believe Joan has prepared some information about how to progress away from the negative intimacy towards the business-relationship it sounds like you and your Ex might still need. Joan, you want to jump in?

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hi, Gillian,

How good to have you back! I agree Joan is a great guest author. Actually, she's the only person I have ever asked to do a guest blog here; her expertise made her a clear choice for the topic, and her voice is consistent with the goals of Love Science.

Now, to boundaries, whether in marriage, divorce, or any relationship:

By design, relationship conflict involves *both* people. Just as in tug-of-war, *both* people have to pull at opposite ends of a rope to make or continue a fight.

When people are negatively intimate, they tend to feel they must pick up the rope and pull about a lot of things, including non-essentials. Their emotional entanglement means they no longer see that we have the choice to *not pick up the rope* sometimes. Other times, rope-pulling is a must, but even then, it can be done with Kindness & Respect.

So the quick-n-dirty secret of establishing business-like boundaries and avoiding fights while *not* getting stepped-on or enmeshed in a war is three-fold:

a) Define, very clearly, what your boundaries are (it should be a short but well-defined list).

b) Give everything you can that does not violate a boundary (don't pick up the rope when you don't have to!).

c) When your clear boundary is violated, pick up the rope and win (in the kindest and most-respectful way).

With permission, I share the following. A former client ("Toni") ran away from an alcoholic, and the alcoholic insisted on and won equal custody of the kids. She talked with me about her fears that he would hurt the kids by driving drunk with them, or that he would fail to take care of them (the littlest had bad asthma that required an involved medical and household-cleaning regimen).

a) Toni established her clear, short and non-negotiable list of boundaries.

Toni was not asserting that the Ex had no right to be with the kids. In fact, she agreed he was a loving father and that the kids benefited from spending time with him. So, her boundary became: The kids will not get into any vehicle the Ex is then driving, nor will they spend the night with him or travel with him unsupervised.

Now, her State law didn't agree, but that didn't matter; like most people who actually work things out, she didn't try to get the courts to determine her family's fate. She had a traditional, dual-custody divorce decree and she decided she was going to abide by only part of it, without involving the courts any further; that even if sued, she would go to jail rather than hand over the kids in unsafe circumstances.

Courts are the *last resort* for working out your differences in child custody.
As the books Joan links above (esp. the outstanding "Getting Divorced Without Ruining Your Life"--which I've read and highly recommend) point out, courts are a terrible place to try to hammer out family decisions. The judges don't know you and your situation as well as you do; the decision will be impersonal and perhaps not at all related to your circumstances; and the adversarial nature of the legal system itself creates more of the hell, hate and discontent you got divorced to avoid! On top of that, you pay dearly for the privilege of having your personal life decided by strangers.

So, you are nearly always better-off behaving in a less-adversarial manner and working things out yourself. Which brings us back to the point of Toni's boundaries.

She decided to ask her Ex to abide by her boundaries. She specifically said that she valued and would in every possible way support his presence in their children's lives, but that she could not release them to him for driving or for overnight, unsupervised visits at his place because he had a very long history of drinking.

Did he like this? No. He was angry and said he refused. She ignored the refusal and reiterated her boundaries, and set up the next time he'd see the kids. Toni was willing to go to jail for it rather than turn over her kids to him and see them driven off by someone who could be drinking.

*Her boundaries were simple, clear, brief--and she was willing to pay whatever price she had to for them.*

b) Next, Toni gave her Ex all she could, all the time--as long as it didn't violate her boundaries. She went out of her way to be kind and respectful, and to give her Ex what he wanted *aside* from boundaries violations.

For instance, if her Ex wanted to go to the movies, the zoo or the park with the kids, she not only didn't balk--she drove everyone there and picked them back up at the end of the outing. For special occasions, like Father's Day or the Ex's birthday, she chauffeured the crew to special destinations. She offered to fly with the kids to visit the Ex's in-laws in another State. She (and her new partner) welcomed the Ex into their home for one night a week, one full day every weekend, all family occasions (Christmas, birthdays, ball games, etc.) and anytime the Ex just said he might want to come over.

*She didn't pull the rope unless she had to! And he relaxed and stopped fighting.*

c) Toni picked up the rope any time the Ex threatened the boundaries--and only then--and she was Kind & Respectful even then.

In Toni's scenario, her Ex would occasionally say things about wanting to take the kids places by himself; she would offer to meet him. He would sometimes complain that she was controlling, unfair and keeping him from his rights; she would point out that she was hugely in favor of his daily presence in the kids' lives, that she had done a lot to help that to happen and always would do, and that she valued his role as a father. He would point-blank ask to take the kids out of State. She would counter-offer that she was willing to fly them there and stay in a hotel with them, and that she would deliver the kids wherever he wanted them to be each day.

She was willing to go to jail for these boundaries, but she didn't have to say so. She just had to know so. Resolve is needed, not just internal clarity, for boundaries to stick.

What happened?

Toni got what she wanted: Happiness and safety for her and her children; an involved father for the kids (indeed, from then on, the kids got their dad when he was at his very best); and an end to almost all conflict. She saved untold thousands of dollars and tears. And she did it, not through the legal system, but through the three steps above.

Are the steps easy? No. They required Toni a lot of thought and courage, and they required her to be yielding and compassionate during some times when she was angry. They required a high level of maturity and self-control. Then again, a happy, successful life among others requires all of that.

But the steps are clear. And yes, even in bitter divorces (and other relationships), they work.

Thanks for a great question!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hello, Sally-Page, Misty, Gillian, and Duana!

Good points made by all. Misty, my heart goes out to you for all the trauma you have endured and overcome.

Researching this article taught me a lot of establishing boundaries. Basically, anytime the temperature rises -- in you or in your ex-- it's time for the discussion to end. You should not accept abusive treatment from your ex, and that includes raised angry voices, sarcasm, disrespectful remarks, and the like. When this starts, you can leave the scene or say, "I'm going to hang-up now. We can resume this discussion when we're both feeling a little more calm."


It takes 2 to fight, and your ex just lost his or her fighting partner. Do this enough times and eventually your ex will get the message that you're not going to engage. We can't change our ex's behavior, but we CAN change our own. If you refuse to take the bait, it will change the dynamic in your relationship.

A key thing is to get clear is which topics are open for discussion, and which ones aren't. Gillian, in the case of your family members, you know the areas of disagreement that cause you distress. Simply politely refuse to talk about those. (Oh, let's not go into that. But I'd love to hear about your trip ...)

Likewise, with your ex, certain topics are off-limits. In fact, *many* topics are off-limits: Anything that doesn't directly relate to raising your children is hereby out-of-bounds.

Some acceptable topics are:
*Child's health
*Child's education and school performance
*The parenting time schedule

Some unacceptable topics are:
*Your ex's dating habits
*Past mistakes
*Attacking your ex's character


April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoan

Here's a handy list I found extremely helpful in researching this article:

Characteristics of an Acquaintance or Business-Like Relationship

· No assumptions
· Formal courtesies, public meetings
· Explicit agreements and written contracts
· Little confrontation, low risk, low emotional intensity
· High personal privacy, low personal disclosure
· Common goal
· Well-defined boundaries
· Communication is limited to certain topics
· Parties treat each other with courtesy and respect no matter what
· Negotiation of differences upon disagreement, or when a new circumstance arises
· Both parties are committed to a win-win relationship

A few examples: Business associates make appointments to meet one another and discuss matters related to their common goal, in this case, the children. They do not show up unannounced at someone’s worksite and demand to speak with him. They do not call a person repeatedly on the telephone to harass her. While some flexibility may exist, business partners hold periodic staff meetings to receive and provide information, and they stick to the business at hand. “How did Luke do in the Science Fair?” and “Let's talk about the summer camp schedule" are acceptable topics; “Who are you dating now?” and “Why are you still so lazy?” are not.

Writes Emery: “I admit that it may seem awkward to tell the person with whom you once shared a home and a family and your most intimate thoughts and dreams that she cannot phone you at work, stop by your new apartment unannounced, or open the mail that’s still being delivered to the family home. Yet you must.”

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoan

Hear hear, Joan! Love the delineation of what does and does not belong in a business-like relationship between former mates.

Love even more? Your clear, concise description of how *not* to get drawn in when an Ex (or anyone else) becomes unkind, disrespectful, or outright abusive. No, we don't have to be push-overs to keep out of a fight--nor do we have to get down on the other person's level.

I think I'm going to memorize this statement of yours and use it like a broken record:
""I'm going to hang-up now. We can resume this discussion when we're both feeling a little more calm."

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Awesome article, Joan. I did wonder about the section on "giving to others"...

Most of the time, when I see someone doing this, they are pretty much using the activity to avoid dealing with their own situation. So many of them are in denial and are suppressing their feelings by focusing on others and "keeping busy". At what point is this seriously counter-productive, and how would one balance this part of healing?

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMonica


In extreme cases, parents have found it helpful to stop the phone calls and face-to-face communication entirely. Instead, they communicate only in writing. Writing forces us to slow down and choose our words more carefully. It's less likely we'll write something we'll later regret. While it might be easy to fire off a hot email, if you use paper and pen, you can always hold the letter for 24 hours and then see if you still want to send it.

Interestingly, some courts are now asking divorced parents to communicate only in writing. There are several new softwares such as "Our Family Wizard" (you can google it) that aid divorced families to manage their shared parenting time, communicate important matters related to the children, and track expenses.
Sometimes court-ordered in high conflict cases, the parents must log on to the system, which the court can monitor, and communicate with one another only in writing. Quite an interesting concept.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoan

I find a weakness sometimes where I feel obligated to vomit my life on him. I will write an email like we haven't talked in years...and I tell him EVERYTHING.... This has bitten me several times. Then I am beating myself up over it and swear I will never do it again, and then next week "here goes motor mouth"...However I have figured out a way to control it. I copy my current husband on the conversation. If it seems inappropriate or not in reference to our child only, I delete it. So by the time the the 2 page email is ready to go out, it's only like 5 sentences, sometimes less, and neither know any difference. I'm not sure why I still feel so reluctant to include him. My current husband has to coach me on dealing with my ex all the time. I have too much compassion and it ends up hurting me. Compassion is my weakness, my Achilles heel!

Like you said...We only communicate in writing so EVERYTHING is documented with good reason...and face-to-face contact is only if it is unavoidable. And I still have to be so very careful not to fall into his trap of giving up too much ORAL information. Especially when I don't have the time to respond appropriately.

Joan thanks for the business relationship examples...I am definitely going to try to put these in play!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMisty R

Joan and Duana, I get really tweaked when I'm dating a man who is bitter about his ex, says she is horrible, he can't get along with her, etc. I went through my own messy divorce plus kids. My ex was like Toni's, Duana, I had lived that example! He was an alcoholic and when I began dating after the divorce, he had a conniption fit and got drunk and called Child Protective Services to charge me with child abuse. Imagine my surprise when the guy at the door was not the pizza deliveryman, but the CPS case worker.

Anyway, I had not read this article yet of course, but I had learned a couple things and one was not to feed the tiger. I did not call my ex and yell at him for bringing a false charge. I mastered my self and when my ex eventually sobered up and called me, I was calm and polite and said, oh, by the way, CPS was here last night. And then the phone got real quiet. He admitted he had called them, and I said, oh, well, that's a relief, I couldn't imagine who had done it. The charges were all dropped b/c CPS said it was clearly a false call. But I promise you, if I had had a fit or shown I was upset, my ex would have called CPS to control me anytime he felt like it. He has never called them again.

We get along well, because I don't pick up the rope or get over-heated about things, and now he's trained not to even head in that direction. So you can see why I'm not thrilled when men tell me they cannot find a way to tolerate their ex. If I could do it with an alcoholic who called CPS, I figure it is possible for these guys, too. I have told a couple of them I thought so, and they seemed to consider it. Maybe I'll email them the article.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarson

Awesome inspiration right there!

I over-react very quickly. I love how cool you were about it.

My Ex has even gone the lengths of kidnapping my daughter for months at a time when going through the divorce. I'm not sure I would have been so cool about CPS. But I hope that stays in my mind, I must find a way to break his control of my emotions.

Thank you for sharing.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMisty R

Misty, sounds like your new husband is your very own "Our Family Wizard"! How wonderful.

Joan, that is really fascinating that some courts are requiring 100% traceable, written communication. That should cool some heels, and I mean that in more ways than one.

Carson, does the "C" actually stand for "cool"? That incident with CPS was very well-played. Sounds like you were able to use the rope-dropping/business-relationship techniques to the ultimate betterment of your and your kids' lives. Moreover, when I was reading Gavin De Becker's "The Gift Of Fear" book recently, he pointed out that threats only have as much power as the intended victim gives them. You responded with such unflappable cool, such unruffled ease, that your Ex lost the perception that he could threaten you. And he stopped. Kudos~you're an inspiration.

April 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hi, Monica,
Joan had asked me to field any questions pertaining to grief, which I believe yours does. There's a normal grief process I've briefly outlined at this article:


And there is more information on grief at the corresponding Q&A:


Short answer: Grief seems to happen whether or not we busy ourselves, and the denial you wrote about is in fact the first acknowledged step most people go through in grieving; it's followed, sometimes not in this order, by anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Denial cushions us from an emotional impact we are not ready to bear. To answer your question for how long this can/should go on, if a person is unable to move past grief (or any stage prior to acceptance) for more than a year, it is time to seek a good counselor or grief group.

The resources at Joan's website can help a lot for separating or divorcing/divorced parents. Please see the links and resources at http://www.TxParent.com.

The research Joan referred to on keeping busy, by the way, is from another source she and I both appreciate and recommend, Martin Seligman's summary of the positive psychology movement and what scientists know about why and how people become happy. His book is called "Authentic Happiness", and the website linked at the end of the article lets people take quizzes to find their own road to greater fulfillment.

Happy people aren't those who live for their own pleasure, or who have more money than they can spend, or who have few problems in life. Which is a good thing, since few of us are given such options!

Instead, just about anyone can be happy who chooses to be--but that choice requires embracing our roles and duties, and deriving *meaning* from them.

So for parents who may be too busy to mow a lawn or volunteer, for instance, they can find happiness by finding meaning in the roles they already have that involve caring for others--such as being as helpful and supportive as possible in their work and parenting careers.

Thank you for your highly relevant question.

April 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Super great question, Monica.

Divorce is such a painful experience it's rare to emerge without a great deal of hurt. When and how we deal with that hurt, I think, is an individual thing. If the choice is between sitting at home feeling sorry for ourselves versus getting our bee-hind out the door to volunteer/coach pre-teens at soccer, I vote for coaching soccer! Feeling needed again has been known to jump-start the healing process and improve our self-image.

On the other hand, if I'm using volunteer work to distract myself from working through my emotions, then I'm not doing myself any favors. While some people can work their emotions via volunteering, others may need a different route such as a solo hobby (painting/reading), a connection with nature (tending animals, hiking) or even private or group therapy to more directly address the problem.

I'm no therapist, but the decider seems to be whether we're moving forward or not. I think Duana did an article on grieving and there's certainly a lot of grieving that goes with divorce. If volunteering and "giving to others" is helping us feel better and move forward, I'd say it's working for us. However, if we're volunteering and not feeling better, and we're still angry and engaged with our ex, I'd say we need to try one of the other suggestions in this article, or in Duana's article about grieving.

A good therapist can help us honestly examine our present situation and set goals toward becoming the person we would like to become.

Love your question!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoan

Absolutely, Duana. Great point about the courts. As an attorney (now non-practicing - sorry, no legal advice here :-) , I have great respect for the job our judges are asked to do, and the limited time and resources they have to do it. As some have observed, "We have the worst legal system in the world, EXCEPT for all the others..."

No matter how hard a judge tries, he or she simply cannot customize a solution for every case. It's the couple themselves who are in the best situation to determine a divorce arrangement that will work for their family, rather than having one imposed on them by court. Litigating through the courts is adversarial (winner/losers), time-consuming, and expensive. Plus, all the documents are public record.

Some good alternatives to the courthouse are: (1) a mediated divorce settlement (where a neutral 3rd party helps the husband and wife reach an agreement, but cannot give them legal advice); and (2) the collaborative law approach (where the parties are represented by attorneys who agree upfront to collaborate and settle the case, with no threat of litigation).

Personally, I love the collaborative law approach. It is more expensive than a mediation (but you get legal advice) and LESS expensive than traditional litigation. It can apply to the initial divorce filing, as well as the later problems regarding custody and visitation that may crop up afterwards. Going to court with your ex is by far the most expensive, emotionally draining, and least satisfying solution when there are children involved.

You can learn more about collaborative law and mediation at www.divorcenet.com

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoan

My ex husband used to have supervised visits. Now his visits are unsupervised but we still use the neutral exchange service. It works out ok, there are no problems, but I like what happened in Toni's case. We still have some bad feelings about going to court.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterS.T.

Joan, that is outstanding advice. Custody issues are the most frequent reason Ex-couples *return* to court even years after the decree ink has dried. For all the reasons you named and more, those issues are best decided in mediation, collaborative law, or a third option:

Work It Out Yourselves.

Fact is, as long as both parties agree to compromise--or at least, not to bring the disagreements that arise to the attention of the legal system--the courts are not going to intervene. Effectively, no matter what a custody decree *says*, co-parents can do what they want as long as nobody litigates further.

Which means you avoid all the negative consequences of the court system, all the financial costs of any of the other methods, and (bonus!) you maintain maximum latitude over the co-parenting relationship.

To wit, Toni's situation. Legally, she was not allowed to have full custody—yet in practice if not theory, full custody is what she has. By giving as much kindness, respect, and kid contact to her Ex as she felt she safely could, and by bending over backwards to accommodate her Ex and his (and the kids' needs!) to spend time with the kids wherever it was safe to do so, she built up a reservoir of goodwill and trust with her Ex where she could so easily have created a war zone.

She thereby avoided a financially and emotionally costly court battle over an issue that sends a lot of people back into the legal system. (As you pointed out, S.T., she also avoided some bitterness so common in litigated custody scenarios. And see below for Toni's *Ex's* eventual positive perception of the outcome of their off-the-record boundary negotiation.)

Of course, Toni's way is but one. For those requiring professional assistance, mediation and collaborative law are major avenues many Exes now use to Work It Out Themselves. The website Joan recommended is a further resource. And one I've directed so many towards is the book Joan and I both referenced earlier: "How To Get Divorced Without Ruining Your Life". The book does what it says it will do :).

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hi, all,
I just removed one reader's comments because he asked me to, privately. However, his concerns--that parents of either sex should never remove custody from the other parent, and that mothers consistently abuse the legal system to revoke paternal rights--should still be addressed.

Research conclusively shows that kids need (not just want) two loving parents who get along if the kids are to develop at their best. Based on this body of evidence, courts finally stopped routinely awarding sole custody to mothers, and began routinely awarding custody to both partners. In fact, despite commonly voiced fears that men will be blocked from parenting because of women's spurious claims of abuse, the data indicate the opposite: Courts now award full joint custody to *both* parties as a rule, even when one has been charged with or abuse or even found guilty of abuses.

That might sound really good until you consider other research findings that show that dual custody *helps* kids when both parents are non-abusive; in most divorces, both parents meet that desired standard.

However, this one-size-fits-all approach falls down any time one parent is abusive of either people or substances; then, kids are best-served by living with the non-abusive parent. Abusers who have control of others' lives are bad for the people around them. Period. That most definitely (especially?) applies to their kids.

So onward to my example with Toni and her boundary-setting. That for-instance was not given to advocate for either sex's haphazard or utter removal (formally or informally) of the other parents' rights.

And of course, there should be and is legal recourse available to a parent whose rights are so violated.

Yet because courts usually cannot/will not make a decision to limit dangerous contact until a child is actually harmed, which many of us deem an unacceptable situation, in abusive scenarios parents are in the position of choosing between the law and their child's well-being. Many choose the child's well-being.

Toni's husband could have pursued legal avenues at any time. But he elected not to, because his parental rights were *not* being fully (or even mostly, in his and in Toni's view, as I found in interviews with them over the years) revoked. At my request, she never shared with him her motivation to go to jail rather than permit him to drive the kids or keep them alone with him overnight; she just needed to have that resolve for her own benefit, because it was a price she could easily have had to pay if her Ex had determined to press the legal advantage that was his.

Instead, her Ex became clear about his boundaries, too--and they did not revolve around where the kids spent the night or who drove them places. Essentially, he also gave all *he* could, which was via saying Yes to his Ex's request that she keep the kids overnight and drive them places. Again, did he like it at first? No. But neither did Toni like spending huge amounts of time with her Ex so that the kids would have him in their lives.

*Both people gave up some things. That is how compromise works!*

His non-negotiable boundaries concerned being an active part of his children's lives, and his being welcome any time he wanted to be around them. Toni completely honored those boundaries. They lived with an imperfect arrangement--but one that worked much better for everyone than the one-size-fits-few court-ordered solution.

In the case of Toni et al., the outcome for over a decade, until the children were fully grown, was positive for all concerned. Toni, the kids, and yes, the dad all wound up liking the arrangement. The dad's fear of being kicked out of his kids' lives was neutralized, as was Toni's fear for the kids' safety. And the kids had the joy of growing up with both parents, and parents who got along, at that. Today, the kids enjoy close relationships with *both* parents.

April 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

My mom [took my father away from me]. What a slap in the face....My mom did this to me...

----Your dad never wanted you, so he signed his rights away....
-----He had another baby, you weren't good enough (I have a sister a few month's younger than me, he had an affair and got her pregnant while my mom was pregnant with me)
-----He held a gun to my (mom) head and beat me trying to get rid of you.
-----He wanted me to abort you
-----He never cared for you or he would have found you
-----He doesn't call or send birthday cards cause he never cared to be a part of your life.
-----If you see this man (shows me a picture) run, if he sees you he will steal you and hurt you to get back at me...

I met him when I turned 16.... This man I feared and cried countless nights over was nothing like what my mom told me. He loved me, he tried to find me. He had a broken heart cause he couldn't find me. I did have a sister, a few months from my age, and still that's one question when I ask, still get's avoided from his side. He tells me my mom made that choice to remove me from his life and we disappeared. He sent cards to my grandfather house for me and gifts. (I never got these)

Yeah, from experience, this has cause great HELL in my life. I have had countless anger management therapy. I still have MAJOR anger issues. I still have MAJOR daddy issues.

Today, he is still in my life..... We aren't as close as we should be, but he is there.

(As much as I hate my X, My daughter loves him, and I know and encourage it. She sees him every chance he wants to, unfortunately she is not his top priority. I let him show his colors to her. I never want to be blamed for his actions. I send him all her school schedules, softball schedules and whatever...He chooses how much he wants to be apart of her life. It breaks my heart when I have to wipe her tears because of him, but I tell you what no one understands those tears like I do...and I pray that his stupidity and selfishness doesn't hurt her like mine did me....)

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMisty R

Misty, Things did start to improve when my x and I studied this trauma together. I salvaged 3 out of 4 of my children. The battle continues today, but the rewards have proven to be far more valuable than every sacrifice I endured. She actually reads some of the ingredients on food labels,(aspartame, msg soy etc…) she uses seat belts, and for the first time in her life ever, she actually listens to a tiny bit of my financial advice, she even invested in silver 6 weeks ago with her income tax return, which has now shown a 30 percent increase in under 2 months!!
A place to start however is within, maybe while you inform yourself on this topic, you will find a particularly excellent study you can share with your x. Have your daughter place calls to him regularly. Break him down with kindness. You can’t always get what you want, but you’ll get what you need!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

I owe Dr Welch, all of her contributors, readers and fans, an apology. This topic indeed touched a nerve, a most sensitive nerve in me and I wrongly fired off a comment that should not have been expressed here. I was wrong, and I am very sorry. I have the utmost respect for all of your hard efforts Duana, I will be more sensitive in the future. Please accept my apology.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid
Comments for this entry have been disabled. Additional comments may not be added to this entry at this time.