The Ex Files: How and why to get along with your former mate
Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 10:59AM
Duana C. Welch, Ph.D. in Breakups, Divorce, Parenting, Relationship Building

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, a website offering online resources to divorced, separated, and never-married parents. 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


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


 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.



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

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