Do you have an ex whose favorite pastime is bad-mouthing you? Take the high road!
Although most divorced people occasionally say something less than kind about their former spouse, some turn ex-bashing into an Olympic event. These are usually high-conflict individuals (HCIs) who defend against the pain of divorce by blaming their ex for everything. HCIs have distorted ways of thinking, and cannot see their part in problems. They need a target, and if you’re their ex, that’s you! Don’t expect them to ever change their behavior, and do develop strategies for deflecting their drama.
Dealing with the bad mouther
- Don’t defend yourself. When someone twists reality to spin outrageous, inflammatory tales about you, it’s natural to want to defend yourself. Resist the urge! You will just give your ex another opportunity to climb onto his or her self-righteous pedestal and tell you 97 more terrible things about yourself. Yes, your ex’s slanderous statements are hurtful, but they are distortions. The next time you’re tempted to defend yourself, repeat this mantra: “What my ex thinks about me is none of my business.”
- Use disarming statements. Politely decline your ex’s invitation to a verbal or email/text bloodbath by using disarming statements: “you may be right;” “I’ll think about that;” “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Your ex is expecting you to get upset. Responding in a calm, non-reactive fashion may seem like you’re “giving in,” but the opposite is true. You’re not agreeing with your ex; you’re taking your power back by ending a fight.
- Don’t match your ex’s intensity. Imagine that your ex is a toddler having a tantrum. What’s the best way to handle that situation? By having your own tantrum? Or remaining calm and setting limits? You don’t have to respond to every hostile text, email, or voice mail. Or, you can choose to respond by stating: “It sounds like you’re upset. I don’t think we’re going to have a productive conversation right now. When you’re done being angry, I’ll be happy to discuss this.” If your ex counters by slinging more barbs, hold your boundaries and don’t respond.
There are some situations where you may need to confront the bad-mouthing: your child’s school staff or doctors have been told you don’t have custody, and other parents are declining playdate invitations because they’ve been told you’re evil. Here are some sane ways to address the crazy.
- Don’t counter-attack your ex. Launching into an emotionally charged, detailed explanation of why your ex is actually the crazy one will confuse people, confirm their misguided notions about you, or make them feel pressured into choosing sides. Don’t do this!
- Present your side of the story calmly and factually. Pretend you’re a reporter; address the bad-mouthing by delivering facts to the contrary. If your ex has told school staff that you’re an unfit parent who lost child custody, show them the custody agreement. Give your contact info to medical staff so they know you exist and are an involved parent. Without going into a lot of details, tell parents of your child’s friends that your ex’s allegations are distorted or untrue and you’re sorry they’re being exposed to drama. Urge people to contact you directly if they have a question or concerns.
- Don’t get emotional. It’s natural to feel angry and upset when people say bad things about us. But if you comer across as volatile or capable of whatever your ex is saying about you, then people may believe what they’ve heard. You can’t control what others think, but you can control your own behaviors.
- Detach. Your ex’s comments and others’ faulty beliefs have nothing to do with your worth. They may not even have much to do with reality. Hitching your self-esteem to other people’s transient opinions will just make you miserable. Focus on being the best person you can be and let go of the need for approval.
Talking To Your Kids
If your children have bought into your ex’s propaganda, you need to address it. Pretending everything is fine is like pretending the elephant in the room isn’t really there. Your ex is attempting to damage your children’s relationship with you, and their ability to think critically. While you cannot stop your ex, you can do things to present your side of the story.
- Acknowledge the bad-mouthing. Name bad-mouthing as a problem but don’t respond with your own bad-mouthing, i.e., “your father’s a nightmare and is out for revenge.” Instead, acknowledge that your ex says bad things about you and focus on the impact on your kids: “What you’ve heard may have scared you, or made you angry.”
- Confront distortions with facts. Contrary to popular divorce wisdom, saying nothing won’t make the problem go away. Your ex is emotionally abusing your children by trying to damage their bond with you. The antidote to gas-lighting is presenting facts. For instance: “I arrived for visitation, but you weren’t there. I texted and called your mother, but she didn’t respond. If there’s an emergency and I’m not able to see you, I will always let you know and tell you when the next visit will be.”
- Teach your children self-agency. Your ex is trying to control what your kids think, so give them permission to think for themselves. Tell them to talk to you directly if they have concerns about you. Don’t pressure them to believe your side of the story; instead, let them know they have a right to their own feelings and opinions. Not only are you teaching your kids how to think independently, but you are also showing them that you’re safe to talk to.
Remember: what your ex says is a reflection of them, not you. You can choose not to take it personally. The best way to respond to bad-mouthing is to behave in ways that make you feel good about yourself.
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