Co-Parenting with a High Conflict Ex

by Kim Johnson

After going through a divorce, most people want to have little or no contact with their ex-spouse. However, when children are part of the package, there is no way to avoid interaction. This is especially true if the children are young.

In a perfect world, you and your ex would be able to put your differences aside and establish custody arrangements that would work for both of you. Co-parenting is a great opportunity for children to spend time with both parents and feel loved. Unfortunately, many divorces create bitter feelings and resentment which makes it nearly impossible to peacefully work together. Under those circumstances, co-parenting becomes problematic, stressful and even destructive.

Co-Parenting Conflict

Parenting conflict, which can often lead to parental alienation, is defined as any action, deed or word that creates anxiety for a child, places them in the middle or even forces a child to choose between their parents. Many believe this only happens in extreme situations. In reality however, things like the tone of one’s voice, sarcasm, eye-rolling, gaslighting or having communication attempts ignored are still considered contentious. 

The more obvious and intense actions that occur are things like verbal aggression, aggressive body language, domestic violence or threats of violence. These and the following behaviors can signal your ex is high-conflict.

  • Very black and white in their thought process
  • Creates an extreme in every situation
  • Is unwilling to compromise
  • Never accepts responsibility for their behavior
  • Continually blames you and points fingers
  • Wants control over everything
  • Frequently criticizes you in front of your kids
  • Always argumentative

Even though you desire to be a reasonable parent and do want is best for your kids, co-parenting with a dysfunctional person will be difficult and draining. You will never be able to change your ex into something they are not. However, you can change how you navigate this negative and toxic situation.

Tips for Dealing with a High-Conflict Ex

Coping with an ex who thrives on conflict, has a difficult personality or even a personality disorder will feel like you are walking on a tightrope, never knowing when the wind will knock you off. The following tips can help you be prepared to lessen the stress for your children.

  1. Remember, the kids come first. No matter what your co-parenting ex says or does, the needs of your children are more important than winning a battle or being right. Work to focus on the impact any conversation or communication will have on them. Don’t argue in front of them. Be an example by learning and using good problem-solving skills. Co-parenting is in the best interest of your children so keep that in mind when the journey becomes overwhelming and stressful.
  1. Have a highly functioning parenting plan. For custody purposes, work with your attorney to structure an exceptionally specific plan. This should include exact details about schedules, holidays, vacations, etc. Once you have this in place and agreed upon, it can help minimize conflict because the details are in writing. Of course, one thing a high-conflict ex dislikes the most is having no control. So, expect there will be times when compromise may be necessary.
  1. Make sure you and your kids feel safe. Aggressive or threatening behavior is not acceptable, so don’t tolerate it. If a dispute with the other parent escalates to a point where you become fearful, trying to resolve the issue on your own could be dangerous. Contact your attorney or even the police if a situation gets out of control. A restraining or protective order may be necessary.
  1. Maintain a good communication protocol. Any co-parenting communication should be focused on information and logistics only.  These are things like doctor appointments, holiday plans, school functions, vacations, or family time.  Your opinions and feelings can be left at the door. If your co-parent insults you or issues threats, don’t take the bait. Above all else resist the urge to participate in email volleyball.  Stick to the facts and don’t try to defend yourself. This will only invite more attacks. Work to learn to disengage from volatile conversations. If all else fails, check into utilizing co-parenting apps. 
  1. Set firm boundaries. High conflict personality types can’t stand encountering a boundary and will try to break it down immediately. Thus, you will need to be extra vigilant about yours. There’s no rule that says you have to be available via email 24/7, or allow your ex into your home. You don’t have to tailor your house rules to appease them. Setting boundaries are not to control what you ex does. These limits are a way for you to control what you say and do. For example, set a boundary that you will not respond to your ex after 9 p.m. This is something you can control.
  1. Help your kids learn good relationship skills.  A high-conflict ex will try to incorporate your children into their chaos by using them as messengers. Keep them out of the middle by redirecting the communication back to your ex. Also, allow your kids to come to you directly with any problems. Your example of maturely addressing issues will help them learn responsible relationship skills.
  1. Practice self-care. Working with a high-conflict ex-spouse will be emotionally and physically draining. Get enough sleep, eat properly, exercise and stay current with medical and dental care.  You will be better able to cope with your ex when you are in good mental and physical health. Your kids will appreciate it as well, as it will make them feel safe to see you take care of yourself.
  1. Put yourself on a divorce curfew. Thoughts of your ex and the situation you have to deal with can end up consuming every second you are awake. Giving yourself a deadline to do nothing related to your divorce or your ex will help your mental health. Don’t answer emails, read divorce books or even vent to your friends after a set time or a set day. Use this curfew to shift your focus back to something positive and relaxing. This will give your nervous system a break and help you get a good night’s sleep.
  1. Be willing to accept help. There may be times when you could use the help of a family counselor or mental health professional. This can be a positive way to keep your life on track. Also seek support from your family and circle of friends but don’t burden them all the time.
  1. Work to remain positive. Co-parenting with a difficult ex will most likely be one of the toughest things you do. Focusing on the positive and keeping your children’s overall welfare in mind can help. Accepting that your ex will likely never change will enable you to concentrate on things you can control as you move forward on this journey.

Don’t Give Up

Co-parenting can be an emotionally overwhelming journey for you and your kids. And a high-conflict ex can create havoc and chaos in your post-divorce world. From time to time, take an honest look at the impact of your ex’s behaviors. Consider how the dynamics of this relationship is impacting you and even your children. If the situation escalates beyond your control, don’t be afraid to take further legal action or explore the possibility of parallel parenting. The goal is that both parents remain active and engaged in the children’s lives while keeping communication between you at a minimum. It will be work but worth the effort.