Divorce is excruciating under the best of circumstances. But throw in some substance abuse, narcissistic personality traits or any other unhealthy pattern of behavior and it becomes almost unbearable.
Over this past year as I have navigated the scary territory of co-parenting with a difficult at best, impossible at worst ex, I have learned a few things. It never gets easy because wrapped up in the dysfunction of the current situation is the love that lead us here. It may not ever be easy, but there are ways to make it more tolerable for everyone. Sometimes we nail it. Many times we struggle. But it’s getting better.
No situation is the same and there are many unknown variables in every relationship; but generally, I believe these things can help make a difficult situation slightly more manageable. When I do these things, life is smoother.
1. Remember that love does not and cannot always equal marriage.
I loved my husband, and I believe to the best of his ability, he loved me too. There is still love between us. But as much as I wanted love to be enough, it simply isn’t. Accompanying love, there must be trust, mutual respect, and partnership. There must be shared values and mutual goals. And there must be two people, endlessly committed to each other above themselves.
When there are still feelings of love involved, the water can get muddied and it becomes harder to be sure you’re doing the right thing. But simply loving someone does not mean you can sustain a life together. There’s a reason it didn’t work. Trust it.
2. They’re not your friend.
Over the course of my relationship with my husband, I realized that he was not the friend I hoped he’d be for me. A friend is someone you can confide in and trust with your heart. With your whole self. Although I wanted it to be him, that person for me was not my husband unfortunately.
Nonetheless, after so many years with someone, creating a family and a life; even if the relationship is less than healthy, your spouse is your person. When you go through a divorce, you lose all of that. Not only is your spouse no longer your person, but in many cases they are the exact opposite.
It can be easy, especially with things surrounding your children, to think you can be friends and partners again. Don’t take the bait. While you can and should be friendly to each other whenever possible, your ex should not be your go to person when you need to talk, are feeling lonely, or want some advice. Maybe they were that person before, but it’s time to find a new one (and I don’t mean a new relationship).
3. Don’t use them as a punching bag.
While it’s easy to fall into the friend trap, it’s even easier to fall into the enemy trap. After all, there’s a reason the divorce is happening and most likely, there are some ill feelings. Even if you’ve been able to forgive the past, there may be behaviors happening in the present that make it difficult to treat your ex with dignity and respect.
But they are not yours to punch. It’s not useful, productive or appropriate to use your ex as your own personal stress reliever. While they may deserve whatever hostility you’re holding, it’s not fair, or smart, to unleash on them. (In fact, if you did this before, it may have contributed to where you are now, just sayin’.)
Your main goal is to be as healthy together as you can for your children, if at all possible. In some cases, it’s not possible. But if it is, using each other as personal punching bags is not going to help anyone. So put down your dukes and hit the gym instead.
4. Apologize when necessary.
Inevitably, there will be times where you will take things out on your spouse. Maybe rightfully so. When this happens, simply apologize. It can be very hard to swallow your pride and apologize to the one person who likely has hurt you most in life, and who probably owes you a lot of apologies you’ll never get. But, this is an opportunity to take the high road and be the bigger person. Rise above your circumstances, your stress and your pain, and apologize if you make a mistake. Your children are watching.
5. Keep the conversations strictly about the kids.
As referenced in number 2, you’re really not friends anymore. If you and your ex get along, it can be tempting to talk about other things and enjoy each other’s company if you’re bored or lonely. But is that smart? It’s definitely not in my case. If it is in yours, more power to you, but think before you travel that road. In my experience, it always ends in smoke.
6. Stay focused on reality, not the dream.
This one has been a hard one for me. Because I so desperately wanted to believe my husband could be the man I always wanted him to be, I held onto the dream and chased after it every time he showed signs of it being possible. Inevitably, I am always slapped across the face by reality a few days later. So to avoid that sting, just stay focused on reality. Reality may be painful, but it’s much less painful than the dream whiplash.
7. Always keep the best interest of the kids your priority, whatever that may mean.
Each situation has different details, but the one thing that is the same no matter what, is that what’s best for the children should always take precedence. Put your guns down, your pride away, and your hurt aside and do what’s best for them. But also, fight like hell if need be. Do whatever is best for your babies, even if that means going against what other people think you should be doing.
8. Focus on yourself and what you’re doing, not them and what they’re doing…unless it affects your kids.
With an alcoholic ex, it’s very hard to not get wrapped up in his behaviors. But I have learned that unless he is with my sons or his behavior is directly affecting them, not only is there nothing I can do about it, legally or otherwise; it’s none of my business. He’s no longer mine to worry about. So I have to let go of him and focus on myself. It’s the only way to survive. (It’s haaaard though!)
9. Release your need for total control.
Remember the little ditty “sharing is caring?” It applies here. It’s the hardest thing in the world to share your kids, the most valuable thing you love, with the one person in the world who likely shattered your heart the most. But you might not get any other options. So when your children are with your spouse, release the reigns. You can’t control it anyway, so don’t frustrate yourself by trying. They’ll survive and so will you, and when you get them back, you can do things your way.
10. Don’t allow the edges of your broken heart to stab others, especially your children.
Divorce is painful all around. But don’t allow your hurt, anger and pain to begin affecting the way you treat others, especially your kids. They need you most now. They need you fully present and whole. So do the work on yourself to give that, both to them and yourself. The more you heal, the better you’ll be for everyone.
What has helped you deal with the difficult relationships in your life?