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The Coaching Situation

I’m divorced. I'd like the some tips on how to deal with my ex wife. My ex was diagnosed with a personality disorder. We have two wonderful girls. However, co-parenting with her is challenging at best (i.e. she has been telling my 5 year old I’m not her father.. regardless of the fact that I’m on the birth certificate).

I've tried to be very cooperative to a fault. So, now I just wonder, how do I deal with her? Everything's a power game, every word has hidden meanings and she’s usually fighting with me on some level or other. I want to disentangle and not play games with her any longer. I’m not interested in power struggles. I just want to co-parent these children and get on with my life. Any advice??

I asked for more information to write the most helpful coaching response.

1. Who has custody of the children and what are the visitation rights of the other parent? We have joint physical custody. I have them every other weekend (Friday through Monday), and then all summer.

2. Give me a few examples of specific situations you've had difficulties with. There are a lot. She’ll usually punish me when I don't do what she wants me to do. When the kids have teacher conferences, she’ll tell me at 5:30 PM and the kids are scheduled at 6:00 PM that same day. Usually this is after I've made her mad. She expects me to change my life to meet her convenience. If she gets angry when I don’t, she doesn’t send clothes like she’s supposed to.

Not showing up on time to pick-up the kids (almost 2 hours late), saying nasty things in front of the kids to me. I’ll not reply, but it makes me so angry. She hits a cycle of being really angry, she’ll become apologetic, I’ll want to work with her, she’ll suddenly become angry (from some perceived injury - which may or may not be there), then I’m made to "suffer". i.e. not letting me talk to the kids, telling me things when it's much too late.

3. What do your ex spouse's hidden meanings mean to you? I think she cycles. Her sisters once told me. "It is either her way, or the highway." These hidden meanings .. "you dared to divorce me!!" She also hurts from missing the kids. It's like she wants to have a "hold" on me, she tries to hurt me through our children. Also, when the kids go home, I get a break, she has another baby; she goes to school and never gets a break (maybe she resents this).

4. Have you ever been able to diffuse or walk away from a fight that your ex initiated? If so, how do you remember doing it? I remember that when I just refused to talk with her and kept it to "care only" issues, this seemed the most effective. However, she still "gets to me" when she doesn't send along proper clothing (i.e. all t-shirts during the winter and sending one sweater, then I end up buying winter shirts). I become angry and don't know what to do. I really don’t want to fight. Yet I can't afford to keep buying things just to avoid fighting.

5. What's the usual sequence of events in a fight with your ex? Sometimes, I’ll have no idea what’s happened. I’ll call her, and she’ll demand I do this or that. It’s usually after she’s had the kids for a while (hmm, maybe that answers a few things in and of itself .. she has three kids, all under 5). I’ll call and talk with them. She’ll demand I take them with a few hours notice. Then she’ll state that I’m not helping with the kids, and I should just give up custody.

6. How does she play games and how do you get caught up in them? Usually this is the sequence: A. She’ll be okay. I’ll work with her, take the kids, and be helpful far and above custody times. B. We’ll be talking. I’ll want to help with this or that. I’ll be open and honest, be willing to take them outside my time, but when I can't do what she wants. C. She becomes angry and tries to use something against me, I kick myself and think, “why the heck did I do that again??"

7. Which techniques that you've tried haven't worked? Please explain. The above seems to be working, but when she observes that I've taken "the hard line", she softens, I relax, next thing I know, we're back in the cycle, and I’m kicking myself for "talking too much". I’m really trying to co-parent with her .. I hate these fights and having to watch every little thing I say.

8. What patterns of behavior do you have with your ex that you could identify and breakdown into a sequence of steps? We seem to fall into the same sequence as when we were married. This was a usual evening: I drop the kids off at daycare, go to work, pick the kids up, come home, make dinner, bath the kids, play with them for a bit. I’d then get them ready for bed, do some laundry, and talk to Mom on the phone. She would come home and yell at me for not getting the dishes done or vacuuming. In a lot of ways, I see us being trapped in the same cycle even though we’re not married.

9. What's the worst that could happen if you didn't cooperate with your wife? Not much, she’s already tried to take the kids away from me, has told my eldest I’m not her father.. besides saying I’m beating the kids (which I’m not). Other than that, not much. I don't mind going the extra mile for my kids.. it’s just that there are times I just can't do everything my ex wants.

The Coaching Response

When you answered the questions, you laid out your patterns of behavior with your ex very well. To create change, you need to understand what patterns aren’t working so you can change your situation. In your answers, you provided clues as to which new behaviors you need to initiate and maintain.

To make changes without guilt and reverting back to old behaviors, develop a different understanding about your ex. This will allow you to step back from the relationship enough to stop taking things personally, which in turn gives you strength to maintain the changes you need to make.

You pointed out that your ex has a personality disorder, which you understand contributes to her irrational and inconsistent behavior. Yet your behavior suggests that on some level, you expect her to change and behave in an appropriate way to the efforts you make. Because of these expectations, you end up disappointed when she doesn’t respond the way you think she should.

You’re seeing how you keep doing the same thing over and over despite your better judgment, thinking "I know this, so why the heck am I doing this. It doesn’t make sense!" Everyone has patterns of behavior they developed in childhood, which they still have as adults. We generally become aware of them only when we realize they no longer work for us. When the need to change is strong enough, you do something about it.

Remind yourself that your ex-wife has a unique set of struggles, which cause her to behave in a predictable manner. It’s irrelevant what you think about how she acts. Switch your thinking to stop judging her reactions. Remind yourself she is who she is, that she really is doing the best that she can given the set of circumstances she’s in. Her personal challenges get the better of her and her fears, even when imagined, are real to her. See how she makes her decisions through fear. Fear causes people to act in a very defensively, frequently including aggression.

When you see her realistically, you’ll be less inclined to revert back to behaviors that are unhealthy for both of you. You learned the responses that you have with her from your past. Ask yourself: “Where did I learn how to: be afraid of saying no, not put up boundaries, act out of guilt, etc. Do an assessment of your own behavior, without judging it as good or bad. Our patterns are so deeply imbedded that we generally aren’t conscious of them. You're in the process of raising your self-awareness to give yourself the freedom to change. Most people negatively judge themselves, making it more difficult to change. When you release self-judgment and accept who you are, you create the energy and focus you need to change old patterns.

As you learn new behaviors, there'll be times when you fall back into old patterns. When you change a pattern, you're learning a new language of communication and that takes time along with trial and error. People set unreasonable expectations on how change should happen and when they get disappointed, they give up before they give themselves a chance to learn this new language.

Change your behavior with your ex-wife to minimize the reactions your wife has within your relationship. This is different from wanting her to change or act differently, because you can’t change somebody else. You can only work with your ex from within your knowledge of her usual behaviors. If action A causes negative result B, then you must stop doing action A, especially when you already know that action C causes positive result D.

What stops you from taking different action is that you take your ex's reactions personally. She reacts to specific triggers, whether they come from you or from anybody else. Her behavior is a reflection on what’s going on inside of her, her fears, and her own personal patterns. Put signs everywhere that says, “Don’t take it personally” and then remind yourself that she’s having an emotional reaction to a face-less trigger. It has nothing to do with you.

Keep your conversations with her to a minimum. Before you speak to her, make it a habit to act like you're doing a business transaction. As soon as you recognize that you feel reactive, stop and resist judging yourself. Over time, you’ll get better at stopping sooner, until you no longer emotionally react to her. Think of it a personal choice and be conscious about the choices you want to make.

Learn to say no without guilt; it's your worst enemy. It drives you to do things that appear to be good, but harms you in the process. You don't benefit from actions taken out of guilt. You'll learn over time to create healthy boundaries for yourself. If you want to do something, then do it. If you don’t want to do something, not only are you fully entitled to do what you want, you also do not owe an explanation for it.

When you're firm in your beliefs about yourself, what somebody else says has very little meaning. When your ex says something that bothers you, use that moment to discover where you don’t see your own value and where you don’t believe in yourself. Stop defining yourself through other people’s opinions. Teach yourself how high your personal value is so that you stop trying to hear it from your ex. She can’t see past the end of her own nose because of her fears. What she thinks about you has no meaning unless you give it meaning. Choose to believe in yourself.

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