Does your ex badmouth you to your kids?
As a child of divorce, I know hearing one parent badmouth the other parent hurts. As an adult, I went through a high conflict divorce, and developed a greater respect for my mother. She worked hard to ensure that my sister and I were not embroiled in my parent’s tenuous co-parenting relationship.
Like my mother, I work to keep my children out of divorce adult-related conversations. Unfortunately, my ex doesn’t meet me halfway, and despite my best efforts, my children sometimes feel conflicted about their loyalties.
If you’re in a similar situation, you might wonder what you can do if your ex attacks your character? Even worse, what if he or she puts your kids in the middle?
Should I Defend Myself?
Don’t make this about you, your feelings, or your ex. Don’t bring your kids into the fight and resist the urge to retaliate. You can’t win that war. At the very least, you look bad to your kids and it sets a bad example. At worst, you’re proving his or her point. Act with integrity. Trust that your children will see your actions and emulate those.
Should I Confront My Ex?
This depends on your circumstances. In some cases, the parent casting aspersions may not be aware of their behavior. If so, it may be best to enlist a neutral third party like a counselor, divorce coach or mediator. If you have an otherwise reasonable relationship with your ex, you might do this in the context of family counseling.
If like mine, your co-parenting relationship is high conflict, the best strategy may be to not respond. Getting your back up may only feed the fire. Your ex may give up because if their provocation is not achieving the desired response.
If the behavior moves to potential parental alienation, look at your divorce or custody order. Many decrees have a no disparagement clause with respect to child custody. If your ex is failing to abide by that clause, they could in contempt of court. Obtain legal advice, either from your attorney or consult a divorce coach or mediator. Perhaps custody needs to be revisited. This would mean additional cost, tension, and conflict. It should only be used as a last resort.
What Should I Do for My Kids?
Accept that you cannot change your ex. If you could, you’d still be married. Acceptance is the first step towards moving on. If your ex is constantly disparaging you, they’re holding themselves back. Don’t let them hold you back too.
Stay neutral. Resist the temptation to respond or belittle in return. Validate your children’s feelings about your ex’s behavior. Allow them a safe space to explore those feelings without comment or judgement. You might say something neutral like, “It sounds like Mom is having a lot of feelings about this. This is hard for all of us, but it will get easier.” Or, “Dad sounds stressed, I’m sorry to hear that, but we are all going to be OK.”
Consider counseling. You may need permission from your ex or the court, but sending your child to a good therapist or attending family therapy may help. Your child gets the opportunity to vent and come to terms with the other parent’s behavior as well as the courage to let the other parent know how they feel. Much repair can come from this. And, remember, in counseling, the client is your child. The therapist is the child’s advocate, not yours.
Always act in your child’s best interests. It may be best to let it go. However, if you feel your ex’s behavior could be defined as parental alienation, don’t wait. If your child begins to outright reject you, discuss this with a family therapist and, if necessary, talk to a family law attorney.
Above all else, act with integrity. Maintain high standards and don’t jump into the mud pit. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
As both a daughter of divorce and a divorced mother, I know how much damage a high conflict divorce can inflict. Your children don’t need to hear your opinions about your ex. Whether you’re hurting or not, there is a difference between honesty and integrity. Do not engage. Teach your children that sometimes it’s best to turn the other cheek. Hopefully, eventually, your ex will come to terms with your new relationship and move on in a respectful and constructive way. Until then, protect your children while keeping your morals in tact.
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