Coping With a Difficult Former Spouse as You Co-Parent

couple having an arguement

By Michele Germain, LCSW

Consider that this co-parenting situation with your former spouse is a spiritual test. The immediate goal is to resolve the current issue, but the ultimate goal is to walk away from any interaction, no matter how unpleasant, with a greater connection to your soul.

Think of the last time you were with your former ex-spouse. What happened? How did you feel? What did you do or say? When we are trying to cope with a stressful event or stressful people, we can go into three modes of unhealthy responses. We can go into flight – withdraw physically or emotionally, we can go into fight mode, attack or defend, or we can freeze, stay put but go physically numb and block out most of what is happening. Now ask yourself: which of these behaviors do you engage in when interacting with your ex-spouse? None of these behaviors will help you or your children. There is a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that states, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Is this you?

woman pointing finger at man

When you are separated and single, you will have increasing pressure to do more and more with fewer resources. You may be doing most of the parenting and only asking for a little help, or not quite adjusted to your new circumstances, emotionally or financially. This may cause you to be volatile and lead you to experience more stress. Now, it is more critical to learn new behaviors and tools. Take charge of yourself so you don’t feel like a rope tied up in a million knots every time you leave an interaction with your former spouse. As you learn more about yourself you will grow and your children will benefit from your healthy modeling behavior. It will take determination and self-control but it will lead to a healthier “you.”

Here are some tools to keep with you and practice when faced with difficult behavior from your former spouse.

Redefine your Relationship in Your Mind

Stop thinking of your relationship as a combat zone. Using the term “the children’s father or mother" is better than referring to them as your “ex.” When possible, disengage in all areas except co-parenting. While interacting with your former spouse, speak slowly during the conversation; this will keep your centered and calm. Know that the pain that your partner is inflicting on you represents the pain he/she feels inside themselves. Remind yourself of this as often as necessary. If you are verbally attacked or become frustrated, do not attack back. Take a deep breath and do not respond for a moment. Then ask if they want to continue at another time.

Be Aware of Your Body and Keep Yourself Centered

Feel your feet on the floor, connect with your breathing and drop your shoulders. As you connect and relax your body, your thoughts will slow down. It is important to always make a request during your conversations, not demands. A request sounds like “would you be willing to ____”, whereas a demand sounds like “you need to ____”. Keep your tone neutral, not hostile, and be brief. Do not say any more than you need to. Keep out any emotional content, such as: "I am so upset you did ___." Here are some phrases to try when solutions to the co-parenting issues are not being resolved during the conversation because of an uncooperative former spouse.

  • Let me make sure I understand what you are saying.

  • What specifically are you asking of me?

  • Let’s try talking this through at another time.

  • I don’t think you understand what I am saying. Let me try again.

  • Could you tell me what you hear me saying?

  • Let me make a few more proposals.

  • I know you want what is best for the children.

  • It was really helpful to the children when you did _____ last week.

When all else fails, it is better to let the person know that you would like to set up another time to work this through.

couple having a fight

You must be willing to see how you are contributing to your own distress. Do this by taking responsibility for yourself, and give up expecting the other to behave differently. If you don’t give up trying to fix them, get them to understand, or validate your hard work, you will continue to feel powerless and a victim of your former spouse’s behavior.

This co-parenting situation is your master teacher. It is forcing you to evolve and delve deeper into your spiritual center. You must be able to release and let go of your pain and reactions to your former partner. If you give it your best, you will master the situation and come out with a greater ability to face any difficult person in your life. Know that you are healing your mind and body, and are finding your soul. That is the gift.

About the Author:

Michele Germain, author of The Jill Principle: A Woman's Guide to Healing Your Spirit after Divorce or Breakup, has a master’s degree in social work from Wayne State University and is licensed as a Clinical Social Worker and Marriage Family Therapist in California. She is a Certified Bioenergetic Analyst, offering an approach that resolves the emotional pain remaining in the body, increasing the individuals well being and capacity for pleasure. She conducts workshops and seminars on a variety of mental health topics and life changing issues. She has appeared on radio, cable television and in print media, and has lectured aboard major cruise lines such as the Pearl and Royal Caribbean. For more information and to sign up for her free newsletter visit