How To Co-Parent With An Extremely Difficult, Angry Ex Without Fighting

They say people can’t drive you crazy unless you give them the keys. What if the keys are your kids?

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Once upon a time I found myself in line at the local pharmacy, my eyes wandering to the “inspirational” books lined up casually alongside the impulse items by the cash register.

One in particular caught my eye with its happy-go-lucky cartoon cover declaring: “People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys.

While this does sound oh-so-wise, I am afraid that I must call total bull.


Because when you are co-parenting with an extremely difficult ex, the keys are your children, leaving you no choice other than to hand your keys over to the person who drives you most crazy somewhere in the vicinity of 50% of every single week.

What can be more crazy-making than anything else, in fact, is being told repeatedly by well-meaning friends, family, and new significant others things like this:

“You need to stop letting her get to you.”

“Why do you still give him so much power?”

“Nothing anyone else says would matter if you learned to trust yourself.”

It is pretty damn difficult not to let it get to you when your ex tells you — again — that you are the reason your children caught the flu during their time with you last week. It is hard not to give your ex power when he threatens to take you back to court if you don’t follow his parenting orders. And it is impossible not to care what someone says about you when they say it directly to your children, no matter how strong you are.


So, no, I am not going to tell you it's easy to hold onto the keys to your sanity when you have a difficult co-parenting relationship.

What I am going to do is offer you 7 strategies to keep tucked in a bedside drawer, saved on your phone, or stored in another readily accessible place for you to call on in moments when your sanity feels challenged.

1. Memorize this phrase: “It’s not about me.”


More often than not, when your ex calls you a name, accuses you of poor parenting, or puts you down in any other manner, that negative behavior is coming from something going on inside of their own psyche that has nothing at all to do with you.

2. Recognize that your ex’s behavior is NOT surprising.

I hear this phrase from divorcing clients all the time — “I can’t believe that he/she….!”

Let’s be honest. You chose to divorce this person because the two of you didn't treat each other the way either or both of you want to be treated. The behavior displayed by your ex is highly unlikely not to be behavior he or she displayed during your marriage, even if it was directed more often towards someone else, or if it was managed in a slightly better way.

When you hear yourself begin a thought or sentence about your ex with “I can’t believe,” take a moment to ask yourself, “Wait, can I believe it?” When you remove the shock and awe factor that you have imposed on yourself, you reduce the overall impact of their words or actions quite powerfully.


3. Take your time before responding to your ex’s attempts to egg you on.

We live in a world in which even the most casual conversations seem to require immediate response, simply because technology offers us so many ways to respond quickly if we want or need to. When a conversation involves your children, this false perception of urgency invades our dialog even more.

Unless your child has fallen ill or been involved in a crisis of some kind (poopoopoo!), chances are far greater than not that your response is not required instantaneously. Take a moment (or several) to calm yourself and your thoughts so that you can determine for yourself: a) what is the true question at hand, b) how do you really want to respond, and c) how should you really respond.

4. Find the keys to your calm. 


Just as everyone’s keys to their crazy take on a different shape, so do the keys to our calm.

For some it is meditation, for others humor. Some need to exercise, smash a punching bag, go for a long walk, or binge on reality TV. For me,  a little time browsing humor memes on Pinterest help me smile and recenter. There is also a terrific app called iChill that walks you through brief audio and written grounding exercises. And coloring books for adults have been all the rage for excellent reason.

5. Remind yourself that it’s a disagreement, not a custody battle.

An unfortunate reality for many co-parents is a continued threat of impending litigation. Even though 95% of all cases are settled outside of a courtroom, there is a seductive quality about the ability to wield the threat of taking the other parent “back to court” that some people just cannot resist.

I dare anyone to stand at the receiving end of such a statement without  feeling a sinking fear unlike any other.


That said, the vast majority of the time these threats are empty ones. If your divorce is final and your custody arrangement established, the best thing you can do when faced with these words is to walk through strategies 1-4 above and respond to the issue at hand in the manner you feel best serves your children’s needs.

6. No matter what your ex says to you or about you, he or she cannot control reality.

Let’s say you reminded yourself not to be surprised, noted that what was said isn’t really about you, and you’ve paused, meditated, colored, pinned and more — but the bigger problem at hand is that your ex seems to be “documenting” untrue negative situations and actions caused by you.

What is making you crazy isn't your ex’s words, but your fear that someone else such as a child protective services worker, a teacher, a judge, or even your child, will choose to believe your ex’s fabrications.


You can't stop your ex from doing what they will do now that you are divorced any more than you could when you were married.

Rather than let yourself dwell on worries of what others may be believe, remind yourself that the facts are the facts. Make brief notes somewhere safe for yourself as to the truth as you know it, and keep moving on.

Talk to your children with honest respect about how people perceive things differently, and teach them lessons about believing their own truth. It is amazing how readily the truth becomes apparent to others when you simply live your own life without allowing fear or shame to keep you quiet according to the will of others.

7. Remember that this behavior is the reason you divorced in the first place—and congratulate yourself for having made it this far.