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Your suggested rules of engagement/damage limitation tips, please, for dealing with DP's difficult ex-wife

(19 Posts)
Raptor Fri 31-Aug-12 12:28:57

DP and I have just about had it with his ex-wife. We spend more time and emotional energy feeling lousy from the fall-out of interactions with her, or discussing how to deal with her next, than we do on pretty much anything else in life.

I'm no amateur psychologist, and of course we can't and shouldn't diagnose her with anything, but the closest we've ever got to understanding her behaviour is realising how far along the narcissistic spectrum it sits. It's all about her, and her woes and dramas, and her needing to be the centre of attention. She is very volatile, passive-aggressive, and treats their three children very differently (she has a favourite and a scapegoat who can't do anything right). She screams and shouts and swears at DP down the phone, or in person, and then will suddenly be disarmingly sweet during the next interaction, which catches us completely on the back foot.

DP's and my paths didn't cross much yesterday. I took DS out in the evening, and then after I'd got him settled to bed, I found DP tucked up in bed himself, crying in the dark. sad He's generally a tough guy, although has got some other stresses going on his life at the moment. Still, it was his interaction with his ex-wife that had upset him so much yesterday. He had taken the children back to her, and explained to their mum that his eldest - who she allows to cycle out on his own, including crossing a 30mph road with poor visibility - seemed to need more supervision when cycling/crossing the road. We'd taken him out cycling earlier this week, and several times, he didn't look or listen and nearly got himself run over. DP is obviously concerned, then, about him going out cycling on his own. He reasonably tried to explain this to his ex-wife, and she just shouted at him to f*ck off, in front of the children. This (a) was disrespectful to DP, (b) suggested she didn't care about their DS's safety, and (c) modelled yet more unacceptable behaviour in front of the children, which we inevitably have to deal with when they come here.

This wasn't an unusual interaction. So many dealings with her leave DP feeling depleted, and he feels as though even though they're no longer together, she still has such a grip on him and his life, and in turn our life together.

So we've been thinking about toughening up, and setting out some clear rules of engagement for moving forward, and sticking to these - with a view to keeping her at arm's length, while still interacting with her as needed regarding the children.

So, DP is thinking about emailing her, setting out in writing that:

> He will no longer use the phone (and will therefore no longer take her calls) to discuss the children, except in rare (i.e. medical) emergencies;

> All future communication regarding the children will take place via text/email;

> If she wants to speak to the children while they're with us, she will need to text first and then the children will call her;

> She is not welcome in our house during drop-offs/pick-ups (on account of her overstepping boundaries when at our house);

> He will no longer come to the door at her house, dropping the children at the end of the path and departing as soon as she comes to the door.

We both appreciate that being able to have a reasonable, adult conversation as co-parents is the ideal, and DP would love to be able to do this. But being reasonable is a two-way street, and she is so unreasonable and childish, and exhaustingly volatile, so there's just no hope. So is our idea (above) fair? It's ruthless, and seems harsh and drastic (we'd both instinctively rather be nice, but it isn't getting us anywhere!), but if we don't change the way we interact with her, we will simply remain at the mercy of her outbursts and manipulation. Doesn't she need to experience the natural consequences of her behaviour towards us?

Anyone else got their own particular rules for dealing fairly with a difficult ex relationship like this when there are children involved?

Thanks so much.

NotaDisneyMum Fri 31-Aug-12 15:09:13

raptor without wanting to appear to be attacking you, because I know how exhausting an unreasonable ex can be - what was your DP thinking, by challenging his exW on the doorstep, in front of the DC's, given their history?

Oh, it's easy to say that he was so reasonable, he only wanted to talk it was for the good of the DC's and she was out of line, but really? Given her previous behaviour, why, oh why, did he choose to antagonise her like that? Even in co-operative shared parting arrangements, the advice is not to discuss issues in front of the DC's - when it is hostile, it is inevitable that the DC's will get caught in the crossfire, and your DP could have prevented that.

He has two choices - he can choose to modify his behaviour because she is not reasonable, or he can continue to behave the way he would with a reasonable ex, and expose the DC's to further distressing scenes.

There is no need to set out "rules of engagement" to her - just do it. Transfer to email to discuss issues relating to the DC's, refuse to continue phone conversations in which she is abusive, don't go to her doorstep when dropping off the DC's and install caller ID and encourage the DC's to answer the calls she make to your home themselves, and the problem is solved.

If your DP chooses to email her telling her what behaviour he will and won't accept from her in the future, then he is trying to control her in exactly the same way as she is trying to control him.

As for the issue raised on the doorstep - if your DP has a serious concern about his DC's safety, then he should raise it with relevant authorities, otherwise, it's tough - when the DC's are with him, he chooses how to supervise them, and the same when they are with their mum, no matter what he may think about her parenting skills.

He can try and carry on co-parenting despite his ex's clear rejection of this approach - but it will make things much worse for the DC's. Is that what he wants?

If you want tosee what professionals advise in this situation - buy a copy of "Putting Children First" by Karen and Nick Woodall. This is an excellent manual for high-conflict separated parents; but you have to take the high ground and not try and point score by doing things that you know will antagonise under the guise of being "reasonable".

ladydeedy Fri 31-Aug-12 17:37:21

Raptor, I completely sympathise with you and your DP - what a truly awful situation and it's one that I am very familiar with myself. Luckily I have the benefit of hindsight now but I understand entirely how this is so draining on you and your DP.

What I would suggest is for you both to take a step back from his EXW. If she is overstepping boundaries when coming to your house try to ensure that she physically cannot.

Just start putting things in email and not talking over the phone and aim for this to become the norm without actually saying that these are the terms in which you plan to communicate.

She sounds very much like my DH's ex - it's all about causing a drama. She thrives on it. The way we dealt with it was simply try and minimise the opportunity she has to create a drama. So this means, everything in email and keep it all extremely factual and as short as can be. Drop offs were literally letting them out of the car and having no interaction with her on doorsteps. Also, if she just sends ranting emails that are not actually about a specific action that is required, we just ignore them.

Gradually (and it is gradual!) communication has become more simple, and fact-based because the only way we communicate with her is rationally and in writing (be that email or text).

AhoySailor Fri 31-Aug-12 18:41:18

Raptor this behaviour from your DP's ex-wife, sounds remarkably similar to what me and my DP have been through with his ex-wife (we occasionally still have to deal with her behaviour even now, but it has certainly decreased over the years)

My DP mainly communicates with her through text message now (hardly ever face-to-face or over the phone). He used to get into 'text wars' with her (she would text something vile or nasty to him, he would text back trying to defend himself, she would text back with another onslaught of abuse or in reply to what he had said in his text ... and so it continued for several hours and many many text messages later), but I told him to not respond to her, ignore her texts and eventually after several 'ranting' text messages, she gave up.

She will try every now and again to start up 'text wars' again, but DP just ignores her texts (switches the phone off sometimes) and she just gives up quite quickly these days ... I think she has even realised there is no point her continuing with her texts as they are never responded to nowadays.

DP also never goes to her door anymore (due to him being attacked by his ex-wife last year when he was returning their son ... an unprompted attack ... she just threw herself at him for no reason, and started hitting him). My DP just toots his car horn when he comes to collect his son, and when he returns him he stands at the gate while his son goes to the door (DP waits until his son is inside the house before leaving).

If I were you, I wouldn't email her with a list of 'rules', I wouldn't contact her at all ... just decide between you and your partner what you hope to achieve (even pin the rules to the fridge if you want), but don't actually try to contact his ex-wife or try to enforce anything upon her ... your lives will be made worse if you do that (she would do everything in her power to upset you both).

There is many a time my DP has been upset by the way his ex-wife speaks to him or how she is raising their child, but unfortunately there is not a lot he can do about it. We just have to be consistant in what we try to do with his son when we have him.

Keep calm, keep smiling ... give your DP a big hug and just get on with your lives

smile

AmberLeaf Sat 01-Sep-12 01:55:45

Yes to everything Notadisneymum said.

It was unwise of your DP to address the issue on the doorstep

Also what did he hope to achieve by speaking to her about it anyway?

Why doesnt he arrange some cycling proficiency classes for his son?

DONT send that email either. its very hostile and IMO would only make things worse.

ladydeedy Mon 03-Sep-12 16:03:04

Goodness you are getting some harsh words on here but I think in general we're saying, you'll have the outcome you want ideally but do it by stealth, rather than actually telling her. I agree with Ahoysailor. Just figure out what works for you and DP and then engineer it.
I wish you success and hope you and your DP get the outcome you desire. Best wishes

notsonambysm Mon 03-Sep-12 16:13:20

I agree with all that is said. The email would get the desired result from a reasonable person (although if she were reasonable it wouldn't need to be sent) but as she is not, all it will do is antagonise. Stealth is the best way. And yes, cycling proficiency is a good idea.

OhChristFENTON Mon 03-Sep-12 16:18:48

I absolutely agree with NADM. The way you have described the ex could be a description of my DH's ex, and I have learnt that when someone is unreasonable there is no point in reasoning with them, - sorry OP but he walked straight into it.

Emails are a great way to communicate I think, it can be a quick and casual 'oh, it's 7pm pick up this weekend remember', or a more lengthy detailed message when it needs to be - and it's all logged, sending and receiving and dates and times etc.

You have my sympathy though, in fact DH's ex continues to be an utter bitch to this day (13 years down the line) and still, in fact just last night, rolls out the "if you really want me to play nasty, you know I will" in other words "I'm scared I might be losing control of the situation so I'll put the shit up you instead"

quietlysuggests Mon 03-Sep-12 16:19:11

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

ladydeedy Mon 03-Sep-12 16:53:33

OhChristFENTON talks a lot of sense. We have a great example of how this worked for us. In principle DH's said she wanted an every other weekend access 6pm Friday to 6pm Sunday with no deviation allowed and she would "let us know" when we could have them during the holidays.

We plan in advance a lot and could arrange social things on weekends when kids were with us, and then for us when we knew we would have weekends to ourselves. However, ex would then change dates around with no notice and no consultation. She would also not confirm holidays dates even though we asked her months in advance and needed to book flights etc. She just wouldnt accept that it was a problem and she basically said I'll do what I want when I want, including changes plans at last minute.

So after lots of frustration DH just decided one day there was no set every other weekend arrangement nor would we book any holidays involving children. He didnt tell her, we just decided it together. We told the boys that we'd still be seeing them regularly, it just wouldnt necessarily be on an every other weekend basis, but more flexible.

Ex went mental as she "needed to know exactly when she would get a break", but couldnt see how frustrating it was for DH previously, to not know when she was going to "allow" him to see the children. So eventually each week she ended up having to ASK him if he could have the children and then actually DEMANDED that he take them on holiday so she could have a break - lol!!!

Good luck. These things will work out.

littlelamby Sat 08-Sep-12 09:59:21

Just wanted to offer some sympathy, going through the same things at the moment.

It is so difficult, as my usual reaction to someone disagreeing with me would be to have a reasoned argument, where we both listen to each side and reach some sort of compromise or polite disagreement. It's also my usual reaction to want to do the best thing for the children, which sometimes would involve talking to DP's ExP about what she's doing. But I've learnt that sometimes, these things just aren't worth it. Focus on the basics - for us, that's seeing the children regularly and reliably. Until we can get that sorted, you can't discuss the details as they will just be distractions and cause further arguments. Unless you have serious concerns for their safety (and fully sympathise with your partner's concerns Raptor) then maybe it's best to be quiet... she is their mother, and while they're with her, she's in charge. And as much as I sometimes wish that wasn't the case, it is, so I just have to deal with it!

Good luck. There's no easy answer - the best thing is to get it all into a shape and place where you have the energy to deal with it, and not have it impact too badly on your day to day life. That will put you in the best position to be there for the children.

OhchristFENTON - you sum it up perfectly! It's all about control, and her unwillingness to accept that DP is the DSC's father and is just as much a parent as she is!

Harbles Sat 08-Sep-12 17:37:39

Can I ask your opinions about some things that worry me with the disengagement that's being talked about?

My DPs exwife tells lies during her text rants and tries to reinvent what happened during their breakup over 3 years ago, painting herself in an increasingly better light with each one. This has been happening more often recently and I'm starting to worry a great deal about what to do about it - if anything. Mainly because I think she takes his refusal to engage and perpetuate the situation as confirmation that he agrees with the lies. (She has said things like "I told you this in May last year and you didn't say no to me"). I have a nasty suspicion that this has to do with thinking she might get more money in a financial settlement (does anyone think that could be true?) but also she then uses these things to try to involve others in sides - hers or his.

We have recently been trying to distance ourselves from her to try and reduce the pressure (so less contact on doorsteps - my DP has still been having to see her consistently - and less phone) but she has resisted every attempt, telling my DP he is a bad father in front of my DSD and shouting all sorts. I worry a lot about this because I can't see any reason for the upset apart from the fact that she is having this source of conflict and on-going drama removed and I'm scared by this level of not wanting to let go.

Raptor - I'm sorry to be hijacking your message but I think there are similarities behind some of the things you see. I also think a message to my DPs ex about reducing contact with her first might have induced an incandescent rage so I would be really careful about that.

Alurkatsoftplay Sat 08-Sep-12 18:16:22

Lots of sympathy to you and your partner, op, and also harbles.
I think the advice given here about disengaging and distancing is spot on. If you don't, there will be years and years of drama ahead. The ex clearly relishes the control and the conflict and the only way through it is to be there for kids and as little as possible to do with her. You can never win this one.
Dss is 21, and DH and ex split when DS was 1, no others involved, but ex still tries to provoke and create scenes where there is none. Dh stays mute and concentrate on DSS. It's not great but it's better than responding.

RoadrunnerMeepMeep Sat 08-Sep-12 19:51:14

Don't have many suggestions but seems like a lot of peoples dp's have ex's like my dp does who gets off on any kind of confrontation or drama. In the past my dp has written letters to his ex regarding the dsc's wellbeing and and things he is unhappy about that happen at their mother's house (like them not having a bath all week etc) and she just text him saying "that letter was all shit, you must have been really bored to sit and write that." if you write an email to her telling her your terms she'll make out that it's you being difficult not her.

Raptor Sat 08-Sep-12 23:07:08

Thank you all for posting your thoughts. It really helps to know others understand and can empathise with this situation/dynamic because, in real life, we feel pretty isolated.

Some very good points raised - in particular to stop trying to be reasonable with someone unreasonable. And you're all absolutely right: to spell out how DP will and won't be communicating is like waving a red rag to a bull. I think we feel in fight-or-flight mode a lot, with respect to our interactions with her ... and I must have been more in fight mode when I first posted!

We're feeling pretty much at the end of our tether; almost constantly wound up by interactions with her and feeling controlled by her. DP has had a good week in terms of disengaging - not going to the doorstep, not taking (most of) her calls, etc. But she seems to just up the ante. Last night we bundled all the children into the bedrooms and bathrooms and locked the front and back doors because she'd sent a text saying she would come and pick up one of the children as she'd arranged with said child, even though it's DP's weekend with the children and she hadn't arranged this with him (and she's inclined to let herself in). This is her ensuring her favoured child can be with her whenever he/she wants - and yet insisting the eldest be with her on her weekends, even if he doesn't want to be and is crying his heart out pleading to be with his dad. She's calling the shots with contact and changing the rules to suit her. It's very frustrating and draining for DP, we don't know where we're at in terms of which children will be here and when, and we feel so controlled.

She called yesterday, and one of the children picked up the phone. She then asked them to pass her to Dad, and then began working herself into a rant. So, in the spirit of disengaging, DP said a brief right-got-to-go kind of line and hung up - and then came the guilt-tripping texts about DP being childish to hang up, teaching the children to disrespect her, not taking his role as a co-parent responsibly (she says they HAVE to talk - but it never achieves anything positive!). It feels like there's no let-up. And it's exhausting and I feel utterly fed up, TBH. Both DP and I are really pretty grumpy at the moment, because of this and other stressors, and it isn't sustainable.

While I was out today with DS and eldest DSS, DP's ex did come down to collect her favourite, and came into the house - which, given all the bloody grief she causes us, feels like a violation to me (it's my house).

Today (this week?!), I've got that is-it-worth-all-the-agro feeling; when you're wondering if there is a net gain from the relationship/household set-up. sad

Anyway, I've been ranting even more really, haven't I?! Sorry. But thank you all for posting. I feel better for feeling understood by others who just get it, and I/we are taking your advice on board - we're trying to quietly detach - even if it's too soon to see a difference yet.

And huge sympathies to others who are dealing with unreasonable, controlling, drama-hungry exes; I really do feel for you.

NotaDisneyMum Sun 09-Sep-12 09:11:44

It is exhausting - and when you finally put some boundaries in place, it will get worse before it gets better sad

Just like when you put boundaries in place for previously free-range toddlers, teens or even puppies, she will increase her efforts to get what she wants because it had always worked in the past. Stay firm and the message will get through - but to give you some idea, it took over 2 years for DPs ex to get the message!

The lack of boundaries regarding your home is one that must be addressed straight away - if your ex cannot stand up for himself to prevent her coming in, then the arrangements need to change so that she doesn't have a need to come to the house at all.
If/when she does with no reason, you can then pursue formal action to prevent it - a lot of separated couples have restraining orders or similar to prevent harassing behaviour.

Ignore texts, emails, abusive calls - don't take the phone from the DCs if she asks to speak to your DP, just tell the DC that you're busy right now and will email later.
My ex still sends me diatribes about how sad and disappointed he is with me each time I dare to disagree with him - it used to piss me off but after so long it's just tedious and funny in a sad kind of way wink

Is there a CO in place? Might be something worth thinking about - or returning to court enforce it if she continually breaches.

littlelamby Sun 09-Sep-12 18:00:24

Oh Raptor, I've been there - a couple of months ago I could have written that post.

Keep on with the detatching, it is the best thing. Focus on what's important - your DP being able to be a good father, who reliable and regularly sees his children. Ignore all the drama - let her have it. Step away from it, and feel pity for this woman who is carrying so much anger and hatred around with her. Most of all, don't automatically believe what she says or let it get to you (SO much easier said than done - when she started saying DSSs didn't like me it shook me to the core, then I was with them and saw our relationship was as a good as ever. I then thought about what she's said and realised if you replace 'DSSs' with 'ExP' it made sense...). She's an unhappy woman, who wants someone to blame and hurt for her situation. There's a very easy way she could make herself happy - disengage, have the minimum contact necessary with DP and focus on having her own life, with her children and not worry about what her ex gets up to, so long as the children are safe. She chooses not to do that, you don't make her. Don't worry about what she gets up, let her parent her way and you parent your way. As long as you and DP are happy that you're doing things for the right reasons, and are doing the best thing for the children, the stick with it, and don't let her give you doubt. And if that means engaging with her less, and doing your own thing - go for it. As much as sharing things/co-operating would be lovely, if both sides don't stick to it, it's easier for everyone to just not go there for the moment.

I also sympathise with you and DP finding it stressful and being grumpy. We had the same thing, and found a few ground rules helped. The first one was that we never spoke about her in the morning before going to work, unless strictly necessary. That saved morning arguments/upset! Secondly, I had to learn to stop asking questions sometimes - as much as I wanted to know how the latest text argument was progressing, just taking a deep breath and thinking 'do I really need to know?!' often felt better, and DP would tell me in his own time. I also took to offloading on all our parents to save DP my upset when he was feeling really low. We also make sure that on the days when everything is terrible and we've had loads of hassle from ExP and it's taken up the whole evening, that we find at least half an hour to do something that means we don't talk/think about it - even if that's just watch a tv prog and then have a quick chat about it. So your relationship is still about something other than fighting this battle! Oh and final tip - I have also taken up sewing, and do that as something to take my mind of - and planning new projects gives me something to think about in the wee small hours when ExP is plaguing my brain!

Long post as always - not good at being succinct. I've had to spend so much time thinking and talking about all this, I have so much to share and talk about it, and it really does help to find people going through the same thing. The biggest thing we have done is consult a solicitor, who is now taking things forward for us. This helped us get our thoughts in order, focus on what was important, and have someone who's seen lots of things like this before tell us what was and wasn't reasonable, on both sides. Mediation then court is the next option - initially that scared the hell out of me, but now I feel that it's the only way. All we want is reliable, regular access - and if we can't work that out on our own, then engaging a third party to help with that is a huge help, and takes a lot of stress off DP and me.

Good luck and stay strong - and make some time for you, even if it's just a warm bath with a good book!

BrownB Mon 17-Sep-12 01:47:30

Sympathy from me too. We have a similar situation, and it's depressing how much time this woman still takes from our life. Stressful too. At times I feel like "dealing with the ex" is the only hobby either of us can really own. Anyways, my sympathy, and I've ordered that book recommended above as we're not so good at dealing with our situation either.

TICKLETUMBLE Tue 02-Oct-12 14:13:49

I agree with the statement 'stop trying to reason with an unreasonable person'.
Sometimes you really need someone to say that to you, to really get you to think about what you are achieving by continuing to converse and interact directly with someone that is hell bent on upsetting you any way they can.

I stopped answering the phone as all calls ended with me in tears, as I could not just let him say whatever he liked, no matter how untrue or how hurtful it was without repsonding. E-mail is easier.

Even then, it took me along while to stop entering into lengthy e-mail arguments too - and yes it does feel that if you dont respond to nonsense being said/written then you are effectively accepting it as true - But once I did stop, I had a much clamer and happier life...and so did everyone else around me.

Stick to the facts with texts and e-mail, dont be tempted to respond to emotional blackmal, and do the best you can by your children despite/inspite of the difficult relationship with the ExP.

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