How to deal with your high conflict ex at Christmas

If only your narcissistic ex was a dim and distant memory. Sadly, it’s not always possible to consign them to past history. If you have children, or shared assets during and after divorce, you will usually need to maintain some sort of contact. So how do you deal with your high conflict ex at Christmas?

Know their MO

How do you know if your ex is high conflict? There are some key behaviours to watch out for. You can read more about those and how to manage your high conflict divorce right here.

When it comes to Christmas it’s likely those behaviours will manifest in two main ways. Remember that high conflict types thrive on drama, and they need to either be the best or be the victim. So your ex will either:

  1. Try to outshine you, or
  2. Try to sabotage your celebrations.

Or maybe some of both, just to spice things up a bit.

What might that mean for your Christmas?

There are hundreds of ways your ex could display these behaviours, tailored to your circumstances. Here are a few of the most common:

They spend like crazy.

Their Christmas is the BEST Christmas. The shiniest, sparkliest, most magical Christmas. They try to outdo you at every turn, from showering the children with extravagant gifts, to planning high-end getaways.

They hog the limelight

There won’t be the usual school plays, nativities or get-togethers this year. But you may well end up all in the same place. And your ex will make a great show of being the loving parent. Compliments will flow. They will expect to get all the attention – from the children and from anyone else. Of course, they want the world to know who’s No.1 parent.

They play the victim

Alternatively, Christmas is cancelled. They are too stressed, depressed or over-worked to do anything. Christmas isn’t happening for them this year – whatever your children want. They drain the Christmas cheer from you, from your children, and fill the space with their own needy gloom. 

They ruin your plans

The children are supposed to be with you by midday on Christmas day for lunch? Your ex will drop them at 2pm.

You need to leave to see Uncle Steve for Boxing Day? They’ll be late. Or when you have the children they’ll constantly call and demand to speak to them.

How to deal with your high conflict ex at Christmas?

Be prepared

Forewarned is forearmed. If you suspect your ex might pull any of these stunts, get ready now. You can’t control how they’ll behave, but you can get plans in place to limit the damage.

Have a clear plan

Your ex will use any grey areas to their advantage. So make sure you have a clear, written plan for what’s happening. If you have a court order, make sure you both know what it covers. If it’s an agreement between you, reiterate the rules. Document everything so there can be no excuses. Having evidence that you are being clear, fair and child-focussed will serve you well if there are future court hearings.

Hold your boundaries

Stick to the plan. You can’t control whether they turn up late, but you can stick to your plan like glue. This shows your ex that you’re not up for negotiation – a strategy that draws you back into their world. So don’t play tit-for-tat if they’re half an hour late. You be on time. Don’t agree to any changes to the written plan. You want your ex to know you mean what you say. Don’t reply to messages on Christmas Day if it’s your time with the children. Focus on the children.

Don’t show emotion

Yes, it’s unfair and totally out of order if they’re late bringing the kids back. It’s fine to reiterate the agreement: “We agreed midday. It’s now 2 pm. That’s not ok.” But don’t rage or get upset in front of them – it will add fuel to the fire. Narcissists and other high conflict personality types thrive on drama. Don’t give them any.

Have a Plan B

If you secretly suspect your ex will try to jeopardise your plans, think about what you will do if it comes to pass. Hopefully, you won’t need a Plan B. But if you do it will be a lot easier on your stress levels if you’ve thought about it already. And your children will be able to roll with it better too.

Focus on you and the children

How to deal with your high conflict ex at Christmas? I know I say this a lot, but it’s true: the only thing you can control is your own behaviour. Not your ex’s. So, while it’s easier said than done, try to shift your attention from them. Focus on what you do instead. Focus on your relationship with your children, and the Christmas you can have together.

It’s likely to look different from other Christmases. This year we have Covid-19 to contend with, as well as everything else. And that can be sad, and frustrating. It can also be an opportunity for a big reset. Spend some time now with your children agreeing what you’d love to do together. Get their ideas, and follow through on them if you can.

You may be pleasantly surprised – it often isn’t the fancy trips to Santa that hold the most magic. It’s the chance to stay up late watching Christmas movies, eating chocolate until everyone feels sick. Or whatever works for you and your brood.

So decide what you want from this Christmas.  Throw away the rulebook and make your own. If it’s fish and chips in the woods instead of turkey dinner, do it. If your children are desperate to introduce you to minecraft, indulge them. Remember, Christmas isn’t really about the glitz and presents. It’s about taking a break from daily routine and connecting with one another.

Get the support you need

The absolute best way to deal with your ex is with civility. Be boring. Give them no way in to your inner world. This is incredibly hard to do. But it’s essential.

So have your support crew around you. Don’t rage at your ex, but do vent at trusted friends. Bash out angry emails and then delete them without sending. If your ex can’t be trusted to give the children a merry time over Christmas, enlist others to help. Meet up with another family (if allowed). Go for a walk in the woods collecting holly. Have a Christmas TV night together.

And think about what you want and need from Christmas yourself. You don’t need to burn out creating magical memories for everyone. Your children need their mum.

Take time for yourself and take shortcuts if you want to. Is your six year old really going to tell the difference between goose fat-basted roast potatoes or the Aunt Bessie’s ones from the freezer section? Or would they be just as happy with a buffet style Christmas lunch?

Ditch the guilt. You are as entitled to a relaxing Christmas as everyone else. If that means putting the toddler in front of the CBeebies Christmas panto while you have a zoom prosecco party with friends, do.

I can help

If you’re stressed about Christmas, I can help.  I’m the UK’s only divorce coach with specialist training in high conflict divorce.

I have slots available for 1-1 sessions, to help you work through issues and create a plan. And December is the last month you can join The Absolute Academy for the bargain price of £147 per month. I’m in there a lot! We have weekly Q&As, group chats by zoom, and a lively community of supportive women all rooting for you.

I’m taking my first Christmas off in years from 18 December, so just get in touch with me before then and we can work out a plan together.

About Emma

Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit

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