‘Why are they doing this?’ How to understand your ex as you divorce


date published

13th June 2022

written by

Emma Heptonstall

Emmaheptonstall.com Image

date published

13th June 2022

One of the most challenging aspects of divorce is that you can’t control what your ex-spouse does. You can’t control how they navigate the process from their side. And you can’t control how they parent either. But what can you do? You can do your best to keep your divorce on track. And you can be aware of common triggers for their behaviour. Here’s how to understand your ex as you divorce.

Where is their behaviour coming from?

It’s important to remember that from their perspective, their behaviour has a positive intent. It might seem completely illogical, even malicious to you. But in one way or another, it will make sense to them. Does that make it right? No. But it can often help you stay grounded if you recognise this. Which means your divorce is less likely to be derailed. Let’s look at three common scenarios my clients share about their divorces.

‘My ex-husband is causing chaos – it’s like he wants more drama’

This is a common complaint among my clients. And it’s one of the most confusing aspects of divorce. It’s hard if you were hoping for an amicable, smooth divorce and your ex-spouse is creating waves every step of the way. You just want the divorce done, and it’s frustrating when you can see them blocking it at every turn.

Why is this happening? As narcissism becomes more well-known, more women are spotting high conflict traits in their divorce. But don’t be too quick to leap to a diagnosis. It may be that your ex-spouse is operating from a place of fear and shame, and they are doing their best to wrest control back.

They are having an episode of manipulative, childish behaviour, but it doesn’t mean they will be like it forever. They are wounded, and showing it. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier to live with while it’s happening! But if you can hold your line and weather the storm, there’s every chance it will pass.

For others, it may be that your ex-spouse does have a high conflict personality. They had a pattern of manipulating you and others to get what they wanted during the marriage – though perhaps you didn’t see it at the time. They thrive on drama. And they must win at all costs.

Learn to be BIFF

Whether your chaos is temporary or permanent, there are a few tried and tested approaches that can help. Bill Eddy, founder of the High Conflict Institute recommends using a BIFF method. Keep your communication:

Brief: don’t give them ammunition. Stick to talking and writing about what’s necessary
Informative: stick to the facts, don’t get into feelings talk
Friendly: you don’t have to be a doormat, but showing a little warmth is likely to help you get a more positive outcome
Firm: this is about setting boundaries and ending the conversation. For example, you could use closed ‘yes/no’ questions rather than open ones.

If you do suspect you are in a high conflict divorce, you can read more about communication here.

‘They say they want to be reasonable, but it’s only on their terms’

What if your ex-spouse is presenting options coolly and calmly? They come across as the voice of reason. They aren’t yelling about ‘taking you to the cleaners’ or ‘taking the children off you’. But they are convinced they are absolutely right and know more about finances and the way your divorce should go.

Firstly, this is infuriating, I hear you! And patronising. For a moment, though, let’s assume the most positive intent. Your ex-spouse isn’t trying to belittle you, they genuinely believe they have the right answers to the smoothest way through your divorce.

It doesn’t mean they are right! And it’s still a form of control. But it does mean it might be possible to reach a mutually agreeable solution without screaming at each other.

Again, managing them through communication is key. If they believe they are right, you can work with that. Lean into your points of agreement, and use them as leverage to work on the issues you disagree on. A tactic to avoid is cornering your spouse.

If it’s important to them that they’re right, you absolutely don’t want to get into the game of proving them wrong! It might be temporarily satisfying, but it’s likely to prolong your divorce proceedings as they find another point to ‘win’.

Just as with BIFF communication: be friendly but hold firm. They may insist they know what’s best. They don’t. You have every right to do your own research, whether that’s self-led, with me, with a solicitor or all three!

‘They don’t understand the children’s needs at all’

Sometimes this doesn’t come as a surprise. If you’ve been the main caregiver for your children, it’s not going to be a huge shock when your spouse doesn’t know that gymnastics is on a Wednesday evening, or Daisy won’t eat carrots.

Often, though, my clients underestimate just how much they’ve been holding their whole family together. They’ve got used to carrying the emotional burden. They’re adept at arranging birthday parties, providing the after-school taxi service and knowing just how to get the three year old out the door without meltdowns. And they don’t even realise they’re doing anything special.

If that’s you, and you’ve not heard this before, listen now.

You’re a hero. You have been the glue that held your family together for so long, and no-one’s noticed, not even you! But you can’t carry two households all by yourself.

Your separation means it’s time for your ex-spouse to step up. They will soon learn that Rosie will only wear the blue shoes, or needs the pink giraffe to go to sleep. It may be a little bumpy while they do. Aim for patience. It is infuriating that your soon-to-be-ex has been clueless for all this time. But keep your end goal in mind: divorce for you and peaceful, happy parenting for your children. Neither of those goals are served by belittling or point scoring.

So, be helpful – without offering to do it all yourself! And make peace with the fact that your ex-spouse won’t parent in exactly the same way as you. I highly recommend you draw up a parenting plan, ideally with the help of a family mediator.

Your plan can cover everything from the principles on which you both agree to parent, to rules around bedtime, food, TV etc. You can read more about parenting plans here. It’s helpful to have consistency across both parents. But don’t worry if that doesn’t happen: your children will adjust to different rules in their different homes.

Why should I have to be reasonable when they aren’t?!

If you’re thinking, ‘I’m sick of being nice when they are acting like an idiot!’, know that I hear you. I really do. It’s not fair that you’re the one taking the high ground while they are waving their ego around. And, by all means, rant to me, or trusted friends, or the ladies in The Absolute Academy.

But please keep the big picture in mind. Ultimately, you want out of this marriage. You want as peaceful and straightforward a transition as possible. Especially if there are children involved, because you’ll have to keep communicating about them after the divorce.

So joining in with the power games, the point scoring, the blaming, will not help you. Your goal is beyond all that – it’s your freedom. So you need to be strategic. You can’t control everything, you certainly can’t control (or always predict) what your ex-spouse will do. But you can be wise about the moves you make.

Plan your strategy

I can help you figure out what you want and need from your divorce. And, as a trained neuro linguistic processing (NLP) master practitioner, coach and high conflict diversion specialist, I can share communication techniques that make it more likely you’ll get it too.

Divorce isn’t a game. Not should it be a battle. But it does need a strategy. You need to know where you want to be at the end of it. And you need to plan a route to get there. It’s a hard path on your own. Book in a call with me today, and see how I can walk it with you.


About Emma

Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the 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. Emma is also the host of  The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more

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