Once the smoke has cleared from a divorce, former spouses have to go about the business of raising kids together. Co-parenting with an ex comes with a set of hurdles. In a perfect world, they’re able to work together, setting aside their differences and prioritizing the best interests of their kids above all else. Such relationships often take shape. But, of course, there are instances where a healthy collaboration between co-parents isn’t possible.
“Anger and depression are natural byproducts of divorce,” says Nancy Cramer, a leadership consultant and the founder of Correct Course Consulting. “So many of one’s hopes and dreams are wrapped up in a marriage, and to have it end is to take away future possibilities.”
This emotional buildup, Cramer says, can very easily create to a poisonous stew of anxiety, guilt, and the need to undo what’s been done. “The endless loop of bargaining leads one down a rabbit hole of regret and blame,” she notes. “Understanding this enables one to have compassion for their ex-spouse.”
That compassion is important. However, while emotional responses are common and probably expected, there are times when the co-parenting with an ex becomes toxic and too much to handle. When that happens, parents may need to recalibrate their relationship.
“When emotions are being used to diminish self-worth, distance needs to be established,” she says. “There comes a time when one has to say, ‘Let’s leave each other alone.’ ”
So what are some trouble signs when co-parenting with a toxic ex? If these behaviors begin to creep into a relationship with an ex, it may be time to establish new boundaries.
When They Ignore the Other Parent’s Rules
Rules and routines are critical for raising children in any familial situation, divorced or otherwise. But when one considers the stress and emotional turmoil divorce can bring about in a child, the need for structure is even more vital. If one parent ignores already agreed-upon rules, then serious discussions need to take place.
“If one parent is lax in enforcing those rules, it will not only cause chaos with the children and conflict within the parents,” says Benjamin Valencia II, partner and certified family law specialist, Meyer, Olson, Lowy and Meyers . “But it will also create a situation where the children will use the parents against each other to get their way, which is most times not what is best for them.”
When They Constantly Run the Other Parent Down
Regardless of what mistakes may have been made, a co-parenting relationship needs to rely on trust and positive communication. If one parent can’t stop trashing the other, then it’s time to set new boundaries.
“This is highly toxic not only because it puts down the other parent in the child’s eyes but because it also makes the child feel as if something is wrong with them as the other parent is a part of the child,” says Valencia. “Over time, speaking poorly about the other parent will negatively impact not only the co-parenting relationship but also the child’s self-esteem.”
When Compromise Can Never, Ever Be Reached
Although rules and other means of establishing consistency are important, there has to be room for compromise. Schedules change, unexpected circumstances arise, and parents have to be willing to go with the flow. If an ex is refusing to be flexible, he or she is doing more harm than good. “The only people who truly suffer are the kids,” says Valencia. “The important thing should be that the kids get to participate or have the experience not who gets what weekend.”
When They Send Sexually Charged Texts
Relationship coaches Dana and Todd Mitchem report seeing a number of people who say that their exes continue to send sexually charged texts and inappropriate messages, seemingly as a way of wooing them back. But they can, according to the Mitchems, be incredibly toxic.
“While these text messages may be disturbing to your new partner as well as you, they are nothing more than just a gimmick to make you question your decision about leaving your ex-partner and ruin what you have in your new and awesome relationship,” they says. “You will have to build boundaries and tell the ex to only communicate about the kids and emergencies rather than pimp themselves out over text.”
When They Rub Alimony and Child Support in the Other’s Face
The Mitchems note that many of the people they’ve worked with have received mocking texts or emails from their exes regarding how they are spending the support money they’ve received. Messages such as, “My new boyfriend says thanks for the vacation that you paid for!” As angering as a note like that can be, Dana and Todd suggest letting it go and considering the source. “This childish behavior has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the ex and their insecurities, unresolved anger, lack of accountability in their own life, and just being a professional victim,” they say. “In this case, we advise the couples to be the bigger person and ignore them.”
When They Are Constantly Rude to the Other in Public
When ex-spouses meet in public, it’s essential to be polite — especially when there are kids present. If that can’t happen, they need to be civil at the very least. In the fallout of a messy divorce, some parents can’t summon the will to be cordial to their ex, and it only leads to problems.
“Not only does this behavior create tension, it also causes stress to the children and provides a bad example,” says Valencia. “No matter what, they will be co-parenting children together for the foreseeable future and they should present a united front so the children are reassured that both parents will work together in their best interests, especially during a time of transition and uncertainty.”