Relationships are hard. Parenting is hard. It’s all just so hard — even when everything is okay and you’re going through the daily grind together. Now, imagine that you and your partner are no longer together, they’re a jerk (or maybe even abusive), and you still have to co-parent together. Although there might still be some animosity, you created these beautiful beings together, so you need to figure out some way to work together in not just the kids’ best interests, but your own as well. Learning how to co-parent with a toxic ex won’t be easy, but if you can get to the other side, it’ll all be worth it.
Be present for your kids
Being in a bad place with your ex can feel all-consuming, especially when you’re dealing with your own emotions regarding the bad blood between the two of you. You’ll need to push all of those emotions aside, though, to co-parent successfully and ensure that your children (especially younger ones) know that they can come to you and not, for example, an older sibling. “Protecting kids is sometimes unfortunately left to the oldest sibling who shields those younger by listening to their fears, comforting them, and being available for bad dreams,” Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. a licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst, tells Romper. “However, this robs that child of their childhood which they might pay for later with potential depression and anxiety.” Be sure to check in with your children to see how they’re handling it, and make sure that an older child isn’t inadvertently left to deal with these adult issues.
Own your part in the problem
It’s super easy to point the finger at your toxic ex and claim that it’s all their fault. And for sure, that might be the case. But think about how you’ve interacted with your ex to see if you have had a hand in where your relationship stands now. “Of course couples will claim either is the toxic parent. This very attitude of blaming and not self-reflecting is harmful, setting off high anxiety in kids and as mentioned, loyalty conflicts,” explains Hollman. “If one parent clearly sees their own human flaws and vulnerabilities, they are more likely to be able to put their kids' needs before their own.” This can be done in therapy, and also just listening to your children, who have a front row seat to the show. They might have their own opinions and ideas about what’s happened, and you should listen to them without interrupting or feeling the need to be defensive.
Try to get counseling together
Sure, you might not even want to be in the same breathing space as your ex, but again, it’s all about putting the children first. Even if you’re already in therapy, see if you can get some counseling together, Dr. Scott Terry, Ed.D., a marriage and family therapist and Clinical Director of Ardent Counseling Center explains to Romper. “Our best advice to people who have to co-parent with someone who is a toxic ex is to try and encourage them to get co-parenting counseling with you,” he says. “Co-parenting counseling is designed to allow you to find better ways to communicate and to set rules for the development of your joint children.” Ideally, all family members should be involved, but if that’s not possible, a group meeting should be arranged to get everyone on the same page.
When your ex sends you a text that is strictly designed to taunt you, all you might want to do is rage text right back, amirite? But you know that is going down a texting rabbit hole that’s never going to end well. Instead, take a deep breath (or five) and try to calm down. “If your ex doesn't make it easy, the main thing is to keep calm,” advises Terry. “Use stress management tools like meditation and other techniques a counselor can teach you, so that it doesn't impact you as much.” After all, if your ex-partner thinks that they’ve succeeded in pissing you off, they’ll feel like they “won”, and really, that’s the last thing that you want. Getting ruffled will only serve to make your ex feel like they have "won."
Offer an ear
No matter how your ex feels about a certain situation, you’re still going to need to acknowledge it in some way. After all, everyone wants to be heard and have their feelings validated — even a toxic ex. “You acknowledge whatever ‘reality’ is in their head.,” says Terry. “Give them enough validation to let them know you are hearing them, but that does not mean you are agreeing with them.” It shows that you’re listening to how they feel, and that you’re not dismissing their right to an opinion.
Put on a performance — for now
There might be some acrimonious feelings between you and your ex now, but that doesn’t mean that your kids have to be a part of the tug-of-war. “It’s not easy to do the right thing when someone has hurt you so badly; it’s so hard to go outside of yourself and act in the best interest of the children,” co-parenting coach and family law attorney, Sabrina Shaheen Cronin, JD, MBA, a founder and managing partner of The Cronin Law Firm tells Romper. “Co-parenting requires nothing less than an Oscar-worthy performance — it’s a fake-it-till-you-make-it situation.” While those feelings might feel fake and forced, your child probably loves their parent, and your child could become anxious or depressed if both parents aren’t mindful and trying to work together.
Help create a connection
Just because you can’t stand communicating with your ex doesn’t mean your kid feels the same way. And trying to make your child “take a side” can ultimately backfire, which is why you should keep the lines of communication open between your child and your ex-partner. “Don't withhold communication from them because it's important for kids to grow up having the love and attention of both parents,” Joseph Moore, a psychologist and a certified relationship coach says. “Hindering their communication with your ex might make them unhappy.” Of course, you can set some ground rules (like ensuring that no one badmouths the other), but overall, your child should be allowed to connect with their other parent if and when they want to.
Give your kids lots of love
A separation or divorce is never easy on kids, and they’ll need lots of love and reassurance to help them through the transition. “Let your kids know you love them and are willing to support them no matter what,” adds Moore. “With such assurance, kids would feel confident and open to sharing their challenges with you.”
Take care of yourself
“Co-parenting with an abusive ex can be mentally and emotionally draining,” Kasey King, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist says. “Even after the breakup, you may find yourself triggered by seeing or even hearing your child talk about their parent, etc.” To help navigate these tricky waters, King suggests putting yourself as a priority. “Place yourself (and possibly your child) in therapy, to work on your own mental healing and emotions that may arise from co-parenting,” she suggests. “Abuse, in any form, takes time to recover from, so give yourself grace.”
Set some boundaries
Just because you need to co-parent with an ex doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be some rules in place. In fact, in order for your co-parenting to be successful, you’ll have to have some established guidelines so that everyone knows what’s expected of them. “Create boundaries that will protect you from even further and future harm,” suggests King. “This could look like having a friend or family member facilitating the exchange, discussing drop off and pick up locations that are not near your home, boundaries around phone calls, etc.”
Tips from parents who have been there
“My ex is extremely toxic. He’ll purposely send me texts which are only meant to be upsetting. I’ve learned not to react right away. I’ll actually set a timer on my phone for at least 15 minutes so that I have time to breathe, calm down, and then send a response that’s not angry in tone.”
“I keep communication to the bare minimum between us. I don’t stop him from talking to our daughter, but unless it’s urgent or something regarding scheduling, I don’t speak with him at all.”
“It sounds terrible to say, but I always have someone with me in case my partner erupts. Having a ‘witness’ means he’ll act appropriately in front of our kids, even though it’s so sad that I have to do this.”
“We have set times for communicating. Like, every day at 7 p.m., he will call me when I have the kids and then when he has them, I call at that time. Otherwise, we don’t speak… and I like it like that.”
“We do our exchanges outside. He wouldn’t dare do something in public.”
“I got myself and my kids in therapy because my ex likes to badmouth me to the kids. It was starting to affect them and they needed to learn that his behavior was toxic.”
“I’ve learned to lose all expectations for them to be a decent human being. Because when I had any hope of them being an adult after the divorce, they let me down time and again.”
Learning how to co-parent with a toxic ex can be draining and depressing, but it’s something that unfortunately you’ll have to learn to deal with. Hopefully, in time, your ex can change their ways and become more amenable to make everyone’s lives (particularly yours and the kids) easier. Until then, take care of yourselves and each other and know that even though it sucks now, it will eventually become better.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. a licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst
Dr. Scott Terry, Ed.D., a marriage and family therapist and Clinical Director of Ardent Counseling Center
Sabrina Shaheen Cronin, JD, MBA, a founder and managing partner of The Cronin Law
Joseph Moore, a psychologist and a certified relationship coach
Kasey King, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist