We think it’s pretty safe to let you know that if you are on good terms with your ex-partner, there isn’t a whole lot of advice we can offer you. Maybe some, so please do read on. Chance are, you already have a good idea about what you are doing.
That would bring us to how to appropriately communicate with the ex-spouse who is of the high-conflict variety. The method we’ll refer to as LOW-CONTACT.
My own harsh reality that was and continues to be the relationship with my own high-conflict ex-spouse, “Jane Doe,” were historically rife with inappropriate means of communication with her. Many people in similar predicaments, not knowing what they are dealing until it’s too late, find themselves spinning their wheels over and over and over again. That was me. If you have the misfortune of dealing with someone suffering from a personality disorder – the accusations, perceptions, and confrontations will leave you questioning your own sanity over the long-term. I was a habitual defender of my position. This, despite there not being even the slightest chance that reason and logic would turn the conflict around. It never did. Despite this, I never stopped trying all while having a 0% success rate over the course of more than a decade.
I often find myself discussing appropriate means of contact with the high-conflict ex-spouse with others. While these methods are often discussed for interaction with (ex)partners suffering from a personality disorder, these methods have proven to be very effective for any high-conflict relationship that is ending or has ended.
You’ll often see me refer to tactics such as no-contact, low-contact, or “ultra-low” contact. Depending upon one’s specific circumstances, one or more may apply, such as if there are children involved (or not) or a workplace relationship. We’ll be focusing on interaction with the ex-partner where there are children involved for the most part.
If you are ending a relationship with no children and no other circumstances tying the two of you together, true no-contact may be a realistic option. The emotional side of us, both men and women, oftentimes has an urge for what many call – “closure.” Realistically, sometimes the closure that is most appropriate is cutting off all contact. Too often, we want an explanation. We want to say our peace. We want the last word. We want an apology or to apologize. However, when it comes right down to it, the closure we truly need is to simply be done with it with a minimal amount of interaction.
I’m a proponent of seeking therapy to regain your sense of self. Counseling can help you to do a post-mortem on the relationship whether you have children or not. Discover the mistakes that you made during the course of the relationship with a goal of not repeating them again in the future. Be true to yourself. You need not hide behind your own caring personality to just “check-up” on the ex to “make sure they’re doing okay.” Further, you owe your ex no explanation of how you’re doing if and when that email comes, under the guise of their sudden care. Remaining in contact for any reason only fans the dimming embers of a fire that, for all intents and purposes, should be left to burn out. Email addresses should be blocked and deleted. Phone numbers should be blocked and deleted. Any means of contact with an ex-partner should be mitigated or eliminated entirely. It’s time to move on.
When there are children involved and a custody arrangement of any sort – you cannot truly go no-contact. One must fall back to low-contact.
In my specific case, this means limiting contact. Due to our court order and my experiences with Jane’s excessive litigation – my boundary has been that I will only discuss matters pertaining to the children and only if these matters are of importance. I won’t engage in idle chit-chat about the children. The high-conflict nature of our interactions prevents any non-essential contact. Her suspected borderline personality and my past failures in appropriately handling situations means engaging in any more communication other than the bare minimum leaves me susceptible to further escalations or doing/saying something that will be twisted and somehow used against me. On the rare occasions where we are attending something at the same time involving the children, we stay clear of one another and greetings are a courtesy and friendly “hello.”
Sadly and smartly, you must treat every contact you have with your high-conflict, and probably overly litigious ex-partner with the mindset that “anything you say/write can and will be used against you in court.” How to accomplish this?
- Avoid being defensive at all costs.
- Avoid escalating the situation by arguing and explaining.
- Avoid the engagement. I often refer to this as giving them the drug that they need. It’s as addictive as heroin. The moment that they knock you off of your game and get you caught up in the chaos, they’ve gotten their fix.
- Anything you put in writing should be short and to the point. No wasted words. A high-conflict ex will often go on these long-winded diatribes, full of expletives and offensive remarks sprinkled amongst information to which you should respond. Ignore the rage and address the issues which meet your criteria as if nothing else existed in the communication.
- Bullet-points are the best way to “trim the fat” off of your response. Professional, courteous, and unemotional is the order of the day. If a question requires a “yes” or “no” answer, answer that way – without explanation. For example, “Can you drop the children off a day early so that we can go visit my parents?” Answer: “No.” Avoid the urge to explain why. They’re not entitled to an explanation despite your desire to do so.
- Phone contact should be avoided except in cases of emergency. Normal phone calls to the children should be answered by the children. The children can hang up the phone at the end of the call. That phone call is for them, even if it’s difficult for you, and should be treated as such. It eliminates the ex’s ability to engage you.
- All email communication should be saved. When you send an email, always copy it to yourself and file it. You never know when you may need these later to prove or disprove something.
- Should phone contact occur, either by requirement or by “accident” – nothing is more empowering than hanging up on the ex-partner if they violate the boundaries you have set. It’s not meant to be used as a weapon. It’s not meant to be used in an effort to be rude. It’s for your protection and your self-preservation. In my specific case, my rules are simple and have been communicated. If she uses foul language or her volume escalates – I will hang up the phone. If she tries to go on a tangent and speak to something not germane to the issue at hand, I will hang up the phone. I’ve done it. It works. In the early days, I sometimes had to do this several times in a row. Ultimately, she will talk to me nicely or we will not speak.
- Important: Any satisfaction you believe you will get from letting him/her “have it with both barrels” is short-lived. Trust me on this, I know. It ends the moment she comes back to you with a bigger, more vicious email, and you realize that you’ve succeeding to do nothing more than feed the beast! Avoid injecting emotion into your reply. Be factual in the fewest words possible.
These are just a few of several ways in which I handle my own personal situation and we urge you to do the same in yours. Those I know who have used these (and other) methods have seen similar success. The main objective of low-contact is to limit the invasion of the ex-partner into your daily lives. They will try. Without question, they will try. They will escalate their efforts to try to get the drug that they need – you to pay them attention, even if it’s negative. When you lose control, get defensive, and start explaining, you’ve accepted them as your partner in the “Dance of Dysfunction.” Avoid it.
The following excerpt is from an article at the BPDFamily website, Leaving A Partner with Borderline Personality by Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist. Please be advised – in my opinion, the no-contact methods discussed are good in situations beyond just dealing with a personality disorder. I believe these methods are helpful in any high-conflict divorce situation or other interpersonal situations. The article provides a lot more detail and is worth the read.
The key elements of “No Contact” are…
…to get the partner out of your day-to-day life,
…to stop thinking in terms of a relationship,
…to take them out of your vision of the future,
…to stop wondering about how they are perceiving everything you are doing, and
…to stop obsessing with how they are reacting (or not reacting) or what they are doing.
These are the simple objectives of “No Contact”. You may need to remind yourself every day of what you are trying to do. It takes focus and determination to do this – at a time when you probably just want to sit down and cry. Just keep reminding yourself that it takes great strength and determination to be emotionally healthy.
To read more about low-contact, click HERE to visit the Mr. Custody Coach blog,
visit the forums for specific questions regarding communicating with your ex, and read further below: