Reader Emotionally Exhausted from Co-parenting writes:
I've been "co-parenting" with my ex for just over seven years now. It's gotten better over time -- we've used a parenting co-ordinator to come up with a parenting plan, and I've gotten better at setting and maintaining boundaries.
My problem is despite the boundaries, my ex has some mental health issues and lives in his own world. Literally. He makes up things in his head and believes that they're true. The main example is that he believes that my daughter broke her wrist in a car accident we had. In fact, she never broke her arm, he's talked to several professionals who have seen the records, and he actually had her for a week after the accident and she didn't have a sling OR a cast. (Additionally, the car accident wasn't my fault, and, as he knows, I won a large civil suit against the other driver.) He's also convinced himself that our daughter suffered from severe emotional trauma after the accident and needs long term mental health help (all of her caregivers have reassured me that she's coping very well, not only after the accident, but also with the extreme conflict my ex favors as a co-parenting technique).
As a result -- instead of trying to co-parent in a thoughtful way, my ex-husband spends his days trying to convince me that I'm a horrible mother because I've injured and supposedly mentally damaged my daughter. I realize I can never convince him that this is not beneficial to either our coparenting relationship or to the children, and I have long since stopped trying. What I want to know is how to I keep his preferred method of "conflict" coparenting and his mental health issues from mentally affecting both myself and more importantly my daughter?
I can understand why you're so frustrated. You are being accused of being a bad mother on a regular basis, and these accusations don't seem to be rooted in fact. It is easy to get caught up in defending yourself, proving that the accident didn't cause lasting damage, showing him written documents, and so forth. But, as you yourself have told me, there is literally nothing that you can do to change your ex's mind.
You two are in a pattern that is called "polarized." When people feel completely unheard and misunderstood during a conflict, they often retreat to an even more extreme position than they truly believe. For example, let's say a husband feels that his wife has no empathy for him, and she feels that he is completely irresponsible. They will often become polarized, with him saying that she is heartless and cold, and her saying that he is a child. Neither one fully believes their extreme position, but they are emotionally tapped out from defending their own position, and cannot view the grays of this situation anymore. However, if the husband were to say, "You're right, I am pretty forgetful," or the wife were to admit, "Yes, I can be rude and snippy to you," both would be able to come out of their respective corners and engage in a more productive conversation. However, this would only occur if both partners were able to utilize empathy and validation.
[bctt tweet="You two are in a pattern called polarized."]
Empathy is when you truly understand another person's feelings and experience, and validation is when you say that it makes sense to you that they feel the way they do, based on how they feel (note: neither empathy nor validation requires that you agree with someone's opinion or that you are saying you feel the same way). I believe that if you dig deep, you may be able to see that the situation with you and your ex may benefit from increased empathy and validation, and since you're the one who's writing in, let's focus on how you could use these skills to cultivate a less antagonistic relationship with your ex.
First let's try to understand his position. He genuinely feels that your daughter was traumatized by this experience. But, possibly more importantly, he knows that you think he's crazy. Either you outright tell him, or it drips out of your words as you interact. This makes him extraordinarily mad. One of the worst feelings is for someone to think you're crazy. So, leaving aside whether a psychological evaluation would call him crazy or not (since you have to co-parent with him no matter what), making him FEEL crazy is going to escalate the conflict dramatically. Every time you defend or counter his assertions about your daughter's physical or mental health, he feels invalidated and marginalized. The two of you get increasingly polarized: he now feels that the car accident was a horrific catastrophe, and you feel that it was nothing.
It's important to see how this polarized pattern is likely forcing you into an extreme position too; in this case, that the car accident was no big deal. In actuality, I believe that you probably feel, or at least felt, terrible about the car accident, even if you weren't to blame for it. In fact, I think that's likely why you made sure to tell me that it was the other's driver's fault. You also made sure to tell me that everyone thinks your daughter is coping well. Again, I wonder if this is because, understandably, on some level you wonder if it did traumatize her in some way. If you have even the tiniest fear that this could be the case, or even if you were scared right after the accident (but aren't anymore), this is a great emotion to draw from when trying to empathize with your ex. Here is something you could say to change the script of your usual attack-defend dynamic:
"Ex, I understand why you're so worried that our daughter may be traumatized from the accident. It makes sense to me that you would worry, because you love her a lot. I remember how worried I was when we got her out of the car. I appreciate that you are so concerned about her." Not one sentence of this is untrue, even the last, since if we are operating from the assumption that he is truly worried, then it does make him a good dad to worry.
Changing the script in this way can be used in any situation where you and your ex have become polarized over an issue. Instead of conceptualizing him as "crazy," try to think of him as just a guy who is trying the best he can to be a dad. In his way, he is trying to show to your daughter, to you, and to himself that he is a concerned dad who cares about his daughter's well-being. Even if this is laced with a genuine desire to make your life hell, there is a very low chance that in his mind he truly thinks the accident had no effect. So, try to give him the benefit of the doubt, use empathy and validation, and see if you can de-escalate this situation. Two further bonuses: you are modeling healthy communication and kindness for your daughter, and you are building up goodwill with your ex, which will make him (even slightly) less likely to start conflicts with you in the future. Feeling heard is powerful, and can be a game changer.
Thanks for writing in, and until we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Thinks Empathy and Validation Cure Many Ills.
This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.