4 Tips When Your New Partner Has a High-Conflict Ex
It’s not unusual today to meet a new partner who is still dealing with a difficult Ex.
He or she may be angry, intrusive and possibly still engaged in a custody battle with your new partner over their kids.
This doesn’t mean that your partner has done anything wrong. There are many people who unwittingly made a bad choice in their first marriage or co-parenting relationship. (That’s why we wrote Dating Radar—to give people a heads up before making this mistake.)
Anyway, what should you do now? Here's a few pointers:
1. Don't tell your partner what to do
Many people, out of frustration, try to take over their partner’s situation and fix it for them. This won’t work. Your partner needs to deal with their own Ex in their own way. You can offer suggestions in private (“Would you like a suggestion?”), but if you try to take over, it will frustrate both of you. Likewise, if he or she has children with the Ex, avoid the urge to take over parenting of them. You may be or become their step-parent, but you must always respect your partner’s (and the Ex’s) primary role in parenting. You can be supportive and play an important secondary role, but the kids and your partner need to know that you respect their relationship(s) and will work with them, not against them. Children do a lot better with consistency, so find a way to assist without challenging his or her whole style of parenting. This will make your life a lot less stressful.
2. Do find out why they split up
What happened in this prior relationship could happen in your relationship too, if you don’t understand it. Does the Ex actually have a high-conflict personality, or is your new partner just blaming them for everything? In a high-conflict relationship, you must consider three possibilities:
1) The Ex is a high-conflict person and your partner is not.
2) Your partner is a high-conflict person and preoccupied with blaming the Ex, who is not a high-conflict person.
3) Both are high-conflict people.
On the surface, these situations all look alike, because there is so much blaming going on. Learn the patterns of high-conflict people (they are spelled out in our book Dating Radar), so you can tell which person is high-conflict (lots of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and preoccupied with blaming others). It’s quite possible that your new partner is a reasonable person and not high-conflict, but sometimes it can take up to a year to be certain.
3. Don't let the conflict with the Ex take over your lives
As a family lawyer, I’ve had many clients with high-conflict divorces that took several years to resolve, especially when there were children involved. It’s not unusual that they found new reasonable partners while this legal process was still happening. It was important for them to set limits on discussing the Ex and the legal case. So have fun! Have Ex-free time! Pace yourself and get out of the way when there are issues that don’t need to involve you, either regarding the Ex or the kids. Have your own support system, so that you are not solely relying on your new partner for time, attention and positive activities. If your partner and the Ex have been separated or divorced for a while, use a Mediator or family counselor for future issues involving the Ex, so they don’t take over your lives. (“We’ll talk about that with the Mediator next week,” can help you both avoid a lot of angry phone calls with an Ex.)
4. Do learn together how to deal with a high-conflict person
There are more high-conflict people around than ever before, it seems. Take this opportunity to learn together how to communicate, negotiate and set limits with a high-conflict person. It will help you both deal with the Ex, as well as giving you some tools to do well with each other. I have seen many new couples who learned from their prior relationship to make their next relationship much more successful and balanced. You could take a class together, read books together or see a therapist together. After all, a healthy, meaningful, primary relationship is what everyone wants. It is possible and takes finding someone who is willing to learn and grow with you. Good luck!
Bill Eddy is the co-author with Megan Hunter of Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says “Yes” to the One Who Will Make Your Life Hell. He is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and the President of the High Conflict Institute.