My ex-husband left his impact behind in the form of tens of thousands of dollars of debt that fell on me to repay. Every month, when I had to make those payments, I felt like all of the emotional progress I had made was washed away.
I would grow angry, fearful and despondent all over again, as I was forced to face the ugly reality. It wasn't physical contact with him, but it was a monthly appointment with his presence that I was required to keep.
It's one of the more common dilemmas faced by my coaching clients: "I'm doing great, and then I have to see my ex and I feel like I'm back to square one." Some are like me, and have been tasked with cleaning up the mess their exes left behind. They have to find a way to balance their responsibilities with their emotional well-being. For others, they have children, and regular contact is required for the sake of establishing some sort of co-parenting relationship. For them, the question becomes one of maintaining the children's relationship with the other parent without sacrificing themselves in the process.
Rename and Reframe
When you see your ex, your brain floods with memories of who they were to you. Perhaps you remember the halcyon early days or the pain you felt when you discovered they had been unfaithful. You're viewing them through the lens of a spouse, a partner, and remembering the ways that they failed you in that role. Those memories carry a powerful emotional punch—a punch that leaves you winded and spinning. So take a step back. That person on your doorstep is no longer the one who held you and then hurt you; they are simply your children's other parent. You can even label them this way in your phone's contact list.
Pay Attention to Your Physical Sensations
Does your breath become more rapid and shallow when you hear your ex's car pull into the driveway? Maybe you can feel the prickle of rage run down your back when you see their name show up on your phone. For me, any reminder of the financial mess caused a physical sensation of nausea and panic. Simply being attuned to these sensations helps to keep them from running amok. Be aware of how your body responds even if you feel like you can't alter it at this point. Label the sensations with non-judgment: "Oh, my hands are sweaty and trembling."
Ask Yourself, Why Does This Still Bother Me?
Name your feelings and trace their roots. You are no longer married to this person, so why are their words and behaviors still able to trigger you? You may be dealing with some unresolved pain from the divorce. Or maybe this activated some long-buried childhood wound. And sometimes the response is merely one of habit, reacting in the way to which you have become accustomed. Regardless of the reasons, one of the best ways to deactivate a trigger is to dig into it to remove its power source. Spend some time with a therapist, your journal, or a trusted companion and explore why you're still responding so strongly.
Bookend the Contact with Positive Activity
Contact with the ex has the potential to ruin several days if you allow it. There's the building anxiety leading up to the contact, the actual confrontation, and then the recovery period. In order to limit the effects of the actual contact, bookend the encounter with positive and engrossing activity to help distract you before and shift you out after. Limit the amount of time and energy available for anxiety and rumination.
Begin some sort of mindfulness training to help you find your inner calm, regardless of what is happening in your world. Meditation often talks about learning to view the storm through the window instead of being in the storm. You cannot control the rain, but you can learn to find some distance from its impact. Mindfulness is also powerful because it trains you to accept what you cannot control and teaches you how to have mastery over your breath and, to some extent, your thoughts.
Rehearse Your Responses
If your ex has a tendency to push your buttons in search of a response, take some time to rehearse what you are going to say ahead of time. Practice this with someone else or in front of a mirror. Repeat it until it becomes rote, devoid of emotion. You cannot keep them from poking at you, but you can refuse to engage. Having a pat, non-emotional response is a great first step.
Don't Be Their "Person"
Some exes still look to their former spouses to have their emotional needs met. I even know of people who turn to their ex partner when they are having difficulties with the person they left the marriage for! It can be difficult after divorce to transition into the new, more distant, roles after years of being a team. If your former spouse is turning to you for emotional support and advice, inform them that you cannot fulfill that role anymore. It is no longer your responsibility to be their shoulder to cry on or their sympathetic ear.
There are times when any contact is simply too painful to contemplate. Be creative—are you able to outsource any of this to automation or to a third party? Be aware that this approach is a bandaid, a temporary breather so that you have the time and space needed to create the necessary emotional distance.
Don't Take Their Behavior Personally
Whether your ex is a malignant narcissist seeking their own gains without consideration, or a lost and wounded soul who can't seem to get themselves together, their actions say way more about them then they indicate about you. So don't take their words or behaviors personally. If they are generally a bad person, remind yourself that this is simply their approach to everyone. If they are struggling, find a place of detached empathy for them and seek to understand the motivations behind their words or actions.
This was my greatest tool in the years I was a prisoner to the debt my ex left behind. After every check written, every bill paid, every debt collector spoken to, I would add an item to a list of something that I was grateful for that I would not have had without the divorce. It's easy to focus solely on the bad in the situation, to allow the negativity to flood out your senses. By taking the time to force yourself to list the positive effects, you're expanding your perspective and training your brain to look for the sun behind the clouds.
Find Your Power
In high school, I picked up the sport of fencing. At the beginning, I excelled in the drills but fell apart in the bouts when my opponents actually had the audacity to attack me. "You know what they're going to do," my coach hollered at me one day from the sideline, "So why do keep reacting the same way that allows them to score a point?" And he was right. I knew the moves my opponent was going to attempt. I had no control over their attacks. But I could lunge out of the path of their blade or parry differently so that they lost their opportunity. It changed my view of the bouts. I was no longer focused on what my opponent was going to do to me. Instead, I learned and practiced how to responds differently so that their attacks landed less frequently and with less force.
One of the hardest parts of divorce is the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness that comes with it. And when you're allowing your ex to dictate your moods and responses, you're giving your power away. Take back your power. Take back your life.
Written by Lisa Arends
Lisa Arends is a divorcee working to inspire others to move forward, recenter, and repurpose their lives. She has written the "How-To-Thrive Guide." Learn more about "thriving" and be inspired by visiting LessonsFromTheEndOfAMarriage.com.