Conflict with Your Ex: Inevitable . . . but you can handle it

by John Hoffman

One question I have been asked repeatedly because of my role as a fathering writer is, “What can I do when my ex-wife is interfering with (or being unreasonable about) my time with my kids?” For the record, I’ve also talked to moms who only wished their ex would spend more time with his children. However, this is a fathering blog, so…

It’s hard to know what to say to separated dads who feel partly (or wholly) cut out of their children’s lives. I have no personal experience or wisdom to draw on. And post-separation co-parenting problems can be all mixed up in personal issues: conflict, grief and anger. But these issues are raised with me often enough I feel I have to try to say something.

I decided to start by contacting a dad I know who seems to do a good job of navigating the minefields of post-separation parenting. Mac (not his real name) is in his late 20s and has two children with two different ex-partners, neither of whom he lives with. So he has double the potential for co-parenting problems. Even so, Mac has both of his kids (one a toddler) most weekends, and he has managed to avoid the real bitter conflict that often comes between divorced dads and their kids.

What’s his secret? Well, he doesn’t have one. Mac has co-parenting problems too. He told me about heated telephone calls with his ex and times when he arrived right on time to pick up his son, only to learn that Rory (eight years old) was still at his grandmother’s house. And although Mac very definitely sees himself as equally responsible for Rory’s well-being, he also sees he has less power. One example: “It feels to me as though she can give me a few weeks’ notice to say that she’ll be taking Rory on a week-long camping trip. But I need to ask permission to go away with him for that long.” When Mac and his first ex-partner split up, he was working 60 hours a week and she was at home. So Rory lived primarily with her. And since Mac was the one who moved out, his first living situation wasn’t as well set up for young kids. “I’ve lived in apartments with several roommates,” Mac says. “Sometimes I didn’t have a very good place for Rory to sleep.” So he didn’t feel he was in good position to negotiate for more time with Rory until recently, when he got a new more kid-friendly place.

Make no mistake. – the power imbalance bugs him. But what I admire is that Mac is keeping his eye on the greater goal. That goal is being as good a dad to Rory (and his young daughter) as he can in the time they have together. He also understands that avoiding conflict helps him keep his relationship with his kids. Mac has never had professional counselling, yet his ideas for minimizing conflict are almost word for word what I’ve heard from family counsellors over the years: Pick your battles. Try not to argue or badmouth your ex in front of the kids. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and keep your mouth shut.

That stuff is easy to say, hard to do. But as Mac says, “When it comes down to it, your ex is somebody you have to deal with regularly for the rest of your life.”  Exactly! Separated/divorced fathers sometimes have to do this really hard thing. They have to put a lot of mental energy into having a good – or at least businesslike – relationship with someone they’d just as soon see as little as possible.

Obviously, separated moms should do this, too. But because of the power imbalance, fathers often need to work harder at keeping things amicable.

Here’s the thing. If you’re in a position of less power but try to act like you have equal power, you’re likely to end up in a lot of power struggles that you will lose. And even if you win, there is often a cost, as several separated dads, including Mac, have told me.

One of Mac’s strategies to avoid conflict is to not burn his energy stressing about some of the things that bug him. “There are things that go on at her house that I don’t like, but I just don’t talk to her about them because it doesn’t get me anything but frustration and more conflict.”

I think that’s wise. He has worked for eight years to get himself into a position where he can negotiate for 50/50 time with his kids. Along with focusing on their needs, one of the smartest things he has done is not make his position any worse. Of course, some guys who do all the right things to minimize conflict and be good fathers can still end up in pretty tough situations. And at that point you probably need legal help.

Good luck with it. Get all the support you can. And if you need professional help to deal with grief or anger, please get it. Taking care of your own well-being and mental health will help your kids (and you) in the long run.


For more information about post-separation fathering check out Full-time Dad, Part-time Kids, Dad Central’s booklet for separated and divorced fathers.

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