3 Ways to Communicate with a Difficult Ex

By Nancy Kay

Does your stomach churn at the thought of having to communicate with your ex?  Would you rather clean out a 45 gallon fish tank than contact your ex about the kids’ holiday schedule? Many former spouses continue to experience significant difficulties in the ways that they communicate with each other which spark ongoing wildfires when they need to talk about parenting, finances, holidays, illnesses, school issues and other aspects of daily life that they must deal with following divorce.

Although most people hope that communication will improve when they don’t have to live with each other on a daily basis, this is usually not the case. Unresolved emotional issues and long-standing patterns of relating to each other in destructive ways continue to fuel the fires, leading to more conflicts.

There is a sign at a junction on an Alaskan highway that reads, “Choose your Ruts Carefully, you’ll be in them for the next 50 miles.” Without even realizing it, many former spouses continue along in the ruts, reacting to each other in the same frustrating and negative ways that led to arguments during their marriage and divorce. Unfortunately, the power struggles, anger and resentments that built up during the marriage and through the legal process often lead to even more heated exchanges and failure to communicate effectively when it comes to solving problems or making decisions and plans after the divorce is final.

If your ex is controlling, hostile, manipulative, drug dependent or narcissistic, communication can be especially challenging. Deciding up front what issues are most critical to consistently take a stand on, setting limits on how you interact with your ex and planning possible responses ahead of time can all go a long way to improve communications with your ex over the long run.

Here are 3 Key Strategies to put into action when trying to communicate more effectively with a difficult ex:

1.    Clearly identify what your positions are regarding the post-divorce issues that matter to you the most. Knowing ahead of time which issues you are willing to be flexible about and which ones you absolutely won’t budge on is important because dealing with a difficult ex requires establishing very clear and firm boundaries that need to be consistently upheld long term. Once your ex finally realizes that you cannot be bullied, rushed, pressured or manipulated into changing your mind on your key issues and you consistently take the same firm positions over time, there is less opportunity for repetitive arguments to flare up.

2.    Insist on Civil Communication.  Although changing the way your ex communicates with you is beyond your control, you can change the way you interact with your ex. By keeping verbal exchanges as brief as possible, screening your phone calls and responding only to emails that aren’t hostile or demeaning, you are setting the tone for what you are willing to respond to from your ex. You can also encourage more respectful interactions by keeping your own messages short, direct and editing out the emotional parts you are tempted to include. One creative way to approach this is to act as if you were writing a ransom note. If you were cutting each word of your message out of magazines, wouldn’t you plan to keep it as brief and to the point as possible?

 3.    Plan your Responses Ahead of Time. Are you in the habit of reacting right away to whatever your ex dishes out? If so, it is extremely valuable to have some written out statements near your computer and phone for times when you are caught off guard.  Having a list that you can rely on will help you to set limits and allow yourself the time you need to clear your mind and think about the issues more objectively before responding to your ex. When replying to emails, allow a full day or more to go by before you reply unless the situation is an emergency. If your ex often sends hostile emails, you may find it helpful to have someone else screen them first. When dealing with your ex in person or on the phone and things begin to escalate, refer to your list of prepared responses which could include the following:

  • I can’t respond to you until you calm down and speak to me in a civil manner.”
  • ” I need to speak to my lawyer, accountant or other professional before I give you an answer on that.”
  • “This conversation is no longer useful, so you’ll soon hear a click on the line.”

It is important to remember that establishing new ways of communicating with a difficult ex takes planning, finding the right strategies and practice over time. Despite your best efforts, you can expect to sometimes slip back into destructive habits, but with on-going determination you should see some results that include less tension, overwhelm and stress. By taking control of the way you respond to your ex, you will gain strength and self-confidence as you begin to develop a more constructive way of dealing with the issues that must be resolved following divorce.

Nancy Kay is a Divorce Management Coach who provides Strategic Guidance for women and men who are navigating through the storm of divorce. She combines her Family Law Paralegal experience and Coaching Training to show clients how to work more effectively with their Divorce Team while saving time and money. Nancy can be reached at (740) 919-1248 or through her website.


  1. Kerry Gearin says:

    Hello Nancy Kay,

    I am a Family Lawyer from Ontario, Canada who just now read your blog on 3 Ways to Communicate with a Difficult Ex.

    I thought “Thank Goodness! Now I don’t have to coach my clients over and over.” They can check out Nancy Kay’s article. You provide very practical tips for a very common problem.

    Your work and that of other caring, insightful Divorce, Parent and as I like to say, “Live your New Life” Coaches is a kind and generous contribution to society.

    Kerry K. Gearin,
    Ontario Family Lawyer

  2. Hello,

    Emotions get in the way of communications, especially when it is a divorce situation. When there are children involved, the use of our website tool at http://www.divorcecommunications will take the emotions out of the communications while dealing with the facts. I created the website because no matter how I tried to communicate with my ex-husband, he refused to listen and it was the children that end up suffering.
    Cathy, M.Ed

  3. Tracy Taylor says:

    Hi Nancy,
    I thought your strategies were spot on. I could have used that advice 17 years ago. As a single mom I know firsthand how difficult and challenging co-parenting can be. The world has changed so much and I wish that back then I had the use of emails and other great technology tools that are now available to co-parents. I often engaged in phone conversations that went nowhere.

    Great article. Thanks,