How to Cope with the Ex Who Wants to Punish You
It can excruciatingly difficult to deal with a vindictive ex, but here's what to look out for and how to move forward.
None of us like to think about the harsh reality that someone who once loved us is now out to hurt and even punish us, but it’s true. Bitter, disgruntled and dismissed ex’s seek vengeance in any number of ways, including acts of violence, bullying, intimidation, harassment, passive aggressive behavior, silent indifference and using the children as pawns. Let’s look at four of the most common ways ex’s hurt and punish their former partners, why they do it and some positive alternatives to this kind of destructive behavior.
Putting Children in the Crossfire. Ex’s can become so ruthless, vicious and contentious that they falsely accuse their ex-husband or ex-wife, or soon-to-be ex, of child abuse, domestic violence, alcoholism, infidelity, illegal acts and so on. Brainwashing children and turning them against their other parent creates a no-win scenario of split loyalties in the psych of a child.
Another way of putting children in the crossfire is to punish your ex over time with silent disdain. This hurtful form of incivility forces children of divorce into walking on eggshells around the bitter, estranged parent—and being re-traumatized by the ever-present tension and animosity they pick up on.
Violent Aggression. Statistics show that domestic violence and spousal murder are pandemic in our society. The pain and rage of marital conflicts escalate to a boiling point—and someone gets hurt. The cruelty, brutality, incivility and trauma caused by vengeful violence can perpetuate a lifetime of mayhem.
Slander and Public Shaming. Discrediting and disgracing an ex by perpetuating lies, exposing secrets and exaggerating transgressions are designed to permanently damage their reputation. The effects are often intentionally devastating and irreparable.
Passive Aggressive Behavior. Passive-aggressive behavior is a cowardly and dangerously sneaky form of malice. Often described as the sly behavior of a "wolf in sheep’s clothing," this indirect form of payback can result in getting people fired, turning kids against their other parent, ruining friendships, disrupting family relationships, causing financial hardship, and so on.
An ex who is feeling betrayed, hurt, abandoned and/or rejected may paint a grossly distorted, one-sided picture of their former partner—why their marriage failed. Taking up residence as a "victim," they create a cynical narrative and project blame onto their partner, rather than taking any responsibility and/or ownership for their part in the demise of their relationship. As far as they’re concerned, their ex is bad, evil, ungrateful, dishonest, and a "lost soul" as one slanderous ex-husband put it. They, on the other hand, are good, righteous, honest, lovable and enlightened yet unlucky souls who have been victimized.
Insecure, low self-esteem and sociopathic ex’s can temporarily bolster their ego’s and feel better about themselves by doing this. They find relief from the unsettling feelings of failure and inadequacy that often accompany a breakup. Denial and self-deception are used as powerful tools of avoidance. Furthermore, they can rationalize, justify (and excuse) any pain, discomfort, harassment or outright punishment they inflict on their ex’s.
Alternatives to Punishing an Ex
It’s understandable that partners suffer great heartache and grief when love goes sideways. The pain of loss is debilitating, and can become unmanageable; so can the anger and hatred that arise from betrayal, failure, abandonment and shame. Here are six ways you can and must "take the high road" after a breakup if you’re the person inflicting pain and punishment. Doing these things will prevent things from escalating into destructive, dangerous and hurtful behaviors, protect your children, restore your integrity, activate your resilience and set the table for a better future:
1. Acknowledge your pain and psychological distress.
2. Own up to the fact that the situation has become (is becoming) difficult to manage and that you may be/are hurting others.
3. Make the decision to take the "high road" and not allow your hurt and anger to escalate any further. The false promise of revenge is that it’s going to make you feel better. And help you achieve justice. But neither is true.
4. Seek professional help and guidance to de-escalate your hurt and anger. Counselors, therapists and divorce coaches can help you learn constructive ways to vent/express your hurt feelings and begin healing your heart.
5. Stop seeing yourself as a victim and blaming the other person, their family, friends or therapist. Both of you share some of the responsibility for what happened and owning up to your part is the best insurance it will not happen again in your present relationship.
6. You are a work in progress. Catch yourself backsliding or resorting to punishing behavior... and STOP! No amount of revenge is going to be satisfying or undo the past. Stick to your agreement and take the high road.
If you’re the one being hurt and/or punished by an ex, possibly because you left them, here are some ways to consider helping yourself:
1. Some ex’s are masters at convincing everybody that you’re the bad guy who gave up on your marriage—and that they are the victim. "My son was furiously angry with me for leaving his father" one woman reported. "'Mom, if he never hit or cheated on you, you should stay,' he’d argue."
2. Your children, family and friends may be "siding" with your ex. As devastating as this is, and as much as you’d like to strike back, slowing down will put you in a better frame of mind to set things right.
3. Acknowledge the unseeable damage. The subtle forms of psychological abuse, neglect, reckless and corrosive behavior that kill a marriage are not as observable as physical abuse, addiction and alcoholism, infidelity, financial mismanagement and other breaches of trust that justify ending a marriage.
4. You have every right to defend yourself and seek protection from a bully. This may necessitate calling the police, protective services or a lawyer. Talking directly to the children, family, friends, neighbors and colleagues who have been subjected to your ex’s slanderous comments (without becoming slanderous yourself) may also help matters.
5. Move on as best you can. The return on investment for getting too heavily embroiled in ex-wars is very poor. You are better off practicing good self-care as you recover from the ordeal of a breakup and surrounding yourself with people who lift your spirits.
Ex’s who punish and those who are trying to free themselves of this cycle of hurt, anger and revenge deserve another chance. Following the above guidelines will give you the best opportunity to learn from heartache and failure—and become the better, smarter, more relationship ready version of yourself.
Ending a relationship is never easy, but we can choose to forge peace rather than wage war. Both of you, and your children, deserve a chance to go on with your lives and find happiness again. Letting go and moving on with our lives happens when we put the past behind us, stop playing the victim, take responsibility for our part, forgive ourselves and our partner for not knowing/doing better, show one another respect and allow ourselves to feel sorrow for the bad and gratitude for the good (including children) that came from time together.
Ken Druck, Ph.D., founder of The Jenna Druck Center in San Diego, is a renowned resilience expert, speaker, organizational and family consultant, and award-winning author of several books including, The Real Rules of Life (Hay House). Follow Ken’s blog or find him on Facebook.