When an Ex Won’t Let Go

Submitted by: Joni James


Divorce must end. There has to be a point where everyone finds neutrality around the events of divorce. We can’t move ahead without letting go of our past, clearing the way for better things to come into our lives. There are many ways to hold on: longing, depression, actively seeking attention. Other ways of holding on is remaining angry and upset, still raging over the details or unfairness of it all.

The opposite of love is not anger, it is neutrality. It is a place of balance and acceptance where we can detach and move on. This is what we strive for in divorce recovery: an acceptance of our past pains and traumas, detaching from the emotion, and moving on to a new, full, and happy life.

Anger can be a strong emotional tie to an ex. It is not neutral at all. In order to feel that anger, the feeling of betrayal is still fresh, which means we still care that we were hurt. When we hang on to our anger, it keeps the ex in our awareness. He or she is never far away if we keep our emotions raw by continuing to react to them, which delays the detachment. Anger does not help us transcend divorce, it keeps us stuck in the pain of it. If we are to release our ex, we must release the anger.

The reason for keeping an ex close emotionally is not necessarily because a reconciliation is wanted, but because doing so provides an outlet for processing the pain. Projecting anger onto what we perceive as the source of that anger is a natural reaction. But as conscious, thinking adults we must be mindful that there is a point where this becomes inappropriate and emotionally abusive. When the divorce papers are signed, it is time to let go of that pattern and process anger appropriately.

Being forced to let go of someone we shared so much with, and may even still love, is an extraordinarily difficult process. Some people hang on rather than face that kind of pain. But if we don’t break the patterns of our behavior in the way we engage the ex, we can’t move on, and that leads to bitterness, cynicism and waste later on. We can continue to work on ourselves and learn how best to detach. But what if it is our ex who is holding on so tightly?

If it is at all possible, it is best to cut all ties between you. If an ex is still in pain and wanting to hold on, and we are ready to be “just friends”, it ends up hurting everyone when we think we can handle communicating. They will be harboring the hope that we’ll get back together, and we will end up feeling guilty or impatient. There may be a time in the future that we can work on developing a friendly relationship, but for now, we each need to heal.

More often, though, there are children or unfinished business that forces us to have occasional communications with the ex. This can be very trying and emotionally draining if the ex uses guilt, is berating, dismissive, angry or does anything other than use a cooperative, civil tone. If we are experiencing this from an ex, it is fairly safe to assume that they are not letting go, and are probably using us to work through pain. It is likely they will not recognize this in themselves, and that is ok. It only matters that we understand what is going on, so that we can deal with it effectively.

When an ex is not acting balanced and neutral, that is the time to assess how we’ve been responding. Any emotional reaction in our response back to him is fueling the fire. We must be diligent in our efforts to stay balanced and neutral so that we can remain aware when that pattern of button-pushing/reaction begins. This awareness will buy us time to choose a new way to react, and ultimately, change the pattern. Remember the old adage, “If you keep doing what you were doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting”.

It is in everyone’s best interest to take the higher road. In this case, it would be by understanding that the inappropriate behavior is born out of pain. Their actions are not about us, it is not personal, it is about them processing their trauma. We are not only the person they turned to for so long in times of trouble, they also consider us the source of the trauma, so they project their pain onto us. Even though it may be difficult, using kindness, compassion, and detachment will go a long way in helping both parties find neutral ground. After all, no one can treat us poorly unless we allow it. If we stop our part in the pushed-button/reaction dance, then he will shift as well.

Horse3Neutrality means there is no bad attitude, hint of frustration or irritation, it is neither condescending nor superior. Neutrality is similar to a moderately pleasant detachment. It says to the other person “I’m not engaging with you, but I’m not igoring you either”. Neutrality is respectful and protects our boundaries.

The ex will not expect this new shift in response, so we must be prepared that he will ignore our new balanced and neutral response, and push further and harder. Rather than take the bait, we will just keep repeating ourselves until he understands that we are not buying into or contibuting to the drama anymore. The best way to stop the cycle is not to engage to begin with. If we don’t react back, the argument will fizzle because there is no one to argue with. All we need to do, when with our exes, is to state our business and end the conversation.

If he is being dismissive, condescending, using guilt, lashing out, or is using anything other than civility, we can very gently and firmly, without emotion and irritation in our voices, say “I’m dropping Junior off and will be back at 7 to get him”. If he continues to push, and he probably will, simply repeat it. Do this 3 times, then walk out or hang up. If he is raging so fast and furiously that there is no chance to get heard, then we have every right to just walk out or hang up. There is no excuse for verbal abuse. The discussion can pick up when he is calmer.Horse4

Repeating phrases is effective. It gives us something to say instead of reacting emotionally. It is good for us to practice being calm and detached in the face of someone trying to intimidate or manipulate. It also lets him know that there is no argument here, we are not buying into the drama anymore. He is arguing with himself, we are done.

If there is an issue with threats or stalking, call the police. We are incapable of “saving” them, there is a time and place for professionals to take over.

His anger is his problem to work through. We can’t make it our problem by reacting to it. He is responsible for his emotions and reactions and for finding the help he needs, just as we are only responsible for ourselves. We cannot change our exes, we can only change our reaction to them. Their problems are not our business anymore.

Not everyone is on the same healing path. We will all get there if we do the work now. Boundaries are important, but so is compassion and forgiveness…for all of us!

It takes two to keep an argument going. If we change the pattern, stop the interaction, and go back to our grounded, quiet center, we will claim the power to change the dynamics. We do not have to solve the entire problem for everyone concerned. We only have to solve the problem for ourselves. This is transcending the pain and trauma of divorce, and this path leads the way to peace.

©Joni James

When not leading her social club for over-40 singles, Joni James blogs about using divorce as a tool to recreating a fullfilling and joyful new life. She will facilitate a divorce recovery conference in Austin, Texas in May 2010.

You may find Joni at:

Transcend Divorce: http://doorways2freedom.blogspot.com
Austin Social Club:  http://www.meetup.com/AustinSocialClub


  1. 1


    “We only have to solve the problem for ourselves.”

    The above is a very powerful statement. I’ve learned from experience that it doesn’t matter how much compassion you show or how civil you attempt to be, some people can’t let go and never will.

    If you go through a divorce and are lucky, you will one day have a civil relationship with your ex. If, after bending over backwards that doesn’t happen and your ex refuses to let go of his anger, it has to become his anger alone…his problem and no one elses.

    Joni, I believe this is the best article I’ve ever read on this particular subject. Thank you for allowing us to use it.

  2. 2

    Sonia says

    What if the divorce hasn’t happened yet, and might take ages in the court and cost a fortune because the stbx who walked away from a 21+ year marriage doesn’t feel like doing mediation?

    What if you’ve just received your stbx’s motions for the first court hearing and they’re full of lies to make you look as bad as possible?

    What if the stbx is not only kicking you when you’re down, he’s also spitting on you and s**tting on you from a great height?

    Is it OK to be angry then? I’ve been crying all weekend since I picked up those papers on Friday. He and his attorney have clearly got their knives out for me, and they’re out for blood.

    Why does he hate me so much? I’ve done nothing wrong! I couldn’t have been a more devoted and loyal wife and mother! I have to stand up in court this week and defend myself against his lies. When I think about it, a huge wave of panic and fear washes over me. And anger too!

  3. 3

    Sonia says

    I just read the article again. How can this not be “personal”?–it couldn’t be more personal! He is personally screwing me over in court!

    I expected a little fairness and compassion after being rejected so unexpectedly, though no fault of my own. Instead I get Scrooge!

  4. 4


    “I expected a little fairness and compassion after being rejected so unexpectedly,”

    Sonia, expecting anything from him but the worst…at this point anyway is only setting you up for pain and let down.

    Years ago when I was going through the divorce process my then 15 year old son was in the high school band. He wanted a band jacket and I couldn’t afford to buy one.

    I told him that I had emailed his father and asked that he help pay for the jacket. My son looked at me and said, “you know what your problem is? You keep expecting Dad to do the right thing. When you stop expecting him to treat you with respect, you will stop hurting so much.”

    And the kid was right! I expected my ex to be fair with the divorce, I expected him to treat me with respect, I expected him to do right my our boys. I had many, many expectations and all I got in return was cruelty and disrespect.

    The moment I stopped expecting him to be anything other than the man he had turned into my pain and anger lessened.

    When someone we have spent years loving and building a family with turns on us it hurts and it is OK to be angry. I found that, for me, my hurt and anger was coming from my expectations. I wanted him to be the same man I had been married to.

    I thought that even though he wanted out of the marriage he could at least still care about the people he was leaving behind. I was stupid!

    You are new to this and it sounds as if your husband is going to choose to be adversarial. If that is true you need to stop expecting anything but the worst.

    That is how it works in an adversarial divorce. I remember getting letters from his attorney with the most offensive, hateful things in them. My ex wanted to muddy my name and he wanted his children and I out on the street with no where to live and no money to live on.

    I remember being pissed and hurt and twisting in the wind over the fact that this man I had been married to could be so dismissive of his children and me.

    I wish that I had, had someone back then to tell me that,that is how it works. That it isn’t anything “personal.” It is the family court system and some damned divorce attorney who makes a living by turning divorce into a major conflict.

    Your ex is doing exactly what his divorce attorney tells him to do Sonia. He has an attorney who doesn’t know you or your children and could care less about you. His attorney’s only concern is dragging out the divorce process because the longer it takes and the more conflict there is, the more money that attorney will make.

    Please stop expecting your husband to be anything other than disrespectful and don’t expect anything from the divorce process except a long, drawn out process.

    Do you have an attorney who is willing to fight fire with fire? It sounds like that is what you are going to need.

  5. 5

    Jolene says

    Great post! I printed and will keep it with me to reread when needed. The part about repeating ourselves three times and then ending the conversation by either walking away or hanging up is great. I have tried to stay calm when my ex is throwing his tantrums but it gets hard sometimes. Reading this shows me that I am making it worse.

    Thank you for this post! It came at the perfect time for me.

  6. 6

    Sonia says

    Cathy, thanks for your words of comfort and support. I’m sorry for what you had to go through with you ex, especially his treatment of the boys. I will try to follow your example and think of my stbx as some badly behaved guy I once knew rather than the man I shared my life with for a quarter century!

    My attorney seems quite sharp and sensitive to nuance. I’ll find out for sure what he’s made of when we go to the first court hearing later this week. He’s already told me I’ll stand next to him, but he’ll do all the talking. He also warned me not to speak or signal to him even if the stbx’s sttorney says something outrageously untrue. Apparently the court commissioners dislike seeing clients interrupt or disrupt the flow of rhetoric. We spent three hours today going over my final response to his Declaration and various motions for support and a Parenting Plan.

    I’ve never seen the inside of a courtroom, and I’d probably find this whole legal divorce process fascinating if it weren’t happening to me, and the stakes weren’t so high! To be honest I’m hoping my stbx will lose heart if things don’t go his way at this hearing, and perhaps return to mediation. How much cheaper and saner the process would be!

  7. 7

    mARY says


  8. 8

    Renee says

    I am dealing with my ex’s anger and delay tactics with the divorce. He was the one who cheated, I am asking for nothing except what is rightfully mine. No spousal support, etc. I have worked throughout our 20 year marriage and we both make approx. the same amount. He refuses to move torward settlement nor finish out the basic divorce paperwork. He is living with his girl friend. This article made the most sense–I have often felt he maintains these ludicrous phone calls and e-mails with me as a way to vent his anger. I wish he would get a therapist so we no longer have to drag this out—

  9. 9

    Charlene says

    I have been separated for over a year and a half and am still no closer to a settlement. I have finally resorted to taking far less than is fair, and even that is not guaranteed. If I go on past behavior on my ex’s part, I may be spending more money on my lawyer and still getting nothing. I am angry, very very angry to say the least. This article offers the best advice, but it is a bitter pill to swallow. At forty years old, I don’t feel it is fair to have to start again when I built up something with my own two hands. Fair has no place in divorce. I have this hatred in my heart that I do not want to keep carrying. I know I have to let go of all this. I am realizing I have to start doing it now, not when the papers are finalized as that could be a long ways away. I am so desperate I feel willing to just let the bank take my house and be damned with my credit, but at my age that would simply be foolish. If you have the money to fight, then do it, but for me I have no money. When we marry there should be a law that says we must settle within 2 years after a separation or a court sells all and splits it right down the middle. Wishful thinking. How is it reading of others going through the same thing makes us feel not so alone? Thank you for the article and thank you everyone else for your words and good luck to you all.

  10. 10

    Peanutlee says

    VERY insightful article. I am presently in counseling in addition to obtaining much support and insight to my recent breakup. My ex-BF ended our relationship (6 mos) because he cannot move on from his divorce almost 2 yrs. ago. His ex had repeat affairs, which of course ended their marriage. Yet, 2 yrs later he remains active at their home church (yes, they both attend the same church). Everyone has raised a brow at this stating “red flag!” “why doesn’t he leave?” etc. etc.

    Because he can’t let go of the past and move on with the present, and into a new, healthy relationship. He never took Divorce Care nor sought appropriate counseling for his pain. Again, another “red flag”.

    Thanks a ton for this article. It is tremendous in helping me digest what’s been going on with him, and our ‘break up’.

  11. 11

    kel says

    If I remerry My ex hubund wil our anything that he had on me from past divorce be able to be used against me in court? or is it void and nulled? because if i am such a terrible person and horrible mother why would he want to marry me again? how would the court look at this? need advice on what to do.

  12. 12

    SouthernSurvivor says

    Wonderful article. I, too, continue to deal with the pain. I left my husband in February…he had the children court ordered back into the house with him by the end of the month. If I wanted to be with my children, than I also had to move back in, which I did. He locked me out of various places in the house and I was forced to sleep in a small area on a futon, which lead to physical therapy for my back. He hired a PI to follow me and bugged my phones. We each walked around the house recording each other when the other was at home. The judge ordered the children back in the home for stability…how is this a stable environment. ( I had been married 21 years and my husband was an abusive alcoholic and this is why I left him.) He would get up in the middle of the night and I would hear him on the other side of my locked door. I slept with a ball bat, and had to call the cops on several occasions when confrontations occurred. A friend told me that he had threatened to have me killed and I went to the police but nothing happened because my friends took back her story. Finally, we attended mediation and settled and I was divorced a few days later, but he was allowed to continue living in the house for two months. I continued calling the police, as I was still restricted going places in my own home, by my ex who felt entitled to still control me…My ex husband finally moved out to a house that he bought across the road. He can watch me coming and going and can sit on his front porch and watch me swim in my pool.He has assured me I will never be rid of him. After he moved out, I have had several instances of vandalism on my property that I have reported to the police, but I have no proof who did it. He took money from me before the mediation and now he has bought a new vehicle…Oh, did I mention I have a restraining order, yet I am still being stalked? And that there are hidden cameras in my home even to this day I have a lot of bad moments. It is hard not to feel angry and bitter….yet I am trying to be easy on myself, live one day at a time, pray for peace and guidance, and see the small blessings in each day. It is hard…and I still fear for my life.

  13. 13

    Dawn McIntosh says

    My situation is that my ex-husband who I divorced almost twenty eight years ago is sending my son-in -laws mother derogatory face book posts about me and my daughter. I couldn’t care less except that I have custody of my daughters six year old son and he visits his grandfather on a regular basis. I have already had to have a talk with him about talking bad about me and his daughter in front of the child and then not a month later I am told about this post that was put on facebook for all the world to see. I don’t want to take his visits away but I am concerned that my grandson may be picking up on all this negativity. What should I do?

  14. 14

    Eloise says

    This was good advice for me also. 4.5 years ago I found out I was pregnant with a baby that I hadn’t planned, after sex with a guy I had been dating 3 months. Through counselling I realized I wanted to keep the baby, but that I didn’t want to be with the baby’s father, as I didn’t love him. I foolishly imagined that he would come to accept the situation faster than he did. I have witnessed him spend over a year in denial about the situation; two years-plus in anger; and now I think he is in the third grief stage of bargaining, where he tries (unsuccessfully) to force me to come to his house by bargaining. I don’t think he expects me to be with him as a romantic partner (he has had no reason to think that is remotely realistic for the past 4 years) but he cannot let go of his emotions/anger at me for not providing the ‘nuclear family’ he had wanted for himself. I am still searching for ways that I can protect myself from being sucked into the toxic place that he is in. I made many mistakes at first by allowing him too much contact and access to me (in my efforts to cooperatively parent with him when our child was a baby). I am much better at this than I used to be – e.g. I now always wait a day or two before replying to his emails and say as little as possible while remaining polite, neutral and as reasonable as possible about the issue. Doing this has been really good for me, and made me feel both lighter and stronger as a person. However, I still feel anxious going to our public handover point for when my child spends time with him because he has often yelled and made handovers physically intimidating for me. I have been on the verge of using professional handover services many times but haven’t mainly due his refusal (he would rather not see his child for months than use one), and also there is the cost and inconvenience. One day things will get better, but it is a long, long road ahead. Any tips about managing the emotional baggage former partners like this place on us would be appreciated!


  1. […] When an Ex Won’t When the divorce papers are signed, it is time to let go of that pattern and process anger appropriately. … you for allowing us to use … was going through the divorce process my then … […]

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