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.
Neutrality 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.
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.
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.
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