Divorce is difficult enough when both parties play fair and try to come to an amicable closure. But when your soon-to-be ex is a bully, an already stressful situation can become a mine-field of shame, blame, and discourse. According to divorce coach, Dr. Karen Finn, manipulation through shame and blame are the weapons emotional bullies wield to get their way. “They are masters of creating even more misery during a time when we’re already vulnerable,” she writes. “So the best long-term defense against an emotional bully is to bolster your self-esteem. The better you feel about yourself the less their behavior impacts you.”
Most bullies aren’t born. They are made. They use aggressive language and behavior because they have been bullied or abused themselves — often by their own parents or siblings. Perhaps it’s the way they learned to survive as children in an abusive home, or the behavior they saw modeled.
And although ex-husbands may get a bad rap for their use of intimidation, there’s equal opportunity for ex-wives to be bullies, too. “I discovered this first-hand many years ago when a male family member of mine went through a divorce,” Finn says. “That’s when it became painfully obvious to me that there are plenty of ex-wife bullies out there too.”
So, how do you know if your ex is a bully? Here are some clues:
- Nothing you do is ever good enough.
- They run you down in front of your children.
- They throw a fit when you don’t do exactly what they want, when/howthey want you to do it.
- She or he acts like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You do one littlething they don’t agree with and they have a meltdown that’s completely out of proportion with the situation. But when you offer them any type of praise, they relax with happiness or visible satisfaction.(This behavior exposes an emotional bully’s Achilles heel: They also have huge fears about feeling disconnected and not good enough.)
- They obstruct the process of divorce through withholding vital information.
Fortunately, there are ways to cope with this demeaning, toxic behavior. Finn outlines these three strategies.
- Set boundaries and limit communication. Take a clue from Dr. Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. (Eddy pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and has become an expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities.)
In his book, BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Eddy provides a helpful acronym to help diffuse bullies by keeping your communication brief, informative, friendly, and firm (BIFF).
Avoid apologies. The less ammunition you give your ex, the less of it you’ll receive. Set hard boundaries for yourself about when and how you will respond to them. (Of course, if you share custody of your children, your rules may have to be flexible to keep open channels for your kids.)
- Don’t bite the hook. Bullies want to pull you down to their level, but you don’t have to be caught in her drama. It’s natural to want to defend yourself when they saying terrible things about you, but the best response is no response. The more you get into it with them, the more power you’re giving their behavior. You’re dancing to his or her tune and you don’t want to continue being subject to their whims. (If you did, you’d still be married to them)
Before every interaction, prepare a mantra or a pat answer (ex: “I just want what’s best for our children.” Or “I hear that you’re upset. Let’s try this another time.”) to help you disengage from their attempts at discourse.
- Stand your ground.Sometimes the best thing to do is call a bully’s bluff. Never do this in the heat of the moment. Stand your ground when you’re calm and communicating clearly. You regain control of your life and stop the emotional bullying only when you clarify and honor your own boundaries. Consider employing the help of a professional mediator if the situation escalates and becomes too difficult for you to manage.
As with any difficult relationship, employing the counsel of a skilled therapist, spiritual director, or family law attorney can help you find perspective and minimize the damage that the bully wants to inflict.
If you have children, remember they are watching! The behavior they see may be the behavior they model down the road. Likewise, taking the high road, not engaging in angry exchanges, and doing your best to bring calm to the situations will speak volumes about your character — and may just help you sleep better at night.