When our ex tries to mark territory in our life after divorce, we have to stand our ground and never stop doing what brings us joy!
Holly recently signed up for karate classes with her two boys. She looked forward to an activity to do with her sons to help them bond and enjoy their time together, and she anticipated reaching her lifelong goal of earning a black belt while trying to get into better shape. She was so pleased that her boys instantly took to their classes and were very enthused about returning for more!
Holly has shared custody of her sons, who alternate a week at a time between her and her ex. Because her ex has been adamant in the past about her sharing every detail of what the boys do, she told him that she signed them up for karate, even though it was something that would only occur over her time, and she was paying for it.
Her excitement for the next class plummeted when her ex showed up for the next session (and several following) and watched the entire class. She understood that, as the boys’ father, he would have an interest in seeing what the classes were like and watching the boys in action.
What she did not appreciate is how he spent the whole class watching her, taking pictures of her on his phone, and giggling at her beginner awkwardness.
It became immediately clear that he wasn’t present so much to support his sons or be involved, as he was to spy and mark his territory, just like a junkyard dog, on yet another one of her post-divorce activities.
When the class concluded, he spent the next half hour chatting with the instructor like they were old pals and establishing himself as a key figure in the dojo. He also succeeded in making Holly feel incredibly angry and embarrassed. Another place, another activity she tried to claim as her own was already being pulled into his controlling, attention-hungry clutches!
She had flashbacks to three years ago when she became a member of a new church. On her weeks with the boys, they faithfully attended, and the boys enjoyed becoming involved in the activities. Her ex still attended the church they went to while married. He wasn’t seeking a spiritual home or something to do on Sunday morning; but, he made a point of sporadically attending services in her new church. While there, he would introduce himself around and act as friendly and amazing as can be.
He even scheduled a private meeting with the pastor, presumably to put on yet another show for another person of what a great person he was while discrediting his ex-wife and making her feel like an outcast in her own environment. She knew the truth. She knew that he had been verbally and physically abusive to her and the kids throughout their marriage; but, it was always the same frustrating story: to strangers and authority figures he oozed charm and grace and only showed what a monster he was away from the spotlight!
There was that vision again of a scroungy stray dog peeing all over her life to leave his impression on it and make it his!
Holly’s ex clearly demonstrates signs of narcissistic behavior, which anyone who has experienced will share is the most poisonous and difficult partner to have or try to break away from. They are master manipulators, controlling, deceitful, and excellent at making their targets look like overreacting liars when the truth is that they are puppet masters.
Not every ex is a narcissist, but many will do things similar to Holly’s ex that make life after divorce feel as though it will never be free from their presence.
Why do these exes continue to interfere?
They have failed to disengage from a life with us. An ex who engages in behaviors that could, at times, be described as stalking or clinging has clearly not been able to accept the fact that the relationship is over nor adjust to updated definitions of the relationship. Where once the relationship was a partnership between spouses, it may now only consist of co-parenting, and they can’t figure out how to make this shift.
This ex hasn’t yet come to terms with the changes, they don’t know how to function in the new dynamics, and they may possibly still harbor unresolved feelings for their former spouse. In short, this ex needs to get a life of their own. They piggyback on our life because they are lost and failing to embrace change.
They feel a need to intimidate or threaten us. This ex may have had little else going for them other than the ability to control their partner. Continuing to insert themselves into our lives may be a form of punishment for challenging their behavior or divorcing them, and they may even find it funny that they can still have power over their ex by causing discomfort and reminding them they’re always near.
They do not recognize or understand boundaries. Lack of respect for boundaries may be deliberate and with the intent to be a pest, or it may simply be ignorance of how inappropriate and ridiculous their behavior is and the need to respect individual time and space. Divorce often comes with growing pains as both sides adjust to new dividing lines. Boundaries are important to establish and important to enforce!
What can we do about it?
Establish boundaries. If an ex is failing to see the writing on the wall or is playing games, we have to let them know through words and actions what will be tolerated and what their place is. Boundaries may be violated by being somewhere they shouldn’t be, talking about things or in such a way that is not welcome, inserting themselves into business that is not theirs, or in otherwise acting outside of their role or relationship.
If an ex is acting rude or disrespectful, try telling them to stop. If the behavior continues, we can refuse to take their calls, continue the conversation, or be around them so long as they continue to act in those ways. Every time we allow an ex to behave contrary to our wishes, it reinforces their desire and ability to do so. Engage with them when they behave appropriately and within the boundaries we’ve set (e.g. a calm child-focused conversation versus a rant about something not related to co-parenting, such as a personal attack).
Don’t feed the drama monster Exes who play games usually thrive on being the center of attention, having an audience, and getting a reaction. In Holly’s situation, she is best to ignore her ex when he pops up unexpectedly rather than giving him the input he likely craves, such as acting angry, flustered, or embarrassed by his presence.
An ex with a narcissistic streak will try to convince everyone else around that they are calm, rational, and a non-threat and try to make their ex look foolish and like the “bad one” by pushing buttons until composure is lost. Then, they can play the victim, point to their ex as the problem, and walk away laughing at the bomb detonated in their ex’s life. While difficult to do, it’s best to act as if what they say and do has no effect. A narcissist is essentially an overgrown playground bully who sets up their victims to become the culprits and enjoys nothing more than spinning webs to entrap others!
Stand up for yourself. Holly made the right choice in her predicament. Her ex made her uncomfortable enough that her initial instinct was to quit karate to prevent her ex from bothering her and infringing on her activity. Had she given in, her ex would have succeeded in conquering yet another area of her life. Instead, it was necessary to stand up to her bully by showing him that attempts to mark territory wouldn’t make her surrender and run.
Through tears, she decided he could watch her, and even make fun of her. She took pride in the fact that she, not he, was the one trying something new, becoming stronger, and working toward a goal. He could laugh, but she would be the victor in the end!
Seek back-up, as needed. If an ex’s intrusions take on a dark or dangerous tone and we feel afraid for our safety, we should absolutely speak up and seek help. Holly informed her instructor of her ex’s history of harassment, and he has since kept a protective eye on her and not engaged her ex in conversation. Some of us may need to obtain restraining orders to enforce our boundaries, especially if our ex’s actions exceed being a nuisance and are, instead, threatening in any way!
Sometimes a bad dog has to be scolded and told to go away or we can never achieve peace. Our life after divorce should be ours without the lingering shadow of an ex who enjoys making us squirm. As in so many things related to divorce, the behavior we allow is what we can expect to continue; therefore, we have to find the strength to stand our ground and not give up on the things that are meaningful to us!
We can hope that an attention-seeking ex lacking their own life focus will eventually become bored and move on. As long as we feed their incessant need to know they can still get to us, we don’t have a chance. Keep doing karate, or whatever it is that brings you purpose and joy. As for your ex, perhaps we can pity a person who has so little impact anywhere else in the world!