This article was originally published in July 2019.
When you think of the word “bully,” you probably think of a kid’s movie with an older child pushing someone around on the playground. You might recall something that happened to you in high school when the mean girls made fun of your fabulous new scrunchie. But bullying isn’t something that many of us associate with adults.
Unfortunately, adults can be bullies. Some people never outgrow the desire to put down others or to make someone else feel bad at their expense. Bullies want to assert dominance and often do this by putting someone else down.
I’m a member of the Worthy Facebook group, a great community that provides support for divorced women. Reading through so many posts, it strikes me that our ex-husbands often behave just like bullies.
Whether the divorce is final, or in-process, exes often engage in name-calling and put-downs. They’ll call us ugly or fat or tell us that no one will love us again. These attacks on our self-esteem aren’t just verbal abuse, they’re bullying.
To be a successful bully, which has at its root the desire to control someone else’s behavior, the victim must have low self-esteem. There must be areas of weakness that a bully can exploit. And who knows our insecurities better than an ex-spouse?
Words do hurt, and they can cut our self-esteem to ribbons. Do your best to limit contact with your ex, whether it’s by insisting that they only communicate by text or email or through an app such as Our Family Wizard that provides warnings about tone and language. Memorize phrases such as, “I don’t like the way you’re speaking to me, and I’m going to walk away now,” and practice disengaging.
Unless it involves your children, you have no reason to continue communicating with an ex who is putting you down. Learning to recognize when it’s happening helps you manage your responses and keep it from getting to you.
There must be areas of weakness that a bully can exploit. And who knows our insecurities better than an ex-spouse?
Ever notice how it’s never the bully’s responsibility when something goes wrong? In the movies, it’s “you made me trip!” or “you made look stupid in front of my friends!” In a divorce, it becomes, “this is all your fault!” “You were a terrible wife!” “I wouldn’t have said those things if I wasn’t so unhappy!”
Giving up any hope that they’ll acknowledge their part in your divorce can actually be quite freeing. It’s a step along the journey of cutting ties. As long as you hold onto hope that they’ll ever say “sorry” or demonstrate remorse, you remain emotionally involved with them. You might be pleasantly surprised someday, but if they’re currently acting like a bully don’t hold your breath.
Their way or the highway, right? It probably happened a lot during your marriage, “compromises” somehow ended up with things happening their way. Appeals to reason during arguments over where your children would attend school, or which house to buy, always fell on deaf ears. It became easier to always give in than to fight for what you wanted.
Continuing this pattern, post-divorce can just feel gross. Period. After doing the work in therapy to move on and heal, to stand up for yourself, to stop being a pushover, giving in to their attempts to assert dominance feels like taking a step backward.
But if you have children together, you might not have a choice. They’ll attempt to assert their dominance over after-school activities, or just refuse to pay. Punishing you for leaving if you initiated the divorce, or for just existing if it was their idea, becomes more important than their child’s well-being.
How to manage this? It’s somewhat like dealing with a toddler –pick your battles. If giving in would hurt your children, try to stand your ground. Be aware that you won’t win any points or concessions later from compromising now. Bullies have a narrow viewpoint, one that always favors themselves.
Don’t argue, disengage, and just walk away. This may mean giving up some of your dreams for your children. It hurts, and it can be so frustrating, but unlike the movies, your ex isn’t going to suffer humiliation at a karate contest. He’s not going to end up losing the big baseball game in a cloud of dust. And the legal system’s insistence on treating both parents like rational, capable adults despite evidence to the contrary won’t work in your favor.
So why even identify their bullying behavior for what it is? To help you cope. To help you rise above. To give you the freedom to make your own decisions, to release any emotional baggage, and to learn coping tricks for dealing with them.
No one said life post-divorce would be easy or that you’d suddenly get along for the kid’s sake. But it can be healthier for you, which impacts your children. And if you need to imagine yourself sticking your tongue out at your ex occasionally, so be it.
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