© 2015 By Trissan Dicomes
–My Ex has totally lost it. Out of a three-page, single-spaced email maybe one or two sentences have some legitimate point and the rest is awful. She hates me. She loathes the fact that I have a girlfriend. She demands to know what the kids are doing on my time. She micro-manages everything I do. She never agrees to anything and she’s NEVER satisfied. I get 20 texts a day and the emails pour in at night. I dread reading any of it, but I have to because of the kids, and it takes a ton of time trying defend myself. I never get a break, it’s making me crazy, and I want my life back!
In my experience from years as a paralegal in separation and divorce cases, and coordinator of our BIFF Response website for High Conflict Institute, this a sure sign the sender is struggling with control (male or female). In this example, you left, you’re out of her immediate control and – oh lordy – you have her kids! Maybe she has a personality disorder, maybe not. Either way she’s desperately clinging to methods to keep in contact and feel like she’s still in some control. As weird as that sounds – if you are locked in battle, you have not really “left” – making it easier to avoid the internal realization that you are no longer a couple. Fighting is intimate and keeps you connected emotionally, after all. You have children together and you can’t just bail. So what do you do to get out of this mess?
JUST LET GO
Yes, that’s right. Some things you have to give up on but stick with me for a minute and I’ll explain.
First – let go of the idea that in order for YOU to be happy, SHE has to change. It would be nice if that happened, but is it a realistic expectation? I’d bet my favorite pair of shoes that there is a history of this behavior and whatever else may have happened, it’s part of the reason you are now Ex’s, so it’s unlikely to change now. You can read more about why it’s hard for high-conflict people to change, but for now, let’s focus on what you can adjust in yourself and learn to manage her inevitable outbursts one-by-one so you can lessen the impact and get some peace of mind.
Second– Give up the notion that you must reply to every text/email. Taking insults to heart and trying to convince her otherwise is nearly always fruitless, and fuels her fire. Say you sent a text with a legitimate reason for possibly being late. You get back: “It’s your day, so take some responsibility for a change, you selfish, worthless pile of crap. You need to be on time to pick up Suzie from school. Don’t leave her waiting. By the way, learn to use a washing machine before you bring her back here instead of leaving it all for me.” This hurts and makes you angry, but out of all those words pick the five that matter – pick up Suzie from school – then decide if you need to respond.
Third– Stop defending yourself. That’s a hard one, and yes, sometimes you do need to respond but that’s different than defending. When offering a defense or correcting her opinions and personal attacks, does she say “Gee, you’re right” and drop it, or do you get more texts/emails? Your ex knows the fastest way to punch your buttons to get a quick reply from you. When you oblige – oops – she’s keeping you engaged (and PO’d or depressed). It’s not about you. It’s about her internal struggles and largely unconscious need to keep you hooked, so learn which baits and zingers trigger you into an emotional response and make a conscious effort to let those pass.
Picture it this way: Say she calls you a worthless parent to your face and you just gaze back at her silently. Yeah, so that would be awkward, but how long can she keep insults flying when you give nothing for her to go on? Bingo – this ugly exchange just got a lot shorter.
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT
While not responding at all is often a viable choice, you won’t be able to ignore every message. For those times, we suggest four new rules collectively known as a BIFF Response®.
BRIEF: Your response should be very short; 2-5 sentences in most cases. The point is to avoid being defensive and/or triggering the other person, but instead, focusing them on problem-solving information. Don’t say too much. The more you say, the more likely you are to trigger another harsh response – which doesn’t do you any good.
INFORMATIVE: Give a sentence or two of straight, useful information presented in neutral terms, on the subject being discussed. If there isn’t a real subject or issue (because the personality is the issue), you can give some helpful information like “Got it. I’ll pick her up at 3:00,”) or decide that a response is not needed at all. Don’t include comebacks or your opinions.
FRIENDLY: This can be the hardest part, but it’s very important because it de-escalates upset people, including you. Keep it simple, like: “Thank you for telling me the pickup time.” Or: “I appreciate your concerns about being on time,” or just: “Thanks for your text.” You can also end it with a friendly comment — “I hope you have a nice weekend.”
FIRM: The goal is to end the conversation and to disengage. Let her know indirectly that this is all you are going to say, and don’t leave it open ended or seek a reply. Stay away from “If that’s OK with you” or “What do you think?” It’s friendly, but do you really want to know if it’s OK? If you need a response, then set a firm reply time or give two clear choices for future action. For example: “If I don’t hear otherwise from you by 1:00, I will pick up Suzie at 3:00,” or “I will tell you by 1:00 if I can’t get there on time and you can pick her up at 3:00 or have the school put her on the bus.”
A BIFF Response® is easy to do, but it takes practice because so much of it feels wrong at first. Once you get the hang of it, though, you may start to find that you get your life back more and more as you learn how to use a BIFF Response to end hostile exchanges before they go too far.
Trissan Dicomes is the BIFF Response Coordinator for High Conflict Institute. She runs the www.BIFFResponse.com website and social media for High Conflict Institute, and she provides BIFF Response® coaching and a regular BIFF Response Blog. She’s been in the legal field for over 20 years – eight of them as a paralegal at National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego where HCI co-founder, Bill Eddy, does his mediations with the Divorce Mediation Group. During that time, she acquired a lot of experience helping clients learn to write and speak with the BIFF Response® method.