8 Tips for Co Parenting with a Controlling Ex

You finally did it. You broke away from a controlling marriage and are ready to start a new life. But as exhilarating as this may be, if you have kids together, you will still need to have contact with your ex as the co-parent of your children.

Whether your ex is controlling by nature or using this behavior as competition or retaliation, understanding and managing the situation will make your post-divorce life a lot less stressful for you and your kids.

Signs of a controlling personality

Your co-parenting relationship will extend through your kids’ childhood and beyond. And if your ex was a controlling spouse, they will most likely continue to be a controlling co-parent. How this manifests in your co-parenting relationship can range from subtle manipulation to all-out intimidation. Unfortunately, this controlling behavior creates a tense and emotionally unhealthy relationship for everyone involved. 

People with controlling personalities are often:

Fault finders

Everything will be your fault when co-parenting with this person. You will be on the receiving end of the blame game for every hiccup, every mistake, every small thing that goes wrong. For example, if your child has forgotten to bring a school project to complete to your ex’s house, you get the accusing finger point. They accuse you of being irresponsible instead of acknowledging that these things happen in any household. This is not only exhausting, but it can ultimately erode your confidence as a parent. 


Intimidators use fear to get their way in co-parenting decisions. For instance, they will make unilateral decisions about your children’s schooling or activities without your input. Unless you agree to their way, they will try to intimidate you into submission. They’ll use everything from aggressive communication to outright threats, perhaps even threatening violence, to assert their will.


They have no problem criticizing everything you do, even in front of your kids. They’re quick to point out every flaw in your decision-making or parenting style, from what you feed the kids to how you handle their bedtime routine. Their way is the best way. Your way is just wrong. This constant criticism is not only a continual hit to your confidence as a parent, but if done in front of the kids, it can affect how they see you as their parent. 


If you question their actions, they are adept at getting you to doubt reality and yourself.  They twist facts and manipulate conversations. They leave you questioning yourself and maybe even your judgment as a parent. If you have the gall to question an event or conversation, they have a talent for making you second-guess your memory or even your understanding of the situation. 

Boundary pushers

They will disrespect your boundaries and your privacy. They will disregard the rules you’ve established in your divorce agreement as minor inconveniences. They’ll show up unannounced and overstep your time with the kids. They’ll drop them off late with a lame excuse, unwashed clothes, and a bag of pre-dinner candy. Your schedule and responsibilities? They’re totally ignored.


Acting sullen, moody, and passive-aggressive is the key to getting their way. Always the victim, they play on your sympathy to keep control, often twisting the narrative by claiming your kids always miss out on the fun because of you. Guilt-trippers are masterful emotional manipulators with a bag of tricks specifically designed to get you to bend to their will. 


They will remind you of everything they’ve ever done for you and what you owe them, using past favors or actions to manipulate current situations. You ask for a small change to the schedule or an adjustment for an upcoming holiday, and you get a rant on all the ways they’ve accommodated you in the past. You are not only indebted, but you’re just downright ungrateful. 

Drama queens/kings

They will push all your emotional buttons and create drama to get you to react. They create chaos over nothing and escalate the most minor issues. What could have easily been resolved with a little cooperation erupts into a major conflict and gets blown completely out of proportion. In the meantime, they’ve gotten the attention and sympathy they were looking for, often from the kids and other family members


In the most extreme cases, controlling behavior can cross into emotional, psychological, and even physical abuse. Unfortunately, there is a fine line between a controller and an abuser. You may have already experienced that line. An abusive co-parent can quickly escalate out of control, manipulating, threatening, and intimidating you and your kids. It’s critical to get immediate intervention when co-parenting has become abusive – before any more harm is done. 

Suggested: Narcissistic Traits: Male vs. Female

While your ex has been adept at controlling you, you may have allowed yourself to become an easy target to keep the peace. But this is a new chapter. Take ownership of your role in this dynamic so you don’t continue to be a victim of your ex. 

Controlling behavior explained

Interestingly, controlling behavior is usually not about aggression or dominance. In fact, it’s about the opposite. 

Controllers often act out of anxiety, fear, and a chronic phobia of abandonment that may stem from their childhood. They feel insecure and out of control in their personal lives and exercise control over others to make up for their own sense of powerlessness. When feeling out of control, their highly charged emotions can hijack them, and they fall into controlling habits that have worked for them in the past to get the power they need.

But regardless of the reason, controlling behavior can hurt everyone, especially if it crosses the line into abuse. While it can help to understand why your co-parent is the way they are, you must still find constructive ways to deal with it so you can reach a place of calm for yourself and your children.


8 tips for dealing with a controlling co-parent

If you’re co-parenting with a controlling ex, the more you can understand and manage your situation, the easier it will be for everyone, especially your kids.

1. Recognize the pattern and react accordingly

What triggers your ex’s controlling behavior, and how does your reaction escalate the situation? When you feel you’re being manipulated, give the situation time and space. Leave your response for another time when cooler heads can prevail. 

Keep a journal of your interactions to see if there are patterns or specific triggers you can detect that lead to your ex’s need for control. You might be able to de-escalate heated discussions by saying, “We’re both getting worked up by this conversation. Let’s revisit it tomorrow when we can approach it with clearer heads.”

2. Take responsibility for your role

A controller wants someone who can be easily controlled. Don’t be that person any longer. Cultivate the self-respect you deserve. 

Remind yourself of your strengths and worth. Work on any self-esteem issues you may have, and practice assertiveness in all your daily interactions, not just with your ex. When they try to control the situation, calmly say, “I appreciate your perspective, but I have some of my own thoughts on the matter. I would like to find some middle ground here.”

3. Establish boundaries

Chances are your boundaries were broken down during your marriage to this person. But this is a new life, and you deserve a better future. Be clear about what you expect, and back that up with action. 

Boundaries are essential in all relationships but especially in ones where you are co-parenting with a controlling ex. How do you establish these boundaries?

  • Define them for yourself. You may not have thought much about boundaries until this point. But you want to be clear about what you’re willing and not willing to accept. Where will you draw the line? At what point will you not accept your ex’s behavior or how they talk to you? Be specific so you can enforce it. For instance, what do you consider acceptable times for phone calls and other communication methods? What topics do you consider off-limits for conversations?
  • Communicate these boundaries clearly. If you find it difficult to communicate verbally, write them down. Use specific, straightforward language so nothing can be misunderstood. As much as possible, frame your boundaries around the well-being of the kids, and stay away from blame. 
  • Expect pushback. If your ex has been controlling throughout your marriage, they already know how to push your buttons. Don’t expect that they will immediately respect your boundaries. Stay calm, and keep reiterating your limits as you need to. 

If your ex oversteps your boundaries, you might want to say, “Remember we discussed this, and I am uncomfortable with it. Let’s try to keep our conversations more cooperative so we can focus on the kids’ well-being.” With a controlling ex, getting them to respect your boundaries may just have to be a matter of persistence. 

4. Have a well-developed parenting plan, and stick with that plan

Establish and stick to ground rules that leave no room for interpretation or last-minute alterations. Not only should your parenting plan have clear guidelines for everyday routines, holidays, vacations, and how you’ll make decisions, but it can also be helpful to address potential scenarios that might arise so there is less likelihood for disagreement. 

For example, if your ex proposes a last-minute change that you believe to be a power play, you have your plan to fall back on. “According to our plan, we agreed that changes needed to be made at least two weeks in advance so we could both adjust our schedules.”

5. Be calm and reasonable

If possible, don’t engage in the conflict as it’s happening. Allow yourself time to consider a practical solution instead of a reaction.  

Engaging in conflict impulsively is rarely constructive. Take a step back, take a breath, take a walk, and allow yourself time and space to think through a calm and reasonable response. Consider the long-term consequences of a response that might be angry and impulsive. 

6. Realize that your ex will probably not change

Unfortunately, you may have spent much of your marriage hoping your spouse would change. It didn’t happen then, and it probably won’t happen now. 

One of the realities of divorce is finally coming to grips with the fact that your ex probably won’t change their spots. This can help you adjust your expectations and focus on what you can control: your own reactions and actions.

Instead of continuing to argue, state your point calmly, and disengage if necessary. Comments like, “I understand your perspective, but I see things differently. Let’s find a solution that works for both of us,” can go a long way.

7. Take the high ground, and model good behavior for your kids

Co-parenting is not a competition, and the best endgame is for your kids to feel happy and secure with both parents. This requires a united front and cooperative spirit, and there will be times when compromise is necessary. Try to develop ways to do this without feeling like you’ve been controlled or manipulated. 

Your focus as co-parents should always be on your kids’ well-being, and this requires communication and compromise. Be respectful to each other even in the most challenging situations, and avoid talking to each other negatively. If your ex struggles with this, you can say, “We both want what’s best for the kids, so let’s work together to make that happen.” 

Block: Taking the high ground shows your children how to handle difficult situations with grace and maturity. It is one of the most important lessons you can impart as a parent. 

8. Get help

If you’re struggling to co-parent with a controlling ex, don’t try to navigate it alone. Get the help of a therapist or support group. Consider a mediator who can work with you and your ex toward a solution in your kids’ best interests. 

Where to find a therapist or counselor

How can you find help? First, clarify what you’re looking for. A therapist? More informal support? Legal structure?

If therapy is your goal, are you considering traditional in-office therapy sessions or virtual? What are your goals? There are a number of mental health databases specifically designed for connecting professionals with clients, including the following:

Ask your primary care physician or friends who may have used a therapist in the past. If you are close to a university with a psychiatry or psychology department, you can ask for recommendations there. If you prefer online appointments, many therapists offer virtual visits or consider MDLive, Amwell, or Doctor on Demand.

Consider your finances. Will you be paying for this out of pocket or relying on insurance? Consult your insurance network for options. Mental Health America also serves individuals without insurance with free and low-cost therapy. 

Support groups and mediation

Instead of therapy, would you feel more comfortable meeting with a group of others going through similar experiences? You can seek out local divorce support groups or groups through social media. More structured support groups like Circles allow you to meet with an online community through a weekly series of video meetings. You are paired with groups that address your specific areas of concern, like divorce or grief. 

If your spouse’s controlling behaviors are causing serious co-parenting challenges, you may also consider working with a professional mediator who specializes in high-conflict resolution to lend structure and impartiality to your communication.

Watch: Hello Divorce founder and CEO Erin Levine discusses How Emotional Support Groups Can Help You with Divorce

Final thoughts 

Co-parenting is challenging, especially with someone who has been controlling throughout your marriage. Managing your co-parenting relationship with your ex may be tricky at first, but time has a way of taking the edge off these behaviors. The more you can find ways to hold your own and weigh your responses, the sooner that time may come. 

At Hello Divorce, we understand the complexities of divorce and offer services and resources for people navigating the divorce process, from mediation to divorce coaching. You are not alone. Schedule a free 15-minute call to see how we can help.


Psychologist Locator. American Psychological Association.
Therapist Locator. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Find a Family/Marital Therapist. Psychology Today.
AGLP Online Referral System. Association of LGBTQ+ Psychiatrists.
Find a Therapist. GoodTherapy®.
Doctor on Demand.
Affiliate Resource Center. Mental Health America.
Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.