Deciphering the True Meaning Behind Your Ex’s Words

You know your spouse better than anyone – especially if you’re going through a divorce. And while a divorce really brings out one’s true colors, it can also make one’s bark far louder and more threatening than their bite. What your ex says does not necessarily translate into what they truly mean.

To help you decipher common threats or reactions, we’ve listed them out along with the more likely reason your ex might say this –and how to respond. While these suggestions won’t make everything perfect, they can turn the conversation into something a lot more productive and help you stay calm.

When your ex says: “I want joint custody.”

What you think: They want an even 50% stake in time and parental rights.

What they really mean: They don’t want to be put in a secondary (unequal) parent role – but they may not need a 50/50 time split.

Suggested response: “I will always support your relationship with our children. Let’s assume we’ll share joint custody and add that to the agreement but work out a co-parenting schedule that works for us and the kids.”

When your ex says: “I’m going to hire a lawyer and get everything I’m entitled to.”

What you think: They want revenge and they are going to do whatever it takes to get it.

What they (usually) mean: I am terrified and/or angry.

Suggested response: “It’s a good idea to speak with a lawyer to help you understand your rights and responsibilities. But before we ‘lawyer up’ and pay thousands that we don’t have, let’s see what we can work out and/or consider meeting with a mediator to resolve our differences.”

When your ex says: “I shouldn’t have to pay you any child support. You are capable of earning a living.”

What you think: Are you f-ing kidding me? Who handled everything from packing school lunches to cleaning your underwear?

What they really mean: You’re trying to punish me and it’s not fair.

Suggested response: “If we can’t work this out our judge will use the state calculation for support and order an amount that might not work for either of us. I’m willing to negotiate something that feels fair to both of us. I’ll send you a proposal and we can go from there.”

When your ex says: “There’s no way you are getting any piece of my pension. I worked hard for this.”

What you think: Did you read marital property 101? Geesh!

What they really mean: I want what I fairly worked hard for.

Suggested response: “I know your pension is important to you. Let’s agree to use a CDFA to value the marital interest. Then we can determine if we have enough other property to assign to me in order to offset my interest in your retirement account.”

When your ex says: “I’m not leaving the house. Ever. I want it and deserve it – it’s the least you can give me.”

What you think: Well, unless you remarry a millionaire, I don’t see how you can afford to buy me out.

Suggested response: “I’m open to creative solutions including exploring ______ (e.g. deferred sale until kids finish elementary school or a “buy out”) but I’m not willing to give up my interest in our house. Let’s start with the basics. We can see if we agree on the fair market value and offset that by how much we owe on the mortgage. Then we can consider meeting with a mediator.”

When your ex says: “Let’s just handle this later – every time we talk about our divorce it leads to a fight.”

What you think they mean: They are avoiding conflict and will never cooperate about this.

What they really mean: You’re not too far off. They probably do not like conflict and would rather pretend like this isn’t happening.

Suggested response: “I need closure so I’m not willing to avoid talking about it. But, let’s agree on some ground rules like when, where, and how we’ll talk about the things we need to resolve.”

When your ex says: “You always try and control the situation. I am done rolling over.”

What you think they mean: You’re not getting your way ever again.

What they really mean: I want to make meaningful changes in my life so I have healthier relationships. I’m starting with boundaries.

Suggested response: “The good news is that we don’t have to “fix” this pattern in our relationship. All we have to do is get to an agreement that feels fair to both of us. Why don’t you email a settlement proposal to me and then we can go from there.”

Did we miss anything? Email us and ask us how to decode something your ex told you. Just remember: things will get better. *and then worse, then fine, then terrible, then good, then better. You got this.

Head of Content
Communication, Relationships, Personal Growth, Mental Health
As Hello Divorce's Head of Content, Katie is dedicated to breaking down the stress and mess of divorce into clear, helpful content that delivers hope rather than fear. Katie most often writes about the emotional toll of divorce, self-care and mindfulness, and effective communication. Katie has 20+ years of experience in content development and management, specializing in compelling consumer-facing content that helps people live better lives. She has a Master's in Media Studies from the University of Wisconsin. Katie lives in Texas with her husband and two adorable cats, and you can find her hiking and bird watching in her free time.