When you see or talk to your ex (or soon-to-be-ex), do you have a strong emotional reaction? Are you constantly reminded of the ways they hurt you? Do thoughts of your “toxic ex” fill you with rage such that you want to fire off mean or snarky texts, or stare them down at your child’s basketball game?
Or, are you excited and anxious to not have to “put up with” them any more?
Are you sick and tired of being hurt and angry and wondering when you’ll start to move forward? Or, are you ready to find a way to develop patience and neutrality when interacting with them?
Let’s take a look at the narrative you’re shaping around your ex, how is impacting how you feel, and your attitude towards that person. After all, the stories we tell ourselves are powerful. They shape our beliefs and feelings about and towards someone. We believe the stories we tell ourselves. But – they may be fiction. And we might need to do some editing.
We are All a Lot of Things
We are all complex beings with many different facets of our identity. To start, I want you to think of all the aspects of your identity and the roles you play in life. For example, if I were doing this exercise, I would say I am a woman, a wife, a mother, a business owner, a therapist, a divorce coach, a mediator, a friend, a daughter, a co-worker, a book lover, a music lover, a sports fan, a golfer, a college graduate, and a native Midwesterner to name a few. You can also name personality characteristics about yourself (funny, patient, kind, loud, sarcastic, hard-working, persistent, nurturing) or things you love to do and hobbies you engage in (travel, cook, photography, crafts, sports, woodworking, etc). Other categories of identity include religious beliefs, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and values that you hold. It is essentially the question, “Who am I?”
No one is unidimensional. We are not the sum of limited parts of ourselves or a moment in time. Words matter, labels matter. For example, you take a Saturday morning or an evening to relax and then start to think, “I am lazy.” This results in feeling guilty for relaxing and feeling as though you should be doing something productive. Is this a true and accurate assessment of your character as a whole? What evidence can you conjure up to counter the statement that you are lazy? When we apply labels, we are saying something is true 100% of the time. This is a distorted way of thinking.
Remember that time in 2013 when Reese Witherspoon was arrested for disorderly conduct? Probably not. Or if you do, that is not the entire lens through which you see Reese Witherspoon. She is not the sum of one evening of her life. You are not the sum of moment or decisions in your relationship and neither is your ex.
We feel what we think. So, let’s feel better by thinking differently.
So how does this impact your emotional state when you see or hear from your ex? If your narrative about him/her is focused around the hurts of the marital relationship and divorce, you are likely to feel a whole host of negative emotions. After all, we feel what we think. If I am driving in traffic, someone cuts me off and I think, “What a jerk!” (or more colorful language), I am likely to feel angry and try to be aggressive back.
If I am driving in traffic, someone cuts me off and I think, “Whoa, they’re being an unsafe driver,” I am likely to feel cautious and get some distance.
If I am driving in traffic, someone cuts me off and I think, “Maybe they’re late to a meeting,” I am likely to feel empathetic and not dwell on it.
The event didn’t change in those scenarios, but how I thought about it and the meaning I made out of the event dictated my emotional response. The same goes for circumstances with your ex and your emotional state, which can then impact how you communicate with him or her, and also impact the quality of your co-parenting relationship if you have children. The quality of the co-parenting relationship is the most important factor in your children’s adjustment to divorce.
We can’t change our circumstances, but we can change our thoughts.
You may not be able circumstances of your divorced or what happened in your relationship, but you can change your thoughts and the narrative you’ve created about the other person – and therefore your emotional state – when communicating and interacting with them.
I would like for you to complete the same identity exercise, this time thinking about your ex or your co-parent. You can complete this exercise by downloading my worksheet here.
Even thinking about this person in terms of co-parent vs. ex can have an impact. By thinking of them as your co-parent, you’re more likely to feel a sense of teamwork, managing the project of raising kids, focusing on the kids, etc. In calling this person your “ex” or thinking of them in those terms, it could bring up the hurt and pain from the relationship. You stay in the past.
If you don’t have children, then think about referring to them by their name instead of ex. Heck, even if you do have children, referring to them by their name can also be a step towards seeing them as an individual rather than the previous role they played in your life and avoid labels entirely.
He/She is a/an ________________. Fill in all those aspects of their identity, their values, and personality characteristics that are positive or neutral. Yes, this may remind you of some reasons why you fell in love with them in the first place, but it can help you appreciate who they are as a person rather than the actions they’ve taken that have hurt you.
Narratives will Define Your Next Chapter
Next time you interact with your ex and an emotional swell rises, and the regular narrative of “He is a liar, he is a jerk,” or “she is a cheater” challenge yourself to think “ yes, ….and she is/he is…. a mother/father, daughter/son, friend, caring parent,” and the items you listed in the identity exercise. You can acknowledge you are feeling hurt, betrayed, abandoned, angry, scared…. or maybe relief, freedom, hope, too. But if you only stick to the labels, you are going to stay in an angry state and not move forward in the grief.
Starting to transform the narrative and how you see and talk about your ex in your mind or to others, will help you start to heal from this event. Or at least lead to more pleasant interactions and less emotional distress. All novels have an editorial process before going to press. How are you going to edit this chapter of your life to lead to a more polished press version? As your relationship with your ex transforms, what do you want it to look like in the next chapter?
Download my worksheet to start reshaping the narrative of who your ex is and see how it impacts your emotional state over time.