Skip to main content

So much of what is written on this topic involves a chaotic, irrational, overtly toxic ex and how to cope with him or her. The qualities are often easy to detect and the situations and issues that arise are difficult to argue against. What if your situation does not fit into the obvious? What if your experience and the ex’s behavior is more covert? What if your spouse’s ex is more sophisticated, more intelligent and more manipulative? What if your spouse’s ex interferes behind a mask of polite, kind and seemingly considerate tone of voice and word choice? What if the ex you are dealing with hides their passive-aggressive behavior under the guise of “working together for the good of the children”?

This type of interference, although more difficult to detect, is equally toxic if you do not learn to set boundaries and practice self-care within your marriage. Here are some signs that you are dealing with a covertly toxic ex:

  • Does the ex you are dealing with frequently text and/or call your spouse to update, touch base, connect or problem solve about the children?
  • Is the ex you are dealing with a master at quoting self-help books and repeatedly sending your spouse articles about harmonious co-parenting?
  • Does the ex you are dealing with tell your spouse that friends often compliment the way they co-parent?
  • Does the ex you are dealing with begin every unreasonable request with “I hope this will not be too much of an inconvenience” or “so sorry to disrupt your weekend plans”, “I hope I am not overstepping”, or “I do not mean to disturb”?
  • Does the ex you are dealing with call with a “crisis” at a time when they know you are out together as a couple or on vacation?
  • Does your spouse’s ex use their life circumstances to guilt your spouse into agreeing to a change of plans in visitation agreement such as “I know it’s early to discuss the holidays, but with my mother, who has been sick all year finally feeling well enough to make the trip to visit, it would be less stressful for all if we can solidify our plans sooner than later”.
  • Does your spouse’s ex use compliments or flattery to keep lines of communication open? Statements like, “The girls are not getting along well at my house. Will you speak with them about it? You are just so much better at handling situations like that than I am.” Or, “Can you come over to discuss this situation with the boys? I think they will respond better if we present a united front”.
  • Does the ex you are dealing with find ways for your spouse to join them at doctor appointments, school events, sports meetings and anything else involving the children, by saying that the children want it that way or, “by both of us being there, we will be sure not to miss any important information”.

When an ex tees things up like the above examples, not only does it make it difficult for your spouse to say no, it also makes you look like the unreasonable one if you dare to call them out on their behavior or attempt to set and enforce boundaries. The most important thing for you to know if any of these examples are familiar to you is that you are not imagining things. This type of dynamic is very real. The person who was married to your spouse before you knows them well. They know their strengths and weaknesses, what is important to them and how they think. The ex knows how to push your spouse’s buttons and how not to. Because of this, they know how to get their way. For instance, an ex who knows that the father of their children values being a father more than anything, will always set up request by saying, “I know we both want what is best for our children.” The skilled manipulator has figured out how to get their needs met post-divorce that he or she did not get met in the marriage. Furthermore, the covertly toxic ex operates under the belief that their co-parenting relationship with your spouse overrides the importance of the boundaries of your marriage.

In a second or third marriage where there is excessive contact between exes, one may fear that their spouse is still in love with their ex. This is often furthest from the truth. Instead, this is often a sign of an unresolved toxic dynamic between them. Whether it is anger, resentment, unrealized dreams or power and control; it is important to remember that it is not about you. Toxic dynamics and unhealthy boundaries do not get better just because there is a divorce.  In a toxic system, both individuals continue to get their needs met and may not be motivated for change. Even when the ex is the one who initiated the divorce; unless he or she has worked with a skilled therapist and learned how to emotionally separate from their former partner, they will still find the need to stay connected to the former spouse.

Sometimes an unhealthy pattern of communicating between two former spouses can indicate a personality disorder in one or both individuals. For example, a narcissist is often attracted to and gets fueled by someone who is a dependent personality. Their way of relating does not end with divorce. The dependent personality is constantly enlisting the help and opinion of the other; which feeds his self-importance and narcissism. Unfortunately, with this combination, it is easy to find yourself caught in the crossfire.  For instance, if you are an independent, take charge type of person, and your spouse likes to feel needed or feels comfortable being in control, then his/her needs will continue to get met from an emotionally dependent ex who texts him several times a day with questions about how to proceed with the children. A dependent personality finds it difficult to make decisions on their own and will reach out about everything from college choices to spring break ideas to weekly progress reports from school to what glasses to get the child to whether or not to administer over the counter medication to their child for a headache. This is the ex who will give a play by play (and even send pics) of a child’s swollen foot to “keep the other parent in the loop”. Dealing with an ex like this will take up much of your spouse’s time and emotional energy. If, however, this is a toxic dynamic they are both comfortable with, you will be the only one that will see this as problematic and the only one feeling frustrated or angry.

This is why it is so important to know that the signs are not your imagination.  It is also important to know that the dynamic was solidified long before you were in the picture. Because it is not about you; you cannot change it. In fact, even if the ex gets re-married, the toxic pattern of how they relate to your spouse will not change. These patterns are so embedded that often an ex will unconsciously choose a spouse that will allow them to stay in their comfort zone. This means, if the emotional dependence between exes is not healed, then one or both will marry someone who allows the “space” for this dysfunctional dynamic to continue. This may be someone who travels for work and is not around enough to recognize the excessive contact between them and your spouse, or someone who has their own dysfunctional drama from their previous marriage to focus or pay attention. Here are some of the signs that you are dealing with a covertly toxic ex who has remarried:

  • Are you and their spouse consistently excluded from any communication involving the children?
  • Does the ex you are dealing with engage your spouse to help solve problems involving the children that occur in his or her home, rather than problem solve with their new partner?
  • Does the ex you are dealing with request that your spouse help pay for or replace items in their home or discuss other financial business that should involve their new partner?
  • Does your spouse’s ex enlist your spouse to co-host events in his or her home for the child while her partner is away on business and not include you?
  • Does the ex you are dealing with send birthday or Christmas gifts to your child under the guise that your child is their child’s sibling; while at the same time not acknowledging you as his or her child’s step-parent and not including their spouse’s name in the “from” part of the tag?

Dealing with a covertly toxic ex can wear away at any marriage. If you are dealing with an ex who exhibits these behaviors, the most important thing to remember is that the behavior you think is toxic is exactly that. Be confident that your feelings of frustration and irritation are the sign of a dysfunctional dynamic that you are not responsible for. It is the ex (and possibly your spouse) that is the unhealed one. The ex gets his or her sick dependency needs met via their ex (your spouse). This is an individual who will never stop demanding your spouse’s attention, even though they are no longer married. If your spouse is willing to engage in individual therapy to learn how to emotionally separate from their ex, this is the best solution. If not, then you can learn to set healthy boundaries for yourself and let go of trying to change their toxic pattern.

Accept that you cannot change the emotional health of another. Do not try to reason with an ex like this. If you so much as try to explain that their behavior oversteps the boundaries of your marriage, asking them to respect those boundaries you will likely find yourself on the other end of their emotional outburst. They may accuse you of berating them as a way of deflecting your request. A toxic ex may even block you on their phone and run to your spouse claiming to be the victim of your mistreatment. Here are some tips on how to practice self- care and healthy boundaries with a toxic ex:

  • Ignore their behavior.
  •  Focus on yourself and your marriage.
  • Limit the frequency of your interaction.
  • Stay away from situations where you will have to communicate more than “small talk”.
  • Stay neutral. For example, when your spouse complains about their verbose way of communicating or expresses his frustration about her parenting style, do not respond.
  • Let your spouse take the lead in communication with their ex; after all this toxic individual was their “mistake” not yours!