Coparenting With an Abusive Ex

Coparenting With an Abusive Ex

Apr 17, 2024

Follow the Show

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Everywhere else


We all know that parenting is enough of a challenge on its own, but what about when you’re coparenting with an abusive ex, someone who may be acting more for themselves than the best interest of your kid?

My guest, Lisa Johnson, is a certified domestic violence advocate and the cofounder of a divorce coaching program called Been There Got Out. She works alongside her co-founder and romantic partner, Chris, to help people who are dealing with high-conflict separation and divorce, custody battles, and coparenting hell so that they can have the best outcome in family court and beyond.

If coparenting with an ex has been a struggle for you, or if you are making a decision to leave a relationship, this real-talk conversation will give you the information you need to make the best choices for you and your child and support them through it all. 


Lisa’s Story

Of course, there is much more to Lisa’s story than what we could cover in this conversation, but there are some elements she experienced that she has seen to be pretty common with her clients, as well. 

When Lisa was making the decision to leave her previous marriage of 18 years, her now-ex-husband made her feel like if she left, then she would be responsible for breaking up their family, which included two kids. She would be to blame for destroying their kids’ lives. 

So she did everything she could to stay and keep the family together. Ultimately, she realized that one person can’t make both people better. They wanted two different things, and it just wasn’t working. 

Like so many others, Lisa knew she had to leave her marriage for herself. She didn’t know what would happen with the kids. She would figure that out later. But for her to survive, she had to go. 

She describes the feeling of carrying a ball of pain inside of her trying to keep it all together. And when she admitted that it wasn’t working, and her ex left, there was such a sense of relief. A weight had been lifted. 

She didn’t know what would happen next, but she knew she couldn’t try to control it, and letting go was so freeing. Now, she’s on the other side, has found the love of her life and created her business to help others through those same kinds of struggles. 


Coparenting With an Abusive Ex

Lisa’s clients are often dealing with ex-spouses who are not handling things with maturity and who are trying to take back control. There are a lot of hurt feelings and, often, a history of abuse. 

In many of these cases, Lisa sees instances of coercive control, which means that some freedom has been taken away from one person in the relationship. It might look like financial abuse, where one person doesn’t have any control over the family’s money. It can also show up as social isolation or other types of verbal, psychological or sexual abuse. 

Although they’re now in different living spaces, the parenting relationship is not over. Lisa says that the three main areas where conflict and abuse come up after a divorce are money, kids and court. 

Legal abuse related to money and court conflicts go hand-in-hand. It’s all about winning and losing. The abusive partner wants to take everything - kids, money, time and control. Conflict around the kids lasts the longest and is the most painful. 

In these situations, the child is often put into something called loyalty conflict, usually by the abusive parent. Kids are expected to choose sides and be loyal to one parent over the other. They’re then rewarded for rejecting the parent who's often the target of the abuse, often the safe, healthy, protective parent. The child may also be punished for showing affection or love to that parent.

This often starts even before the relationship ends. One parent might try to undermine the other or grill the child on everything that happened while they were at the other parent’s house. One of the most common things that they do is send poisonous messages about the other parent to the child, wanting them to believe that that other parent is unsafe, unloving or unavailable (even though the opposite is usually true). 

This feels so scary and dangerous, because sometimes your kid will absorb these messages. They’ll be angry and confused and lash out at you. You feel triggered the same way you are by your ex, because you see that same behavior coming through your child. 

We talk about this behavior as “poisoning the well”. As the parent, your challenge is to take the perspective that, no matter what, your well cannot be poisoned. You built it right. You are replenishing that well with clear, clean water, because you have nurtured a strong, connected relationship with your child. You’ll continue to tell them how much you love them and how safe they are with you, and that is enough. 


Taking Care of Yourself

When someone leaves an abusive situation, there is often a realization of, “Wow. I can start making decisions for myself.” Sometimes, they don’t even realize it’s been so long since they had that ability.

In this next stage, you’re working to find your center and your voice again. 

Learn to self-regulate. As a parent, you have to be able to separate your fear and pain so that you can be a loving, compassionate presence. When you are calm, you can help your child process their own emotions. 

It’s the same principle that makes Calm the first step in the Calm Mama Process. You cannot help your kids when you’re in pain. You have to heal and calm yourself before you can fully show up for your kid. 

Get support. Lisa’s son is an adult now, but when asked what helped him get through his parents’ divorce, he says, “my mom kept it together.” She had a wonderful support system including her attorney, her father, good friends and an Al Anon group. 

Focus on how you can set yourself up for success in this transition. Make a plan for how you will get the support you need to make the choice to leave, navigate the legal system and take excellent care of you and your kid. Open up to family or close friends that you trust, find a local group or work with a therapist or coach to get the support you need.

Be careful with your responses. Sometimes, when kids come home from the other parent’s house, they’re angry or they say things that trigger you. It’s human nature to want to defend ourselves and set the record straight, but Lisa says that’s actually a big mistake. 

An abusive ex might say something to your kid, knowing that they’ll repeat it to you. They’re almost baiting you to get a reaction that they can use against you. 

Plus, by trying to argue what they were told or correct the record, you’re basically doing the same behavior as the abusive person. You’re telling your child what to think. Give them space to figure it out on their own. Actions speak louder than words. 


Taking Care of Your Kids

Lisa says one of the biggest questions that comes up with her clients is - How are my kids going to be okay? 

In a divorce, the kids are often the ones whose lives change the most. 

When you have experienced an abusive relationship, it’s easy to think,  “My kids are screwed.” You might feel worried about the patterns repeating themselves. 

We’re here to tell you that being a neutral, loving soundboard for your kid, emotionally coaching them, and healing on your own will heal your child.

Lisa has seen kids come out of these situations with extraordinary social and emotional intelligence. They learn at a younger age how to establish boundaries and develop resilience when dealing with difficult people in the world. 

Here are some ways to support your child. 

Allow your child to have their own experience. You may be experiencing a lot of pain, guilt or fear because of what’s going on in the relationship. But, often, our kids just want to live their lives. They might not be feeling everything that you are. They want to be with their friends, do their sports and activities, just be kids. And it’s good for them to do that. 

Teach critical thinking skills. This is an important part of parenting, especially in these situations, because when kids can think for themselves, they don’t just have to take in what one person says and accept it as truth. They can ask questions like, “Who is saying this?” “Why are they saying it?” “Could it be true?” “Is there another way to look at this?”

You can practice these skills with your child outside of emotional moments, like when you’re reading a book together or watching a movie. Ask them what they thought of a situation in the story and talk about it. How would they have dealt with that situation? This way, you’re showing respect for their opinion and encouraging them to exercise the critical thinking muscle.

Be intentional with conversation. Especially when raising teens, make time for curiosity and casual conversations. We spend so much time talking about homework and cleaning their room and taking out the trash, not to mention any conversations about the other parent, that there isn’t time and bandwidth left for actually relating and connecting with each other. Create space for your relationship with your child to blossom. 

Help your kid build self-awareness and identity. Use the Connection Tool to help them check in with how they’re feeling. Help them build and trust their own inner voice and guidance. Let them know that they get to choose how they want to think and feel about the people and situations in their lives. Support them in doing their own thinking and feeling. Give them space to figure it out.

If you are reading this and know that you are in a toxic relationship. If you’re terrified of leaving because you’re worried about your kid. I want you to know that you can figure it out. It’s going to be okay. 

There is support out there for you to navigate this process. Reach out to Lisa or someone else that you trust. You are not alone.

In the long-term, love, generosity and compassion will win when it comes to your child. Healing and caring for yourself will heal them and teach them the emotional literacy skills that are so important. 


You’ll Learn:

  • That there is goodness and peace on the other side of the pain and struggle.
  • What to look out for when it comes to coercive control, loyalty conflict and reacting to your ex.
  • Ways to support your kid and help them navigate difficult situations.
  • How to get the support you need to care for yourself and your child.

Connect with Lisa:

  • Get the book: Been There Got Out: Toxic Relationships, High Conflict Divorce, And How To Stay Sane Under Insane Circumstances by Lisa Johnson and Chris Barry 


Previous Episodes Mentioned:

Ready to stop yelling?

Get the one simple tool you need to stop yelling at your kids, so you finally feel calmer and connect better. 

You'll learn why you yell, how to stop yourself yelling, 40 things to do instead and scripts for what to say to your kid when you yell.


Connect with Darlynn: