One single mom asks:
“How do I heal when I still have to deal with my toxic ex? I am going to counseling, I have a single moms group we are starting at church this fall, etc. I am not really sure what healing looks like. I think I am doing well and then BAM, I am sucked in by something my ex does (or most likely, doesn’t do) and I feel like I take several steps back.”
There are two sides to this question: dealing with things that your ex is doing, and dealing with things that he is not (but supposed to be) doing. Today, let’s look at the first.
Many of us became single moms by taking a big step away from toxic situations. When we have trusted God, and risked everything to successfully remove ourselves and our children from something that was causing harm, it is very sobering to realize that a toxic ex can still reach us. It’s of the utmost importance that we grieve and heal from what we’ve just gone through. But, that can feel impossible at times because just as we are getting our feet back under us and our strength returning, a toxic ex will try to pull us down again.
If God brought you to the point of being safely removed from a toxic or sin-filled relationship, it’s the furthest place He wants you to be. He wants to offer you healing in a way that frees you from the past and the pain that has held you down from living out the purpose He has for you. But, you have to make room for this to work in your life. And you have to remove obstacles that would keep you from it.
Of course, the enemy would love nothing more than to keep you in it. So, the fact that a toxic person is trying to pull you back toward what you fled from is no surprise. We need to see this with our eyes wide open and realize this:
It our responsibility to create boundaries that promote our wellbeing
I know, I know. Maybe you feel like you already had boundaries, or have tried them to no avail. Or maybe you feel that boundaries wouldn’t do any good because your ex has never respected anything you’ve asked. Or, that boundaries cause more harm than good because they flaunt your line in the sand and act as a taunting mark for your ex.
Boundaries work. But, only if you keep this rule in mind at all times:
You can only control one person in this world: YOU
Not your ex. Not your children. Not your family. Not your friends. Not your community.
When we set boundaries or limits on other people, it’s not only useless but impossible to enforce. The only boundary we are able to—and have the right to—set, is one around ourselves by limiting our personal exposure to people, places, and situations that are causing us harm.
Has it ever occurred to you that God works the same way?
God doesn’t set limits on what people are allowed to do. We all have free will. We can do whatever we like. He does, however, give us a set of standards to follow. When we choose to ignore His standards—also known as sin—we are separated from Him. In this way, He limits His exposure to people who choose to live in sin, evil, or unrepentance. He’s not putting a wall between Himself and people that cross the boundary, but He does limit His personal exposure to it. At any time that we choose to respect the standards we’ve been given, ask for forgiveness, and turn away from that bad behavior, we are welcome to be with Him once more. He’s already given us a perfect example of what boundaries should look like in our own lives. As single moms, we can replicate it.
Much like showing tough love to our children in the hopes that they will flourish in the future, a boundary set for an ex is an example of tough love. You are giving them standards that are acceptable to you and when they refuse to respect those standards, you remove yourself from being exposed to them.
Not sure where your boundaries should be? Think of situations with your ex that either fill you with anxiety or set you in a panic. They can be things he says, things he does, or places you have to be with him. These “triggers” are things we can pinpoint as the starting point for our stress and are indicators of exactly where our boundaries need to lie. If you remove the trigger opportunities, you remove the situation and resulting feelings from them—giving you room to heal and find a sense of peace in your life.
If you are continuing to be harassed by your ex, he is not treating you with the respect the mother of his children deserves, and as such, he no longer deserves to be allowed free access in your life. He will continue to be in the lives of your children, but you need to limit his contact with you.
This can be done.
Simply coming up with a plan is the first step to taking back control. These are things that have personally worked for me. Although none are perfect, they gave me the room I needed to heal and move on. I encourage you to try them as well, then stick by your guns and don’t give in.
No one understands cyber-bullying more than single moms. Social media has such a far reach into every moment of our lives, you can be bullied to the point of being terrorized. I’ve been there. I personally spent more than three years in court trying to make my ex stop to no avail. I finally came to the realization that while I couldn’t control him, I could control my visibility to him (and others he might have been using to access information about me). This is the first place you should take a stand. Block him on all social media. All. Of. It. Of all of the single moms I’ve talked to regarding this one issue, I’ve yet to hear a good reason of why you should stay in touch with your ex online. It’s not a necessity in life. If he is using it to continue to harass you, then he has relinquished the privilege of having access to you through it.
Give him a single point of contact—email
Notify your ex that you will no longer respond to any contact other than via email. Then, control your email. This allows you to choose when you receive messages from him. You aren’t blasted while you are in the middle of the first free moment to yourself in months, your birthday, or during a day you already find stressful. Be relegating him to your inbox, you can mentally prepare yourself before you open it. And, if you open it and realize it has to do with anything other than your children, delete it. I’ll say it again: delete it. This takes self-control and a mentality that is set to do it. But, trust me, it’s the only way to regain a sense of control with an unreasonable person. Set your ex’s email address to show up in a particular folder that you don’t normally have open (such as junk mail). Doing this doesn’t remove the emails, but it puts the control back in your court as to when you will allow contact from him. I can’t tell you the amount of stress that was removed from my life the day I did this. Life changing. Seriously.
Block him from calling and texting you
Don’t panic. I know. This seems like you are cutting off your children’s communication to their other parent if they are either young, or mostly communicating through you. But again, if he is using this method for ANY OTHER reason than to respectfully check on the wellbeing of your children and notifications regarding them, he has relinquished that privilege. Block his phone number from calling you. He already has a method of reaching you—through email only.
Through Your Children
This is one of the most heartbreaking ways a toxic ex will attack you—through your own children. But, often, when they discover they can no longer emotionally torment you, they will go through your children to do so. If threats or disparaging remarks are being made against you through your children, the court system sees this as child abuse—and so should you. If that is where you are, take action. On the other hand, if they are trying to hurt you by lying or manipulating the children against you in vague ways that cause confusion or an uncomfortableness between you and your children, stand up for yourself. The very first ground rule I gave my ex was that I would always show him the respect of not disparaging him around the children—but if he ever lied about anything to them, I would reveal whatever I had to about him in order to explain the truth. Don’t let your silence suggest that your ex’s manipulation is okay. If you sense something going on between him and your children, sit them down and explain the truth. Over time, they will see who is living an honest and upright life. And who is not.
Just as we get upset when we realize a boundary has been set against us, be prepared for your ex to bristle. In the beginning—especially—you are going to have to stand your ground and insist that this is the way it’s going to be. If you back down and allow the trigger situations to continue, it’s like drawing a line in the sand and saying “don’t cross that,” then when they cross it drawing another one further up and saying “don’t cross that,” again. It won’t be respected and you will not be any better off than you are right now.
We are not called to sit and take it, sweet friends. By creating a safe distance between yourself and the emotional harm your ex is causing, you remove the anxiety that is likely causing you not to be able to move on and fully heal from what’s happened. God can’t fully work through your pain if you are constantly fretting and worrying about what your ex may or may not be doing, and allowing him to continue to hurt you. Remember, you can only control one person in this life: You. If you are living your life “waiting for the other shoe to drop” then you are allowing your ex to have control over your emotions, feelings, and mood. It’s time to take control back. And you can do it in a way that mimics the example that God set for all of us.
(As always, if you are dealing with a toxic ex that has the potential to physically harm you or your children, you should seek professional help that goes beyond the situations covered here.)