Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Options for Improving
Ex-mate Relationships

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/mates/ex.htm

Updated  02-05-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost..

      This brief YouTube video previews what you'll find in this article. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site. I've reduced that to seven.

      This is one of a series of Lesson-4 articles on how to evolve mutually-satisfying relationships. It applies to separated or divorcing mates with and without kids. From 36 years' clinical experience with hundreds of troubled couples and families, this article offers...

  • what's unique about ex-mate relationships?

  • summaries of typical surface and primary ex-mate problems;

  • an overview of common extra problems stepfamily adults face; and...

  • practical options and resources for improving ex-mate relations.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the introduction to this nonprofit Website, and the premises underlying it,

  • self-improvement Lessons 1-4 (no kids) or 1-7 (kids)

  • Q&A on relationships and divorce;

  • what makes family relations unique? and...

  • ways to analyze and resolve most relationship problems

      If you have "an ex mate problem," see if what follows applies to your situation. Also keep any divorcing friends in mind as you read this.

Ex-mate Relationships are Unique 

      Premise - All human relationships exist to fill a set of each person's primary needs. Typical mates seek to fill special needs. When these needs aren't filled well enough, the relationship becomes stressful or self-destructive. When realistic hope of improvement dies in one or both partners, so does the relationship.

      Typical ex-mate relationships are unique compared to other adult relationships because...

  • Divorce suggests that the mates...

    • came from low-nurturance childhoods and inherited psychological wounds,

    • made unwise courtship choices,

    • couldn't fill some of their mutual needs well enough,

    • couldn't problem-solve effectively; and each mate...

    • probably hadn't grieved many losses, and/or reduced significant shame and guilts; 

  • Divorcing parents' values, behaviors, and attitudes will affect each other until the last child and grandchild dies. They can't just "walk away" from each other because of their kids and other genetic relatives and in-law relations;

  • Often, divorcing mates must negotiate and abide by legal contracts over divorce settlements, finances, and perhaps parenting agreements, The negotiation process and expense often become significantly conflictual, and may recur if mates break the contracts.

  • Typically, these factors are amplified each time a divorcing parent chooses a new partner - specially if the new mate has kids (and an ex) also. This means that relationship needs and stresses affect three or more co-parents and their kids and kin, not just the original couple.

  • Legal battles over divorce settlements and co-parenting are more common than in other combative relationships. These add to and amplify the original reasons for divorce, and delay healthy grieving and stable problem-resolution.

  • Typical divorcing partners and their relatives and any kids are more  susceptible to concurrent values and loyalty conflicts and divisive relationship triangles than other adult relationships;

  • Divorcing-adults' parents and siblings may take sides, compounding family conflicts - specially if kids are involved.

  • If ex mates seek professional help to reduce relationship stressors, few clinicians are trained to diagnose and improve the primary reasons for them (below).

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - what are you thinking and feeling? Does this summary of unique divorcing-mate traits seem realistic to you? If so, how many average divorcing adults and their kin and supporters do you think could describe these factors?

 Surface and Primary Problems

      Premise - personal and relationship "problems" are unfilled needs, which range from surface (superficial) to primary. If you haven't recently, read these examples of "digging down" to expose primary needs, and return here.

      This video offers perspective on "difficult" ex-mate relations:

       If your family members have an "ex-mate problem," see if it's about one or more of these:



arguing / fighting


child custody

child discipline

child education or health

child visitations

complaining / blaming









legal disputes

money / debts

names and/or titles


parenting agreements

parental alienation

parental responsibilities

reactivity (drama)


sibling conflicts

Each of these can be a significant family stressor. None of them are the primary problems! Every one of these surface problems is caused by combinations of these... 

Primary Relationship Problems

        Notice the major difference between...

"My ex is stubborn, selfish, and irresponsible. We fight constantly over money and responsibilities." 


"We both are wounded and unaware, and don't know how to problem-solve as teammates yet. We have to admit and reduce our wounds, learn to communicate and grieve, and then study how to resolve our several values conflicts and relationship triangles.

"While we're doing these things, we have to find ways to forgive ourselves and each other for the hurts we inflicted during our relationship."

      Can you imagine average ex mates saying something like this?

Implication - "ex mate problems" like those in the table above are really a group of concurrent primary problems in each former partner, not just one of them.

      For more perspective on these problems and options for reducing them, see this article and this brief research summary. Until ex mates and any new partners admit and work to reduce these barriers, they risk remaining trapped in combative or avoidant relationships. The risk of major marital and family stress is even higher when kids and new partners (stepparents) are involved.

      Here's why:

  Extra Stepfamily Stressors

       "Ex mate problems" in average multi-home stepfamilies usually include clusters of simultaneous extra stressors that childless ex-mates don't experience. These extra problems usually include a dynamic mix of...

  • adult ignorance of, and unrealistic expectations about, stepfamily roles, relationships, and realities; and...

  • loyalty conflicts among ex mates, minor or grown kids, stepparents, stepsiblings, and two or three sets of relatives; and...

  • clusters of adult values conflicts over effective parenting of minor stepkids; and...

  • one or more divisive relationship triangles among adults and kids; and...

  • concurrent re/marital conflicts about ex mates and other stepfamily stressors; and...

  • stepchild and stepsibling behavioral problems, and conflicts over child discipline and co-parenting responsibilities - including "parental alienation syndrome (PAS);" and...

  • special problems like legal stepchild adoption, geographic moves, custody changes, and having an "ours child;" and...  

  • uninformed (potentially harmful) advice from clergy, counselors, authors, and friends.

      The challenges for conflicted stepfamily adults, then, are to (1) learn how to identify each of (a) the nine barriers in the graphic above and (b) these extra step-stressors. Then (2) evolve an effective way of focusing and reducing each problem one at a time - as teammates. Most stepfamily adults don't know how to do this, and increase their stress with these lose-lose alternatives. Many eventually re/divorce psychologically or legally.

     So how can ex mates with or without kids get along better?

  Improvement Options

      Premise - the most common sources of relationship problems between any two people are...

  • unacknowledged psychological wounds (ref. Lesson 1), and...

  • an inability to communicate and problem-solve effectively (ref. Lesson 2), and often...

  • unfinished grief in one or both people (ref. Lesson 3); and...

  • ignorance or denial of these core stressors. Another factor may be...

  • the people live in a low-nurturance environment which promotes these problems.

       If you have an "ex mate problem," you have many practical options:

__  adopt a long-range, patient attitude. Your cluster of core problems (plural) will take many months to improve. Useful motto: "Progress, not perfection!"

__  admit that YOU are causing half of the core relationship problems. If you disagree or excuse yourself, you're probably wounded and dominated by a false self.

__  commit to working patiently at self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5. If you're in a stepfamily, include Lessons 6 and 7.

__  convert attitudes of blame and disrespect to compassion, and view your and the ex's needs as being equally worthy. If you can't do this, you're dominated by a false self.

__  assess yourself and the ex for psychological wounds, and commit to freeing your true Self to guide you (Lesson 1). If your ex is significantly wounded (which is likely), change the way you communicate with her or him. Use these Lesson-2 suggestions and options as appropriate.

__  identify which of the nine barriers in the graphic above are contributing to your relationship problems. Then commit to reducing your half of each of them one at a time. Use this article and these resources to help:

  • this relationship quiz. See what you need to learn, and study Lesson 4;

  • premises about "relationship problems;"

  • learn how to discover your and your ex mate's true needs;

  • learn how to analyze any relationship problem;

  • evolve and use a meaningful Bill of Personal Rights, and acknowledge the ex mate has equal rights;

  • identify any communication blocks you and the ex have practiced, and correct yours via Lesson 2 tools;

      More improvement options...

__  invite your other family adults to join you in learning how to spot and resolve values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. Use this article as a starting point;

__  if you're in a stepfamily, acknowledge that any of the problems in the box above are NOT the problem. Invite ALL your family adults (including your ex) to study and apply Lesson 7 for your and your kids' sakes.

__  If you or your ex are considering or using legal force to get your way, STOP, and focus on the options above. Use this article as a reference.

__  Get and stay clear on what you can and cannot change, and regularly use these ageless wisdoms.

__  Give a copy of this article to any consultants and supporters, and ask them to join you in applying these ideas to your situation.

Note that these options also apply to marital and other relationships!

      Pause, breathe, and reflect. What's your reaction to these relationship-improvement options? If it's anything other than interest and cautious optimism, you're probably dominated by a false self and living in a low-nurturance environment. Your existing and unborn kids are silently depending on all you adults to act on these options and guard them from inheriting the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle!


      This Leson-4 article exists because of widespread divorce in America, and subsequent "relationship problems" between ex mates - specially those with kids. The article summarizes...

  • how relations with ex mates are unique compared to others;

  • typical surface and primary relationship problems between ex mates,

  • extra problems typical stepfamily adults and kids encounter; and...

  • practical options for improving ex-mate relations in any family.

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or someone else?

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