Divorce seldom brings out the best in people, but there are some individuals who will stop at nothing to make their former partners’ lives a waking nightmare.
Maybe they’re actual psychopaths, or they have narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, or maybe they just display a total lack of empathy. Whatever the underlying explanation is, some people fit a toxic pattern during divorce of doing anything and everything they can to “win” and try to hurt their former spouse. They will become exes from hell.
You’ve probably at least heard some of these horror stories (assuming you haven’t experienced them yourself). Sometimes exes from hell will harass and intimidate you, file false police reports against you, attempt to ruin you financially, or harm your reputation. Maybe they will try to take away your pets and have them put to sleep, prevent you from seeing your children, or kidnap them, or try to have you committed to a mental institution, or worse. The options are terrifying.
Susan Shofer, a certified divorce coach and licensed private investigator, has seen it all when it comes to “exes from hell.” She advises people in “high-conflict” divorce and on dealing with “‘parental alienation,” or situations where one ex may have sabotaged the other’s relationship with their children.
Shofer spoke to The Exit to explain what people should do if they’re facing the prospect of leaving an “ex from hell.” (Shofer used the term “narcissist,” although she added other disorders besides narcissism can be at the root of the problem.)
Here are some of her most important tips:
Learn to recognize narcissistic behavior
A person who turns into an “ex from hell” usually doesn’t completely transform into a monster overnight without showing some early warning signs. In general, physical, or emotional abuse is a pretty clear indication that a person will be a nightmare to deal with in a divorce. But there are also more subtle cues which might be easier for a partner to downplay or ignore.
One of Shofer’s clients told her that she noticed her husband was rude and sexist to waitresses when they started dating but she wasn’t initially worried about that behavior. Unsurprisingly to Shofer, the man was apparently terrible to the woman during their marriage and even worse when they were getting a divorce.
“A lot of times we see the signs way before we say, ‘I do,’” Shofer said.
Another sign that a person might turn into an “ex from hell:” If they think solely about themselves in times of crisis instead of offering their partner or children support. A spouse who acts annoyed if you’re in the hospital is not going to morph into an understanding person later on if you divorce, Shofer pointed out. More likely, they will continue to behave like a narcissist in that situation and focus their rage on you.
“They don’t go away kicking and screaming,” Shofer said. “They go away making sure you kick and scream.”
Hire expert professionals to help you cope with a narcissistic ex
Once you realize you’re dealing with someone – narcissistic, borderline or otherwise – whose main objective is to cause you pain, you should make sure to have a team of solid, experienced professionals on your side, Shofer said.
A recommendation for a divorce lawyer randomly passed along by a friend or relative may not be the right person to handle your particular set of circumstances. You should interview potential lawyers and divorce coaches to make sure they have the skills, connections, and wherewithal to help protect you.
“The biggest thing that I encounter all the time is people want to do this on their own. They get tips off the internet,” Shofer said. “Yet, these are the same people that before they hire a dog sitter, they ask four pages of questions. They give more to that than to the divorce or custody battle that will determine their fate and their children’s fate.”
Act quickly — don’t wait and see
It doesn’t matter how well you think you know a person, and if you’ve seen them make promises without following through in the past. Once your soon-to-be ex starts threatening to hurt you or trying to seek revenge, take their comments seriously. Notify your lawyers and try to be prepared for whatever your former spouse might throw at you. You should expect the worst.
A narcissist or other ex from hell has “no trouble showing up to your work and saying things to your boss,” Shofer said. “Don’t believe them when they tell you nice stuff. Believe the negative. When they tell you they’re going to do this, they’re going to do it.”
Understand that friends and family might turn against you
When an ex is “out to get” you, they will often try to get your family and close friends on their side, and to see you as an “enemy.” A persuasive and manipulative narcissist or person with borderline personality disorder can often achieve this feat, at least in the near-term.
“I just tell people, divorce will let you know who your friends are,” Shofer said. “It gets really dangerous because sometimes [an ex] plays the victim, and they call old roommates, old dorm mates, parents, relatives, sisters, siblings. I’ve seen mothers turn against their own children and believe the narcissist. They’re being used.”
Don’t let your ex from hell suck you back in
A trick that “exes from hell” often play is trying to get you to let down your guard or otherwise get you to start talking with them so they can try to get the upper hand. But once they have established what kind of horrible actions they’re capable of, you should not engage or give them another chance.
If you need to communicate directly in order to share custody of children, or for other logistical reasons, keep it brief and to the point, Shofer said. There are apps like OurFamilyWizard which can be used to facilitate custody hand-offs without the need for extensive phone calls and texts. Do not take the bait from a narcissistic or borderline ex-spouse who might be trying to start a fight.
“Don’t get in the weeds,” Shofer said. “Don’t go there. I know it’s hard for people. They want to rehash, but don’t lower yourself.”
Even more alarming is if the “ex from hell,” who previously only tormented their former spouse, suddenly appears to have a change of heart “and wants to cut a deal,” Shofer said. The ex might start saying “let’s not deal with lawyers. Let’s just do this ourselves.”
“Absolutely not,” Shofer said. “Don’t fall for it. This is a trick.”