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Lessons Learned from Divorcing An Emotional Vampire


A co-authored article inspired by a real wife and mom’s experience with her ex-husband

A reader recently wrote in with this question:  “How do you deal with an emotional vampire?

She said she heard the phrase on the radio and when searching for the meaning, she discovered a book with the same title,  written by Dr. Albert J. Bernstien, Ph.D.  The reader went on to write:  

“…I think all lawyers should read or listen to this book.  I got away from one emotional vampire! But my kids are being sucked dry emotionally and I have no clue how to help them.  I’m asking one last time for the authorization from my ex that I need per contract to let them have therapy…does this ever end?”

The easy answer is no.

Negotiating and Making Decisions with Your Ex

As long as you have children with someone (and assuming that you share custody), you will be dealing with the differences of opinion from the children’s reasonable expenses to dating, curfew, makeup and piercings, etc.

Interestingly, the conflict does not end even when your children come of age. Decisions and the handling of college graduations, weddings and grand parenting can continue well after the child support checks are no longer being written.

Although I had not heard the term emotional vampire before, I have heard many clients and friends refer to their estranged spouse or co-parent as a psychopath, narcissist or sociopath and diagnose them as having bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and Asperger's.

Here’s the problem with that:  Labeling someone is dangerous because it not only reduces your credibility (particularly if the person you are labeling has not actually been diagnosed with any of the psychological/medical disorders often thrown about), but it also begs the question of why you married and or procreated with that individual in the first place.

I know it’s generally incredibly poor bedside manner to state the obvious, “Well, you married him/her” when clients are complaining about their ex, but it is something that is often thought silently when listening to someone bemoan the emotional vampires of the universe. Your ex is what he/she is. Either you knew that and ignored it when you cast your lot with that person, or they wildly morphed into the the monster they have become.

In either case, it is unlikely that they will be changing their behavior. nd in many cases, even a court cannot effectuate enforceable orders for daily behavior.

For better or worse, there are no “be-polite-during-custody-exchange-police” or penalties which can be exacted for lack of consideration when a new significant other come on the scene.

Working With Your Ex After Divorce

How to best work with your ex when he or she is being totally unreasonable can be a legal quandary that survives the actual divorce process.

There is, of course, another side and approach to this issue and that is the psychology of it all. So I asked my friend Elizabeth Winkler, M.A., LMFT  what her thoughts are on “emotional vampires”.

Here’s what Elizabeth had to say:

Labeling another human being limits your experience and creates more misery for yourself in the process.  It is hard to see beyond these rigid beliefs, because they end up conceptualizing the other person in a very limited way.  Not only do you box them into a prison cell, but you become tethered to this prison which feels constricting and challenging. Know that what we focus on grows. In divorces, emotions are high and fear tends to be the guide that everyone is paying attention to.  Acting or reacting from a space of fear adds further delusion to our experience, resulting in resentment and often hate.

How can we change this? It starts with you, and you do have a lot of power.  Your focus and attention create your reality. In response to the reader who wrote in, sometimes there are cases where child therapy isn’t an option due to one parent’s refusal. If this is the case with your custody agreement, let’s look at what you can do in order to create a healthier environment for your child and yourself.

Your personal self-care is paramount now. Finding a therapist, a group, adding in mindfulness, meditation, journaling, breath work, using mantra, reading books on healing are all some ways to start to heal and help not only you, but your child and the challenging relationship with your ex.  As you heal yourself, and digest historical pain you will have much more presence in your daily life and much less reactivity to your ex. When one person shifts in a relationship the entire system shifts. It may not feel that you and your ex have a family system anymore but there is a bridge between the two of you that your child can run back and forth on. If you can keep your focus on building that bridge, your child will be more secure, resilient and all parties will benefit.  

Another way to build this bridge is to focus on the strengths of your ex over their weaknesses. Again, what we focus on grows. More importantly you can step out of the patterns of this toxic relationship by navigating it in a new way. As issues arise, and they will, you will start to experience relating to your ex in a new, more aware way.

Laura Allison Wasser is the Founder & C.E.O. of it’s over easy.  She’s done thousands of divorces and admins that going to court can establish some boundaries when parties are simply not able to agree on something like school choices or therapy for their child, but all of that can be an expensive and time consuming endeavor.

The Time (and cost) of Going to Court

The amount of time, aggravation and money spent to have a hearing where someone who doesn’t know you or your children decide an issue such as whether your child can benefit from seeing a mental health professional is outrageous. (Generally, judicial officers will err on the side of caution and grant a request that a child attend therapy.) As I say to many clients when faced with a conflict regarding implementation of a new idea or plan for kids, “Be open minded and give it a shot”.

As with all aspects of your dissolution, coming to a meeting of the minds on your own is preferable to having a judge shove something down your throats. The win in a situation comes not from necessarily getting your way but from compromising on something with which you can live and getting there before too much is expended, emotionally and financially.

As an example, I have a client, let’s call him Noel, who was dead-set against his daughter, Chloe, going to therapy. He felt she was too young, that she should be able to cope and problem solve on her own (two things he felt her mother was totally incapable of doing) and that another “hippie-dippy quack” was being proposed simply to get him to pay more money each month and drive a wedge further between he and his daughter as opposed to bringing them closer. Chloe was 9. She was definitely showing signs that the separation of her parents was affecting her both in school, she was disrupting class, and at home not behaving and resisting her time at her father’s. Noel’s response to her school behavior was to be stronger with disciplining her. Her mother was a lighter (and weaker) touch.  In my opinion, she did indeed lack coping skills and she was not really able to help with either the school behavior problems or Chloe’s new-found resistance of going to her dad’s during his custodial time.

In the past, whenever there was an issue Chloe’s mother would defer to an expert at her father Noel’s expense. Allergists, a speech therapist and host of other pediatric specialists were regularly consulted when disorders other perceived maladies befall Chole’. Noel believed that these had been unnecessary, Chloe would have spoken and conquered her eczema eventually, and where in the past he indulged his wife’s hysteria he felt that the time had come for his wife and daughter to deal with issues on their own. If for no other reason than to prevent Chloe from growing up to be like her “weak and gullible” mother.

Court papers were filed as I could not convince Noel that it was expensive to resist. It was a couple of weeks before the hearing and Noel was having a beer with his old college roommate who relayed a story about a fellow fraternity brother of theirs who had a daughter who was about the same age as Chloe.  She’d started seeing a young and very charismatic female therapist to discuss some of the issues she was having incident to her mom dating a new guy very soon after her parents’ divorce. Noel called me and asked what I thought. “What do you think I think, dude? Be open minded and give it a shot.”

So, he did. Long story short, this fantastic mental health care provider whom Chloe went to see became a safe haven for the nine-year-old’s feelings.  As a result, Chloe’s relationship with her father improved and the tools she learned in therapy she (and to a certain extent her parents) can use for coping and communicating for the next couple of years.

How to Create a Support System for Kids and Parents

Another important component for your healing is to look at your support system, your tribe, or community that supports you during these challenging times.

So many relationships are dragged down by gossip and judgment which leave you feeling insecure and unhappy.  Let go of those relationships that are only serving as walls to you being vulnerable and true. It is crucial that we can relate with other people, especially when you’re going through a break up or a divorce, otherwise we feel isolated and alone.  

We all struggle as human beings and it is crucial to nurture those relationships where you can be vulnerable because they can fill up your cup on those days when you have forgotten how. When we can be broken and beautiful with acceptance from a friend or a tribe of friends, we can expand and grow in ways we didn’t know possible.

Ultimately we see that our true power comes from moving our focus from what happens, because “shit happens”, to how we handle it. The work I do is often about making lemonade with the lemons I am given. We have incredible power with how we focus our attention, and mindfulness is a helpful tool which enables one to sharpen their focus and direct their attention effectively.

Elizabeth Winkler M.A. & L.M.F.T. is a Therapist and Co-parenting Coach who provides counseling and mental health services to individuals, couples and families from all over Los Angeles.  Below, she shares a mindfulness practice here that she teaches to children as young as 5 and adults of any age.

Think of Yourself like a Snow Globe

When you are emotional, lost in thoughts, or have a lot of physical energy moving through your body, notice that your snow globe is “going off.” How do we get our snow globe to settle? We stop, or pause and take what I call a “noticing break”.   There is zero clarity when your snow globe is activated so you must first STOP. Secondly, we will NOTICE what is happening in the body. This is much easier if you can close your eyes, because there is less distraction from the field of vision. With your eyes closed, notice the sensation of the physical body wherever you are sitting. Feel the energy in your hands, the touch sensation of your feet, or the support of the chair or whatever is supporting your body.

Notice the sensation of the air or clothing on your body, the breath which is always available for you to connect to, and allow thinking to be like the background noise of a TV.  This is a checking in of sorts to allow the body and its sensations to settle down. Once settled, notice how you feel in the body now. Is it more peaceful, open? Allow yourself to enjoy this settled space. If you have time, allow yourself to bathe in its peace. Now open your eyes. Notice how you feel as you transition with eyes open, and take your time as you continue to feel the presence of your body in your environment. Do you feel more capable with a settled snow globe? I like to set an intention with a mantra after this process such as “I can handle this” which I use especially when a challenge arises. Sometimes you will even hear yourself say “ I can’t” out loud and you simply stop and restate “ I can handle this” and with this mindset you can flow with whatever issue you need to deal with.  

At first it may take time to integrate these processes into your daily life, but with time you will see results. The shifts you experience become a part of your integrated self and allow you to remain as a more present space of awareness. You start to see that the emotional reactivity of your ex isn’t worth giving up your presence and peace. Sometimes you will get activated and lose it,  but you will be more equipped to return to this settled space.

Thinking Outside the Box

Elizabeth’s words of wisdom regarding perspective and how we handle things (as opposed to dwelling on what has happened) are profound! I integrate her advice not only in my professional life but in my personal life as well.

I have two fantastic sons. They have two amazing dads. One dad has an older daughter from a prior marriage who is my younger son’s half-sister and she is like a daughter to me. (Are you following this reader?) It is not always simple to keep things running smoothly in our tribe. There are many different plans, friends, family members and objectives. It takes a great deal of compromise on all three parents’ parts and a ton of respect and love in order to make it happen. But we do it because, at least I like to believe, that we all really like like each other and value what we each bring to our collective children’s lives. I know that we all feel that these children are the most important beings in our worlds and we would do anything to keep them physically and emotionally healthy.  

Coco Chanel once said, “Don’t spend time beating on a wall hoping to transform it into a door”. Perhaps what the great Ms. Chanel meant was that in order to succeed, it is important to think outside of the box.

Shake your emotional snow globe and let things settle. Look at your situation from a different and fresh perspective. To eschew the emotional vampire,move towards a place where your efforts to get in or out of a situation will be rewarded by emotional well being.