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Do you have a toxic ex-spouse? Your legal options to deal with them

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Whether you were in a toxic relationship with your ex before divorcing or previously maintained a healthy and communicative post-divorce connection, it can become toxic at any time. So if your former spouse is exhibiting harmful, damaging, or destructive behaviour towards you and/or the children, what can you do about it? This article answers all this and more.

What is a toxic ex-spouse and what sort of behaviours are common?

Toxic conduct encompasses a range of behaviours including manipulation, character assassination, controlling behaviour, parental alienation, and even using the court system as a way to stay connected with a former partner. The following is a non-exhaustive list of signs that your ex-spouse may be toxic:

  • They make you doubt yourself by making you question your own abilities as a parent
  • Sabotage your new relationship by doing everything within their power to undermine and interfere with it
  • A toxic ex may use the court system to maintain contact with you long after separation and divorce. This could include defying court orders, frustrating contact arrangements, or creating an issue to get you to take them back to court. They may also refuse to pay child maintenance or, worse, pay sporadically, meaning you cannot rely upon regular financial support
  • They may use guilt, blame, or even your own emotions against you if they believe they can use it to control outcomes or situations
  • Sometimes, a toxic ex may create a loyalty conflict between your children by interfering with your communication with them. Perhaps they will bad mouth you to the children, and even try to frustrate your contact with them

What are the reasons for an ex-spouse becoming toxic?

The reasons an ex may become toxic are varied and many, but here are some of the more common:

  • Unresolved emotional dependence leading to finding it necessary to stay connected
  • For many, toxic relationships are like an addiction, particularly for those who enjoy drama and unpredictability. These types of relationships tend to be characterised by extreme highs, where everything appears perfect, followed by crashing lows, when nothing seems to be right. Following separation or divorce, some still crave this rollercoaster experience.
  • Lack of control. If you had an ex that controlled every aspect of your life together, they will find it difficult to deal with the fact they can no longer do so. The more they lose control, the more they try to hold on to it and the greater increase in manipulative behaviours.

Co-parenting with a toxic ex can be emotionally draining, as there is a feeling that you are either constantly on your guard or trying to predict their next move. Drawing up a parenting plan may help reduce some toxic behaviours, but this will require patience, flexibility, and a focus on the wellbeing of the children. Whilst this may be an easy ask for you, for a toxic ex, it is simply another way to control and manipulate.

Family mediation can be an effective way to create a parenting plan. A trained mediator will manage the meetings and agree an agenda for each occasion, keeping you both on track. You do not even need to be in the same room as your toxic ex as it could be managed either virtually or by shuttle with the mediator moving between you in separate rooms. Mediation aims to keep you out of court and focussed on what is in the best interests of the children. They may also recommend other professionals they think may be helpful.

If mediation is not for you, then before going down the legal route, try setting boundaries and keeping contact professional and basic. Avoid engaging your ex in conversation and keep communication that is not related to your children or other important matters at a minimum. It is also important to document any toxic behaviour in case you need to refer to it within legal proceedings.

What legal action can I take against a toxic ex-spouse?

Depending on the specifics of the case, it may be possible to apply to the court for an injunction. These prevent individuals from doing something to the detriment of someone else, such as infringing their rights or causing other harm. Injunctions are most typically used to protect someone from domestic abuse including harassment and/or coercive control.

Non-molestation orders

This type of order prevents your ex-spouse from harassing you or your children after divorce or separation and stops that person from interfering in any way with your daily life. The type of conduct may take many forms – it could be obvious physical violence, but equally it may also constitute non-physical abuse, such as shouting or other acts purposefully intended to distress you. Non-molestation orders can be extended to include anyone else that your ex might encourage to pester or abuse you.

Common law injunctions

This type of injunction can be applied for by anyone in a relationship that is not marriage. For example, where an unmarried couple live or do not live together, where the relationship was one of friendship, one of the family, or a neighbour. The perpetrator’s behaviour must be serious enough that it is to the detriment of your physical or mental health.

Power of arrest

A power of arrest can be attached to a civil court injunction, which gives the police the power to arrest the offending party if the injunction order is broken. A power of arrest is usually only given if the offender has been violent or has threatened to be violent, and there is a reasonable belief that violence will happen in the future.

Anti-harassment injunctions

The Harassment Act 1997 makes harassment a criminal offence as well as a civil one. It gives the police greater powers to arrest and charge a harasser, and can be used instead of a common law injunction. Harassment is defined as any behaviour that is intended to cause harm or distress which happens on a repeated basis. If the behaviour being complained about is stalking, for example, the victim must be able to show that such conduct is likely to lead to violence. Someone found guilty of harassment could be sentenced to up to 6 months in prison and/or given a fine of up to £5,000.

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