How to Screw Up a Good Thing Without Really Trying

…[I]n moments of high emotion – whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment – if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

(from the novel, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles)

I had just sat down at a coffee shop with my mug of coffee and vegan donut (which, surprisingly, wasn’t disgusting), when I began to hear the familiar refrain of a divorced mom venting (keywords: “ex-husband; “jackass”; “late”).   As a matter of professional interest, I listened for a moment and winced as I heard her make one of the most frequent errors that we all make in dealing with ex-spouses she said something that made her feel better instead of saying something that would get her the result she wanted.  Here’s how it went:

Misguided Divorced Mom: “We were really working well together until last week and now he’s back to being a jackass.”

Her Friend: “What happened?”

MDM: “He called and said that since we are getting along so well and he was going to be in my neighborhood the next day, he thought we should have sex while the kids were at school.”

Friend:  “No way!”

MDM: “Yeah, can you believe that?!  I told him off and now he won’t pick our son up from soccer!”

Based on my very unscientific anecdotal data, which I have collected while being a divorce attorney for the last 15 years, about 1/3 of you are thinking, “Why did she get so upset? People have needs, what’s the big deal?”  and the other 2/3 have your jaws dropped and are screaming “jackass!” at your computer.  The fact that there are two groups is really important and here’s why.  He didn’t say, “you can’t have your child support unless you sleep with me” – that would have made him a jackass, no questions, no passing Go, no collecting $200 (that’s a Monopoly reference for those of you born after 1980), he suggested that two people, who have had sex many times before, have sex one more time.  I have had more than one client get pregnant between separation and final decree of divorce – this just isn’t that uncommon and does not automatically make the person suggesting it a nasty turd.  Now the two-thirds of you that are truly grossed out, I totally understand that it’s like being asked to eat the sandwich you threw in the trash yesterday for dinner tonight.  I get it, different perspective.  But the goal is to continue getting along.  Telling your ex-husband that you see him as yesterday’s rotten tuna salad is NOT going to help your co-parenting relationship.

Let’s go back to the beginning – the Misguided Divorced Mom started by saying that she was pleased they were getting along well.  If at the moment that he offers a little afternoon delight, she said, “I’m flattered but I don’t want to ruin this great co-parenting relationship we’re building.”  He would probably be picking up little Johnny from soccer this week.  The relationship with an ex-spouse is fragile and keeping a filter on is crucial to continuing to build trust, respect and a mutual effort to do what is best for the kids.

But based on the result, I suspect Misguided Divorced Mom said “Are you f*ing kidding me?! You don’t get it, you repulse me!  I wouldn’t sleep with you if you were the last man on earth and the planet had run out of batteries!”  Although, seriously, saying the latter would FEEL so much better, wouldn’t it?  It is also an incredibly hurtful, rude and insensitive thing to say that, once spoken, can’t be taken back.  You end up putting yourself, and your co-parenting partner, back in a place of resentment and anger.  In other words, all the hard work and hours in therapy has just been laid waste for the benefit of a moment’s self-righteousness.

Even if you are not dealing with a randy ex-husband, this same advice can be applied to what you might WANT to say to the dimwitted waiter, the slow cashier or the teenage store clerk that doesn’t know where anything is.  When you feel the desire to strike, I encourage you to take a moment – take a breath – and consider, “what’s my goal here?”  What is the thing you can say that will get you the result you want instead of providing you a moment to feel superior, witty or to show just how much of an idiot you think this person is?  And after you get your food delivered the way you want it (instead of spit on), go home and vent to someone that will do what the friend in the coffee shop above did, just listen and say, “No way!”.  It will feel spectacular.

We all need our moments of wit, here is your opportunity to purge without risk.   You know when someone ticks you off and you don’t think of something really cutting and brilliant to say until the way home?   In the comments below, will you share your “way home”-er?  It’s really good to get those out so that you aren’t so quick to be cutting when you are only hurting yourself by doing so- show me what you got!


  1. Keri, I wish I had your posts when I was going through the dark days of my divorce. Your Posts inspire without preaching and teach without wrong-making. Thanks for being an advocate for women and moms during their most challenging and uncertain times.

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