Hey healthy mamas!
Welcome to the Healthy Mom After Divorce Podcast! My name is Sheryl and this is episode 31! Thank you for taking the time to listen today.
Whether or not you’re recently separated or have been divorced for some time, I’m guessing you know what a smear campaign is, specifically one at the hands of your high-conflict co-parent and possibly their friends and family.
It’s very common for people to report that once they separated from their abusive spouse that they discover their ex has been smearing their name. It may have even started before they separated.
To be clear, a smear campaign is not talking to close friends or family about the challenges you’re facing in order to get emotional support from them. We all do that.
In this case, you are discussing true issues with the intent of gaining emotional support for yourself.
You may get told by your high-conflict co-parent that that’s a smear campaign, but that’s simply not true.
And through a coercive control lens, them saying that it is, is just another way to try to isolate you. If they can convince you talking to your family for support is a smear campaign, you may stop which in turn reduces your support network and your ability to withstand the post-separation abuse.
Conversely, a smear campaign is spreading false information about someone in order to tarnish their reputation and discredit them to others.
Your high-conflict co-parent is not doing this in order to get emotional support for themselves, but rather to gain supporters of their bad behaviour.
They want to protect their image while continuing to abuse you post-separation (as they likely did within your relationship), but here’s the thing: they know it’s wrong.
So how does someone do something they know is wrong in a way that maintains their holier-than-thou persona? They need to justify it.
And the best way to justify it, both to themselves and the people around them whose admiration they desire, is to make you the ultimate villain.
They know you aren’t the villain. They know you haven’t done most of the things they say. Doesn’t matter. The end goal of controlling you and their image in the eyes of others justifies the means, in this case, spreading lies about you.
In a conversation I had recently, I was asked whether or not high-conflict and toxic people know what they’re doing and saying is wrong? Whether it’s smearing a name or other forms of abuse.
My answer was this: absolutely they do. Why else would they do it in such controlled and calculated ways?
Then they asked me, but how can they justify treating other people so cruelly, especially when they know it’s wrong?
My answer? The same way we all justify our behaviour. Let me explain.
If I asked you, do you think it’s ok to hit someone else?
Most of us would say no. Hitting isn’t the appropriate way to treat another human being.
But, if you’re like most people, you’ll inevitably have exceptions to this rule. For example, you’re walking down the street and you see someone kicking their dog. Horrified, you run over to them and demand they stop. They do not. Desperate to protect this animal, you may choose to physically intervene in some way to get them to stop.
If I asked you afterwards, why did you hit them? After all, it violates your belief that hitting another person is not ok.
You would probably tell me, well, yes but in this case, I value all life and I needed to protect this dog from abuse.
So your belief that we must protect animals from abuse superseded your belief of not using physical force against another human. And in the eyes of most people, they would agree you were justified.
High-conflict, toxic and abusive people feel the same way. The difference is their bar is way, way lower. It doesn’t take protecting a vulnerable dog to trigger actions they generally know are wrong.
Anyone’s actions that don’t align with their flawed belief-system around their own entitlement and superiority will justify whatever action is necessary to them.
An important value (if not the most important) for them is how others view them. They are so insecure that they need to be put on a pedestal. To stay on that pedestal, the feel the need to control everything around them. particularly how others view them.
Clearly, they can’t actually control people’s minds, but if they can fill the space around them with lies about you, they have a better chance of looking like the good-guy, or at the very least, not as bad as you.
Think about this: if your relationship has ended, particularly if you have left them, that doesn’t support their ‘incredible parent’ image at all. They want to control you but they’ve lost some of that control with your freedom from the relationship.
They can’t see who you’re hanging out with, they don’t know who you’re talking to, they don’t know where you’re going or what you’re buying or who you’re dating. So without all of that information, they’ll start filling whatever empty space they can.
In the absence of other information, it’s very easy for people to latch on to the first thing they hear about another person, in this case you. The key for the abuser is to find the people that don’t know you well or at all.
To these people, you’re just another neighbour or coach or parent at the school. But if they get told a story about you, how terrible you are to the children, how slutty you are, how you drink too much alcohol, how you took everything from him in the divorce, they now have a picture in their mind.
And I understand how devastating this can be.
I’ve been talking in the context of the high-conflict co-parent being the perpetrator of these smear campaigns which is often the case. But it doesn’t necessarily stop there. It’s common to hear that other people join in as well, like your ex’s new partner, their family, their close friends.
Sometimes, someone close to them like their partner or their mother is the main perpetrator and your co-parent just lets it happen.
In this case, your co-parent may not be the high-conflict or toxic person themselves, but they are very much an enabler.
No matter who it is that’s spreading lies about you, it can be crushing to feel like the villain in the story. And where this gets even worse is if they’re saying negative things about you to your kids. I have found for a lot of people this is where the real panic and stress kicks in.
The kids come home and are telling you the terrible things their other parent or their partner are saying about you. I want you to know, if this is happening in your situation, you are not alone.
Take a deep breath and try something with me.
Think of a lie, something negative you know has been told about you by your high-conflict co-parent (or someone close to them) to your kids.
Now take a minute to notice what thoughts come up for you about it. What do they sound like?
That’s not true! Why would anyone say that about me?
This is unbelievably unfair! He did that to me, I didn’t do it to him!
People will judge me and think I’m a bad mom.
My kids will believe them and think that about me too.
My kids will hate me.
Do any of these sound familiar? I get it, I’ve thought them too.
We want people to like us, don’t we. Life is hard enough without feeling like people are judging you. And when they’re judging you about stuff you didn’t even do, wow.
Sometimes what adds to the feeling of absolute injustice is that the lies that are being told about you are the very things they did to you.
Now draw your attention to the feelings that come up for you when you have these thoughts.
Maybe shock, disbelief, rage, hurt, confusion, anxiety, insecurity, hostility, embarrassment.
Although all of these make total sense, here’s the challenge: how we feel is what often drives our behaviour.
If we’re feeling these kinds of intensely negative emotions, the likelihood that we will behave in ways that do not help us or our kids increases exponentially.
Lashing out with nasty responses to social media posts.
Writing long-winded texts or emails to people trying to ‘set the record straight’.
Defending yourself to anyone and everyone that will listen.
Driving yourself mad trying to control an uncontrollable situation.
Being highly emotional in family court, which we know doesn’t serve you if you’re in the middle of a custody battle.
At the end of the day, you just can’t control what your high-conflict, toxic co-parent (or their partner or family) says about you to others. They are autonomous humans, just like you.
So what do you do?
Start with your thoughts. Work at changing what you’re telling yourself about the impact the smear campaign is having, especially when you don’t actually know what others are thinking.
Change ‘People must think I’m a bad mom’ to ‘I have no idea what others think about me.’
Change ‘Why would they do this to me?’ to ‘I’m not surprised they’ve taken this route.’
Change ‘Now they look like the amazing parent when they’re the ones who did those things, not me’ to ‘This will reflect far worse on them than on me.’
Change ‘I’m going to lose friends’ to ‘The friends that truly care about me won’t believe any of it. The ones that do weren’t really my friends in the first place, so it’s not much of a loss.’
Change ‘Every time I talk to someone new, they will already have this false image of me’ to ‘Every time I talk to someone new, I have an opportunity to show them who I really am.’
Change ‘No one will believe me’ to ‘I trust that anyone worth having in my life will see through the lies and give me the benefit of the doubt.’
Change ‘My kids will believe them and hate me’ to ‘My relationship with my kids is entirely in my control. I can pour into it and nurture it. Our relationship will thrive despite this.’
The reason why we need to consciously change our thoughts around this issue is this: your feelings about it will change from ones that lead you to poor actions to ones that lead you to actions that will serve you, your kids and all of your relationships, including the one with yourself.
Feel what this thought does: ‘My kids will believe them and hate me’.
Notice how helpless that feels. Helplessness can flood you with other emotions like deep sadness, desperation and confusion. And we know that actions that come from those emotional spaces often do not help us.
Now feel what this thought does: ‘My relationship with my kids is entirely in my control’.
Notice what comes up instead. Hope, confidence, love, empowerment. The actions that come from these emotions are totally different.
They set us up to consider the things that are in our control and take action on them.
Maybe it’s taking care of your health so you can show up balanced and engaged when your kids are with you.
Maybe it’s strengthening the healthy relationships you do have to remind you there are lots of people who love and support you.
Maybe it’s starting counselling for you or your kids so that you all can learn the best tools to navigate the toxic people in your lives.
How we feel about a situation will drive what we choose to do about it.
So they key is noticing what we’re thinking about a situation and assuming about what others are thinking and doing. Then consciously working to change those thoughts into ones that empower us, not weaken us.
It’s not easy but with practice, you get better at it. It’s like an armour that slowly builds up over time. And eventually, the arrows just bounce off.
You will still have an initial stress response that an arrow was just shot at you in the first place, but you can quickly move to a place of peace when you watch it simply fall to your feet.
I want to end with a quote from Dr. Ramani’s book, Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist:
“When an accusation is thrown at you that does not fit you, when it doesn’t capture what you know to be true about yourself or your behavior, mentally flip it back on your partner. He is likely accusing you of what he is doing or feeling. Accusations can be about the narcissist’s own vulnerabilities and weaknesses…”
You can do this. Chip up and armour on, healthy mamas. Because healthy moms raise healthy kids.