How Do You Deal with a Smear Campaign?


Interview with Matt Phifer on Smear Campaigns

Jessica: Are you dealing with divorcing or co-parenting with a narcissist? Are you struggling with reclaiming your identity and who you really are after years of being in a relationship like that? We know that getting out of a toxic relationship that involves trauma and emotional abuse and moving on from a narcissist is extremely difficult. Those are some of the things we’re talking about in today’s episode of the Divorce etc… podcast. We are the exEXPERTS, Jessica and T.H. We focus on helping you navigate your divorce and successfully moving on with your life. Please follow us on all social media at exEXPERTS, and check out for tons of free divorce related resources. Let’s bring in today’s guest.


T.H.: Hey guys, it’s T.H. here. We are excited to have Matthew Phifer with us. He is a trained therapist, but he certainly wears many hats. He, through his own personal experience of a difficult relationship, has now taken that and made it a superpower to help others cope with everything with relationships. Today, we are talking about smear campaigns, and some coined words that you’re going to hear are emotional intelligence. We’re going to check you in on that. Welcome to the show, Matt.


Matt: Thank you. Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here.


Jessica: We’re really glad to have you because this is actually such a, I hate to say popular, but really difficult and complex topic overall. I mean, when our exEXPERTS community reaches out to us via DM or emailing or through our newsletter, back and forth, there’s so much about toxic relationships and people identifying with having been in relationships with narcissists. A lot of the questions on the legal end, end up being like, “What do I do when I’m in a situation when all they’re doing is trying to smear my name?” It’s like your first gut reaction is like, I have to do whatever I can set the record straight and clean it all up. Where does someone even start?


Matt: So I tell people who I’ve worked with that the smear campaign is actually where your healing begins. Because oftentimes, it’s actually the one time that I actually defend the other person, and it’s very difficult for people to hear and for people to understand. But what I mean by that is that they’re allowed to have their opinion about you. They’re allowed to think whatever they want. They’re allowed to think that you’re the villain in the story. They’re allowed to say whatever they want. They’re allowed to have their own story. That’s the part that’s very difficult for people to hear and for people to adjust to, especially when people are struggling with codependency and people pleasing. That’s actually a large part of the problem with a smear campaign. Now, obviously, we don’t want anyone to say things that aren’t true or anything like that. But the reality of it is that they’re allowed to, and there’s not much that you can do about it. A large part of people pleasing is that we always want to fix what other people think about us, and we don’t want to feel that guilt that we may have been the problem in someone else’s life or someone else’s story. We don’t want other people to think negatively of us. Oftentimes, that causes us to engage into unhealthy behavior to try to overcorrect what other people think and what other people are saying and those sorts of things. And so I tell people to not do anything. Some smear campaigns can get to a point where they can affect you at work and that sort of thing, and we can talk about that a little bit later. But in terms of things they’re saying on social media, in terms of things that they might be saying to your friends, to your family—sit back. I tell people that the people who are really actually on your side and the ones that are really going to be there for you thick and thin, they’re going to show themselves in a situation like this. The ones who you might need to remove from your life, guess what? That’s going to become very apparent as well.


T.H.: So that’s the point where the good and the bad separate, and the toxic are blaringly clear. That’s when your friend groups change. I mean, for me personally, not much changed. But I found people toxic, not so much with engaging in the conversation with him, but coming to me with it.


Matt: Yep.


T.H.: That’s extremely uncomfortable. So how do you do that when someone comes to you and says, “Did you hear what he said or she said about you?” What are the right ways to respond to that? Because I feel like you’re never really going to be prepared.


Matt: You’re never really going to be prepared, but the boundary that you need to set is actually with the person who is bringing that information to you.


T.H.: Right, delivering it.


Matt: So there are a handful of things that—sometimes they mean well. Sometimes it might be someone who is still friends with them on Facebook. They might be doing that because they—you hear people say like, “I don’t want to get involved.” But them doing that, they actually are getting involved. And so I always tell people to have a handful of sayings. A great book in terms of dealing with different phrases to combat certain situations like this is the book is called Wizard of Oz and other Narcissists. It’s a book I recommend to any and everyone that is in situations like this. But the boundary needs to be set with the person who’s bringing that information to you. So you can kindly tell them, “You know, listen, they’re allowed to think whatever they want,” exactly what we said. “They’re allowed to think whatever they want. They’re welcome to their story. I have my own story.” You can kindly tell them like, “Listen, that’s not a conversation I really want to want to engage into.” Oftentimes, they’re bringing that information to you when you’re at a party, when you’re at work, or whatever the case is. So bring the conversation back to what you’re actually there for. “Hey, listen, I’m not here to talk about my ex. Aren’t we here for drinks? I thought we were here to watch the game.” “Let’s talk about your ex,” like, in a joking way. “Let’s talk about all the things that your ex did. You want to talk about your ex?” And of course, they’re going to say no, and like, “Listen, I don’t want to talk about it either.” It can feel very uncomfortable, mainly because of what we talked about before, because of your desire to please people, your desire to correct everything. But if you think about it, you can’t correct it anyway. There’s no beginning and there’s no end to it. Oftentimes, the more that you engage into trying to correct it, the worse the smear campaign gets. Because what happens is that that person oftentimes will go back to the other person, go back to the narcissist, go back to your ex, and they’ll tell them what you’re saying. What happens is that they know that this is bothering you, that this is getting underneath your skin, which is the whole point. So if they know that it’s bothering you, guess what? They’re just going to continue to ramp it up. But if they don’t think that this is affecting you whatsoever, guess what? Eventually, this game that they’re playing becomes very boring. I tell people that dogs don’t bark at parked cars. They bark at the moving ones. The dog wants you to stop. That’s actually the whole point of the smear campaign, and to go back to this whole people pleasing, this is a sign for us to actually heal. Because what happens is that the reason why they’re doing the smear campaign is that they want to be a wedge between you and happiness. They want to be a wedge between you and a new relationship. They want to be a wedge between you and you having a good relationship with your kids, or friendships, or whatever the case is. And so they literally, just like I was talking about with that dog, they literally want you to stop. The person who’s doing the smearing, they actually see your potential. They actually see that you could possibly get that promotion that they’re trying to stop you from. They see that you have the potential of being in a healthy relationship, to be a great parent, to be a great friend. If you’re able to do those things, then guess what? It actually makes them look bad, which is the whole point of the smear campaign, is to get you to stop your momentum. So to actually correct the smear campaign or to combat it, you don’t want to engage. You don’t want to stop your momentum. And you actually want to achieve the things, the success that you’re actually going after over time, not necessarily overnight or anything like that. But you want to go to therapy. You want to take care of yourself. You want to surround yourself with people who are healthy. You want to have a good time. You want to continue to be a good parent. Because those are the things they actually want you to stop. They want you to still be thinking about them and those sorts of things. Are we allowed to cuss here?


Jessica: Yeah.


T.H.: Sure.


Matt: Okay. So I tell my clients to shine the absolute shit out of them, to actually go achieve the things that they kept telling you that you’re not able to do. You weren’t able to buy a house, you’re not able to do this, or you’re not able to do that—go do those things. Be rebellious to the things that you were conditioned to not being able to do. That’s how you actually correct the smear campaign. Because over time, again, it’s not going to take days or weeks, but over the course of a few years, what happens is that when they’re telling people that you can’t write that book, or you can’t start that business, or whatever, and then you go do those things, what happens is that they look back at that other person, “I thought you said that they weren’t capable of maintaining their finances. You said they were a terrible parent. You said they were this, and you said they were all this.” Then what happens is that smear campaign actually flips upside down on its head because you were able to achieve everything that they said that you were not able to do, or you couldn’t do without them, or whatever the case is.


Jessica: Right. You’re discrediting. You’re showing them with your actions that you’re discrediting everything that they’ve been saying to people. But I have a deeper question. So clearly, oftentimes, these smear campaigns are happening in your personal life. You’re talking about your friends, your family, your colleagues, and things like that. How do you suggest someone handles it when it starts getting into the actual legal battle of the divorce? They’re saying things that you know to be patently untrue, unfounded rumors, etc, to their lawyer, who now is giving them to a judge, and your life is hanging in the balance in terms of what your child custody situation can end up looking like, what your parenting agreement is going to look like. How do you handle that aspect of a smear campaign that’s happening in the legal side of things?


Matt: So you have to remember that they still have to prove those things. It still has to be provable. They still have to show evidence of certain things. Sometimes they do actually have evidence. That’s where people actually have to be very careful. Sometimes we may have actually engaged into some unhealthy behavior. Maybe you cussed that person out. Maybe you actually did hit them back because of reactive abuse and those sorts of things. And so if that’s the case, let’s go with the true scenario, or they do have some evidence, even if it’s shallow evidence proving that you’re the bad person or whatever, you actually want to fall on your sword in that situation. Of course, you want to allow for your lawyer to take the lead, and you want to get legal advice on how to do that. What I mean by fall on your sword is that courts don’t expect for you to be perfect. The only person who expects for you to be perfect is your ex.


Jessica: And you.


T.H.: And you.


Matt: Yeah. And so let’s say that you want to fall on your sword, you know what? It was a very contentious time during that time period. Maybe it was a very dark time and you had a DUI or some scenario like that. You want to be able to show that that may have been true at that point in time in your life, but it’s no longer true now. So if you were engaged in reactive abuse, “Yeah, I had a bad moment. We were in the moment of a scuffle,” or whatever the case is, “That’s been well documented today and over the course of time in the courtroom. Since then, I’ve gone to therapy. I’ve learned more about emotional intelligence. Here are the five dates of therapy since that time period. I’ve learned a lot about myself. These are the things that I’m doing moving forward.” And of course, your lawyer should be able to paint a bigger picture of what that looks like. But that’s how you want to handle it if it’s true. And if it’s not true and if they don’t have any evidence, you simply say that it’s just not true, right? “This just isn’t true, Your Honor.” If your ex isn’t able to provide evidence, then there’s not really anything to argue. The biggest concern that a lot of people do is that they try to prove not to the judge, they feel like they have to prove to their ex. So they go back and forth on the phone, and then that’s where it becomes problematic. Because what happens is that when your ex takes all of that evidence to the courtroom, it looks like both of you guys are losing it, right? It just looks like a bunch of back and forth, and so you actually lose a lot of credibility in court. So you just don’t want to engage in that behavior. That’s the reason why I tell people that your ex is allowed to think whatever they want. Let them text themselves back and forth. “You did this” and all these stories—


T.H.: That would have been nice.


Matt: You don’t always have to respond to all these things. And so you don’t always have to show up to every single argument.


T.H.: Honestly, I was quiet. Mine was a smear campaign within my divorce process. In Jersey, they don’t really care about your character. Give us the facts, and that’s it. The truth is many of his action showed his character. So I didn’t say anything. But he tried relentlessly to make it seem like I was bad. I had to go to custody experts. I had to go to employability experts. I was questioned on my spending. I was questioned on having a phone. I’m just saying to all of you, what Matt saying is 100% right. But it doesn’t take away the fact that it is a completely humbling experience. I was questioned on my intelligence, my education, and my parenting—and those are things that are among the top things that I’m proud of in my life. He was trying to prove otherwise, which failed at a huge expense in terms of dollars. So yes, everything Matt’s saying, with a small little but on the end, that it’s hard. It sucks. It’s the same negative voice you heard when you’re married, when you’re getting through your divorce, and maybe even after it’s done. So going to therapy and building your muscle, we talked about it in a post, like, it’s time to flex. Flex your brain muscle. Flex your resilience. Flex your strength. Show yourself your strength. Let me just take a quick break here. Because we know it’s hard to get honest and reliable information about your divorce and life in general, so we’ve done the work for you with exEXPERTS and our Divorce etc… podcast. Jess and I had one another to ask all of the questions and figure out the answers, and now you have us. We are your no bullshit, no nonsense girlfriends through divorce and beyond. Ask us anything about life and all that comes with it. Be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get exEXPERTS in your inbox and find out all of the updates on our podcasts and events. Don’t miss out on information and tips you really need to know going through your divorce and beyond. You can get all of this at We’ve lived it, so we got it. Okay, Matt, I cut you off, and I fumbled—


Matt: Yeah, along with what you were saying, one of the things that really, really helps people who are going through that situation where your ex, whether it’s them or their lawyer questioning everything that you’re doing, every little detail that you’re doing in court is to understand your rights. One of the things that I did, and when I was in my career, I was liaison between family court and CPS, and so I was in family court, heard everything, and one of the things that people talked about—


T.H.: Wait. Tell everybody what CPS stands for, because not everybody knows. 


Matt: Child Protective Services. And so I would work with children who were taken out of extremely, extremely abusive situations, and I’d have to do the home visits with. I was living in New York state at the time, and their biological parents would have 15 months to be able to get their stuff together, correct their behavior, and to try to get their kids back out of foster care. I would oversee all of that and attend family court. One of the things that was talked about quite often behind the scenes is, is it disagreeable, or is it unacceptable? Because what happens is that a lot of times when people are in or coming out of an abusive situation, that’s a gray line that they really just don’t understand. We would work with the parents, and where I’m going with this is that a lot of times with your ex, they’ll question you about something that’s disagreeable. It’s not unacceptable. You mentioned you had a phone—who cares? The court does not care. Let’s even extend it to something that some people would consider is just absolutely horrendous. Let’s say that you actually did cheat, and your ex is bringing that up in court. Guess what? In most states—


T.H.: They don’t care in our state.


Jessica: No fault.


T.H.: No fault states.


Matt: Does not care. Correct. And so a lot of times, when you understand your rights, and you understand that line of disagreeable versus unacceptable, you start to realize that even if I did make some mistakes, whether it was intentional or unintentional, or I had a bad reaction to something my ex was doing while over the course of over 10 years of us being together, because guess what, the likelihood is that you did. God forbid you were late dropping your kids off at school, or whatever the case is. It doesn’t matter. And so you start to find out that a lot of these little details, these little nuances that your ex is bringing up, it’s not going to affect the case the way that they’re even threatening you to through text and through phone calls.


T.H.: It just triggers you. All it does is trigger you, which hurts.


Jessica: And I love those terms for people to think about, is it disagreeable, or is it unacceptable? Honestly, even turning that back to yourself, I think is really learning for yourself, and what your responsibility is, and being able to acknowledge there may have been things that you’ve done that are disagreeable—it doesn’t mean it’s unacceptable—and understanding you can’t micromanage on the other side. So they may be doing something that’s totally disagreeable to you. But if it’s not unacceptable, you’re going to have to learn to live with it. Talk to us a little bit about the whole emotional intelligence side of all of this, because we found that to be really interesting. I want to make sure we get some of that in.


Matt: Yeah. That’s really a large part of what I do now is I teach people emotional intelligence. So you kind of know when to show up in terms of an argument, a disagreement. Some times you start to realize that I don’t really have to show up for this argument. I don’t have to show up for this disagreement. And so in emotional intelligence, you’re really in tune with yourself. You’ve kind of done the work. You really have a good sense of self awareness of where your trigger points are, where your limits are as a person. When you have that level of emotional intelligence, there are certain things that you start to do. So your ex sends you a text, and most people, you get triggered immediately when you get that text, and you go into fight or flight. What happens is that when you are in the relationship, you’re conditioned to respond to them right here right now every single time. That was kind of a large part of how you got into that situation to begin with is that manipulation. People who are highly manipulative, they want you to react, and they don’t want you responding. They’ll say things like, “It’s been five minutes. I can’t believe you haven’t responded.” And so what happens is that you start responding just to please them, instead of thinking about the text that they actually sent you. People who are more emotionally intelligent will feel triggered and realize that I should not respond right here right now, because I’m not giving my best in this situation. I’m only responding to relieve this trigger and relieve the anxiety. A lot of people who are early on in the healing process think that the anxiety is the problem. We all feel anxiety. It’s actually just a part of who you are as a person. When you understand why and where that anxiety and where the trigger comes from, and understand that triggers are your friend, and they’re not the enemy, what happens is that you start to respond better, and you start to delay those responses. And so a lot of people who are early in their healing might say like, “Yeah, but if I don’t respond right away, they’re going to get angry.” When you’re emotionally intelligent, you start to realize that their anger is not your responsibility, because true healthy boundaries is understanding who’s responsible for what. They’re responsible for their feelings, their anger, their resentment, or whatever the case is. You’re responsible for how you’re going to respond, how you’re going to react to your anxiety, your triggers, those sorts of things. When we talk about emotional intelligence, it really helps you navigate not only situations like this, but even situations at work and with coworkers. It helps you maintain healthy relationships, and also, lets you know maybe people we need to keep at a distance as well.


Jessica: I love everything you’re saying. Because I feel for everyone listening, T.H. has talked so much about the lessons that she learned that her therapist helped her with, which was being able to separate the facts from the noise and understanding when to respond and how to respond. Everything that you’re saying is completely reinforcing that because it really is about recognizing do you have to jump just because they’re reaching out? It reminds me of this old expression, which by the way I’ve used on my kids before: “Your lack of preparation does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Just because you waited until the last minute and now you need X, Y and Z, you’re expecting me to get up and go run and fix it for you. That’s not my problem. This is something that should have been prepared for in advance. A little bit of a weak analogy, but I really—


T.H.: No, it’s 100% true because my ex used to call and tell me I had to go do something. If I didn’t do it right away, I mean, I don’t even know what would have happened. Because I did it right away if it was urgent. 


Matt: Most of the time, they put the kids in it. “If you don’t do this right away, the kids are going to miss the baseball game.”


Jessica: Right and you have to do it. You feel like you have to do it.


Matt: When you’re emotionally intelligent, let them. Let the kids miss the baseball game. “Yeah, but then they’re going to—”


T.H.: And then it’s your fault.


Matt: Right.


T.H.: And then it’s your fault, then you’re a bad parent, and then it just snowballs from there. But the emotional intelligence—


Matt: Well, we think that we’re going to be labeled a bad parent, but oftentimes, the kids start to recognize. And so what happens and what’s interesting is that we always want our kids to be able to see what’s happening. But when you let go of control, they are able to see what’s actually happening. Then later on in life, they’re able to make better decisions about how they want to set boundaries themselves.


T.H.: We talk about cream rising to the top all the time. Listen, this takes time. It took me a long time. I did have the most amazing therapist. I didn’t even know that she was going to be that amazing for the purpose that I had her, but it just really worked out. I remember stepping outside of myself, my ex had just left, and I was literally standing in front of the pantry with the door open looking at all the snacks. I literally stepped outside of myself. I’m like “What the fuck am I doing? I’m not fucking hungry. This is him. This isn’t me.” I shut the door. But it takes time to get to that place. But once you guys do get to that place, it’s going to be so obvious. The number one tip that I got was, no matter what, if it’s a text, a phone call, and email, they’re in front of you. They’re coming. Whatever; take a minute. You have to take a minute. Because your reaction might not lead to the result that you intend, so you have to take a minute and absorb it. And do not respond until you are 100% ready. Do not run for anything. Really think it through. If you practice just taking a minute, that’s hard enough. It really is hard. It’s a very small task to master, but it is not easy. But you can start with that and then grow into where Matt is saying. Honestly, I mean, I’m 15 years out. I’m not saying it takes 15 years, it definitely doesn’t, but they’re going to be little nuggets, and you’re going to be like, “Okay, I did it. Okay, good. Okay, I did another one. Oh, I screwed up again.” You’re just going to have your eyes open, and then you’ll be able to see what Matt’s talking about. Then you’ll be able to control and get the support that you need.


Jessica: Yeah, in all areas of your life. Like you said, it’s relevant. It could be with your parents—based on whatever those relationships are—your siblings, your friends. This has all been really enlightening. Matt, we really appreciate it because we feel like this is messaging that a lot of people in our community really need. It is hard. It’s hard, and people need to feel like they’re not alone. They need to understand that it’s not their fault. It’s just about learning what they can do moving forward, to be able to be their most productive, in ways that are not going to incite whoever their ex is. So thank you so much.


T.H.: Sorry, I need like a quick little bonus thing. Because all of this is making me feel like, listen, you felt like the victim for so long, and how to take that hat off. Do you have one more closing tip, as far as that’s concerned? Because I know that that’s definitely how I felt, and then I didn’t want people to pity me. But like, I am a victim here. I am the subject of abuse and the object of abuse. And so can you give, I know that’s going to be a whole other podcast, but—


Jessica: A loaded question.


T.H.: Can you give a teaser here? Give a girl a line.


Matt: I just want to make sure I’m answering your question properly, to take off the victim hat and to…?


T.H.: Not feel like you’re a victim anymore. This whole smear campaign is basically continuance of your marriage and the negative messages that have been put in your head, and you’ve always been a victim, right? So now, you’re supposed to be the victor. You’re supposed to be the creator. How do you transition? That’s totally another project.


Matt: Yeah, we could definitely talk about that a lot. But what I tell people, because I’m very big on people not staying in victim—very, very big on it—to a point where some people don’t even like my content because of it, but I tell people to focus on what you can learn from the situation. I tell people I’ve worked with, or in my life, or in my podcast, I don’t allow for people to point the finger at the narcissist. People get really upset by that. But people who have done the work actually start to understand why I say that, because if you start to focus in on the lessons that you can learn, you now are empowering yourself. Now what happens is that pulling yourself out of victim mode, you start to realize that I can actually keep myself safe from this ever happening again. And so the things that happen to you are 100% not your fault, but it is 100% your responsibility to make sure that these things don’t happen again, and to learn lessons. That all becomes the part of your healing, to put those pieces together of well, I get that I’m not responsible for the abuse or the manipulation, but how did I get into that situation to begin with?


Jessica: Right.


T.H.: 100%.


Matt: Now that I know people out there are like this, how do I make sure that this never happens again? I have a responsibility to make sure that my kids don’t end up in situations like this. The best way to prevent your kids from getting in a situation like that is to take responsibility for your healing, and educating yourself to make sure it doesn’t happen again.


T.H.: Oh, my God, I feel so good. I just feel like I got an A.


Matt: Yeah.


T.H.: I say that all the time. I am accountable for allowing somebody to treat me like shit. I’m putting myself in that spot. And how do I not get there anymore? You just totally validated everything I’ve been working on. Thank you.


Jessica: Thank you, Matt.


Matt: You’re welcome.


T.H.: Mic drop.


Jessica: We would love to have you back to talk more in depth about this. Because like the three of us are all saying, it’s just something that’s so important for a lot of people to be able to learn these lessons and learn the strategies to be able to get through it. So we really appreciate you coming on and talking to us about all of that. For everyone listening, if you enjoyed this episode of the Divorce etc… podcast with the exEXPERTS today, then please help a girl out. When you subscribe, rate, and review, it helps us get the word out so we can support more people like you going through divorce and beyond. Check the show notes for more info on Matt. And of course, share with anyone you know who can benefit from listening. Have a great day.

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