How to Divorce a Difficult Person


Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS Divorce, etc… podcast where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it! We’re T.H. & Jessica. 

T.H.: Welcome everybody to the Divorce, etc… podcast. We are thrilled to have Nawal Houghton with us. She is Your Divorce Coach, and you will be able to tell very shortly that she is not from the United States. She is based in the UK, but she does work worldwide and really focuses on people in difficult relationships with a difficult spouse and covers all touch points of that relationship, whether you’re just in it, whether you’re thinking of a divorce, whether you’re already divorced, so just really helping you manage those types of relationships. Welcome to our show today.

Nawal: Thank you, ladies.

Jessica: Thanks so much for taking the time.

Nawal: Oh, you’re very, very welcome. You’re very welcome. Thank you.

T.H.: Let’s get started. Let’s really talk about this. People throw around the word narcissist and a bunch of other choice words, which sound worse than the word narcissist, but they’re really not. How did you even get into this? Let’s talk about some of the top tips you can give people who are struggling.

Nawal: Let’s tackle the first thing, that word, that N-word. When people ask me what I do, I think I always try to narrow it down to one simple sentence. My thing is I help people divorce difficult people. Let’s be more generalistic. Let’s use the word slightly difficult, slightly challenging. That is what I do.

I help men and women, and as you rightly said, I deal on an international basis. How I got into this is I am actually a solicitor. I’m also an accredited mediator. What I noticed in my own somewhat acrimonious divorce is that there weren’t any resources available to me to really understand the challenges that we face when you’re dealing with someone difficult. And I’m not just talking about the legal implications when you’re dealing with someone difficult. It really is that off-the-radar personal life. Now they’ve been difficult with the children. Now just their comms are really bad. Or they did something deliberate. All those little things that your lawyer kind of goes, thanks for letting me know, but this isn’t going to really change the status. And also, you’re racking up all your charges by just talking to me on the phone. I can’t really deal with that. I just thought, who can I talk to – my counselor? Not really, they just kind of analyze me. I need someone with–I wish I had someone that had the sort of strategic overall brilliant plan or map of what was going on for me and can help me in all areas. That’s why I created Your Divorce Coach.

Jessica: I just want to say it’s so interesting to think for all of the people out there who are dealing with divorce and feeling they are not sure how to navigate the process, and that you are a lawyer, and that you are having your own struggles navigating the process, that really resonates because it just shows that it doesn’t matter if you already have a lot of that legal background. It’s just a challenging process for anyone.

Nawal: Oh, god. And as you said, I’m a lawyer and I very quickly–I’m not in family law, but as you know, you can very quickly adapt, and you understand it, and the words were easy to learn. It wasn’t a problem. But I think, my goodness, if you’re not, how on earth do you grasp this process on your own? And so that’s the unique selling point I guess about me is that it’s not just the whole map. It’s when you talk to me about well, I don’t understand this lawyer’s letter. Or what are the options presented to me? Or how can I navigate this really difficult aspect about them? I get it instantly. I think that is what’s so different. But yeah, absolutely, it’s such an overwhelming process. No wonder people say one of the most difficult things that you can manage in your life is death, moving house, and divorce. It definitely is one of those really high ranking, and it covers so many aspects of our lives, especially when our children are involved. And it’s all-consuming. It’s so all-consuming. But I suppose your other question, which is how do we identify–how do we know if we’re divorcing someone quite difficult? What am I looking out for here? And really, this can fall anywhere in your process, whether it be at the beginning when you’re thinking about it, in the middle, or wherever. What we’re really looking for is, I’m not heard. My points aren’t coming across. Or I’m being asked to quieten down. Or maybe there’s an element of slight control that is being taken place. Or I’m fearful. I’m fearful of expressing myself. Or there doesn’t seem to be any empathy towards how I might be feeling. Or someone else’s needs seem to be taking priority. Or even if we come from a certain people-pleaser side, silencing our own emotions. No freedom to speak out. I think those are kind of the big red flags that we’d be looking at to identify, am I divorcing someone slightly tricky?

T.H.: And also, I know that for myself in my marriage at the time, it’s hard to see those things. It’s hard when you’re in it to see that, but I know that my gut was feeling uncomfortable. I knew that things didn’t feel good. I couldn’t necessarily put a name on it, or label it, or call it out, but I didn’t feel right. That’s probably the only thing that I could properly communicate at the time. If you asked me, well, what was it? I’d be like, I don’t know. I’m just miserable.

Nawal: Yeah. I speak to a lot of my clients like that. They’re trying to describe their scenario. We always start off with onboarding in an initial session to really take down all that information. While some of my clients are very clear about what happened, others are, oh, but if I describe it to you, I’m going to sound crazy. That’s sort of a big red flag in itself.

T.H.: That is so–I want to stop you right there. Because I think that when I tell Jessica certain things she didn’t even know that were going on in my marriage, and through all the podcasts we’ve been doing with exEXPERTS, we’re each learning more and more about ourselves.

Nawal: Yes.

T.H.: But you just want to know you’re not crazy. Because ultimately, you feel like, what am I doing? What’s wrong with me? What’s the deal with the crazy? Why do we think we’re crazy?

Nawal: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We always inadvertently think it’s us. That’s why we know we’re very empathetic because we self-reflect. And so that’s why I’m like, well, you’re not the problem, because you have the ability to turn back and go, is it me? Am I doing something wrong? But that’s the biggie. You want to have a sense of community connection with someone so that they can just tell you sometimes you’re not going crazy. They are actually being quite tricky. If we go back to the other point that you made, if we can’t describe, which a lot of my clients can’t, the reason they come to me is because I’ve been there, done that, and still sort of doing. I often describe, is it in here? Is it sort of like the voice in here we’re not listening to? Is it a trigger? Do you panic when you see a text message or a letter? Do you gasp just can’t breathe anymore? Or the fear of seeing something? They’re like, yes, yes, yes! I’m like, that is indicative physically of having to deal with someone quite difficult. I even have clients that say to me, I can’t even read any of the letters. Please can you do that for me? And I then decipher it for them. But those are again, that kind of almost physical triggers or indicators that you’re divorcing someone quite difficult.

Jessica: I think part of the problem too with I would say primarily women feeling like, am I crazy? Or if I tell you this it’s going to be it’s because I’m crazy, or I’m going to sound crazy because they’ve been living in a pattern where they’re being told by their partner, you’re fucking crazy. So when you hear that enough, then you do feel insecure about then relaying stories or anecdotes and telling other people because you then fear that is going to sound crazy to someone else. And so I think that part of the whole thing of the point is to raise awareness that, yes, people can be in these toxic relationships. It’s really about trying to figure out a way, like T.H. said, to see it from the inside to understand that you do need to feel like you have to break out of that pattern, and how do you do that? Do you have clients who did not necessarily feel it was super challenging in the marriage with regards to feeling they were being controlled or that their partner was so, so difficult, but on the way out, after they said that they wanted to get divorced, or after they had separated, these controlling traits came out, so the person hasn’t had real experience in navigating that? And how do you recommend that people deal with that moving forward when it’s almost like their soon-to-be ex-spouse becomes this person who is scaring them and is becoming controlling and difficult.  

Nawal: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, firstly, people identify with dealing with a difficult person because they watch my stories. I’m very big on Instagram. That’s sort of one of my main platforms and I give this sort of daily content. If there’s one thing that clients– not even clients, followers, say to me, they might try to privately message me, oh my god, everything that you have said resonates with me. That’s because I’m just talking about it and so I think that connects with exactly what you said. I didn’t know I was dealing with someone quite difficult until you started saying these things, and I’m thinking, oh god, that’s me. Oh god, that sounds familiar, all of those things. They watch me for a while, a long period of time. I think one of the most frequent messages I get is, I have been following you for a few months now, and I really think I need to talk to you. That’s quite a biggie, which is why I’m so vocal about this continuous daily content. I even self-reflect on my own life because I think people love to kind of relate. Touching upon another thing that you said, you don’t suddenly become difficult at the end of the divorce. It’s sort of always been there, except that maybe you were very good at keeping it tamed. What I mean by that is you were complicit in just keeping them quiet and going along with it. The lion never had to roar as it were because it was always being given what it wanted.

Jessica: You were compliant in what they wanted.

Nawal: Absolutely. And you were condoning that behavior. Now, that is not something that–you don’t turn around and go, oh my god, it’s my fault. It’s not your fault. It’s just that you’re people-pleasing, or codependent, or that I feel I have to adhere to whatever you want because I’m quite frightened about your reactions to what happens. Now the reason they suddenly show their difficult side is because on the outside when you’re going through this divorce process, you’re no longer willing to comply because maybe your solicitor says, or your lawyer, sorry, just English terminology, your lawyer or your attorney will say, no, that doesn’t work for you. Don’t do that. That’s not fair. And so then you’re bringing in that resistance, and then obviously, the other party isn’t too happy. The best thing that you can do with that is boundaries. It’s a really hard journey. For a lot of my clients and followers, it’s the very first time having to stand up for yourself. How frightening is that? How frightening is it to finally stand up for yourself when you have spent, and with some clients, 20 years, 30 years just not doing it?

Jessica: It’s terrifying.

Nawal: Oh my god, it’s so frightening. Here I am saying, no, no, go on jump! And they’re like, what? You want me to do what? So it is a process and we start so small. Sometimes with my clients, they go, look, no, I just can’t do this. I’m like, fine. You go. You go and do what you need to do. You maybe have to see the cycle repeat itself to sort of come back. But I suppose building boundaries and ever so slowly just taking small steps to defining what is right for you and your family and taking it at the pace that’s right for the client is probably where–

Jessica: Where do you start? What is the first couple of steps?

Nawal: Boundaries. Boundaries, number one, boundaries for instance. The number one thing: comms, communication. Clients might say to me, okay, so we’re discussing this on WhatsApp…I’m like, stop. You’re discussing on Whatsapp? No, no, no–

T.H.: I was going to ask you, boundaries set up face to face, or through text?

Nawal: So boundaries cover everything. If we start at just even comms boundaries, and that’s where I help my clients, I even draft their comms sometimes so that they build up this kind of confidence to do it themselves. The number one thing, don’t be communicating your life, your child, or your divorce, in text. That’s a cheap, cheap form of communication, as I call it. It’s fine to say hello, I’m running late, or can you get their soccer stuff or dance clothes ready? That’s okay. But we’re not discussing big stuff, so stick to email. Stick to main comms. That’s probably number one. Physical boundaries, if you don’t want them to enter your home, they don’t enter your home. You just say, actually, could you wait here? I’m just going to get the children. Or there’d be boundaries of the manner in which you speak to me. If you continue to talk to me in this manner, or if you’re rude to me again, I’m afraid I won’t be able to correspond with you. I won’t be able to talk to you face to face. It just has to be on comms. Now, setting up these small, little boundaries, the feeling of my clients is like, oh my god, you want me to tell them what? It’s quite big. But what I then say to them is the thing about having a boundary is you have to have a consequence. You can’t be, oh, yeah, I have my boundary and I’m so proud of myself. I know exactly what I’m going to do. Like, okay, what’s your consequence? And it’s like, what do you mean? Well, they’re going to breach that boundary because you’re testing them. What is the consequence for them having done that?

Jessica: What is that?

Nawal: Yeah, what is it? What is it going to be? Is it going to be, that I will no longer be able to talk to you? Or I will have to manage all comms between solicitors? Or I’m afraid I’ll only read your emails between certain times? Or I will call the police if you do step over the threshold of my home after asking you not to? You have to. But when you set that consequence, you have to be able to stick to it. It has to be something that you will do because–

T.H.: So it has to be realistic.

Nawal: Well, we do it for children. You do that one more time and mommy’s going to…but you actually have to follow through. And that again in itself is the real test. So when I say to my clients, I’m going to tell them that if they do this again I’m going to call the police. Then I say, but will you?

Uh…well, don’t set that boundary. Don’t set that consequence. It has to be something that you will effectively do. Then a lot of my clients are pushed to that. Or if you don’t disclose your financial documents in the divorce, I’m going to have to initiate court proceedings. I’m going to have to let the court set the date. I’m going to have to allow the judge to set down what documents I need from you. And again, they’ll push. They won’t care. Then you have to follow through. So the key thing is not just about setting your boundary but following through without consequences.

T.H.: I also learned, because everything you’re saying was stuff that I honestly went through, setting boundaries, but also setting boundaries for myself. So like you were saying, keep it simple about dance or whatever in a text, and a bigger conversation somewhere else. There were so many text messages at the onset of our separation. It was literally harassment. And I was reading them, which was more believing the same messaging was happening during my marriage. I had to set up boundaries for myself that my therapist really helped me with.

Nawal: Yeah, absolutely. 

T.H.: Anything more than two sentences, you don’t read. That’s it. Then what I ended up doing. I did get my lawyer involved, again, things not to do. It’s a waste of money. But I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t in a place to handle it. I was still dealing with being emotionally harassed. I didn’t have the wherewithal to be where I am certainly now. But I did, and it does take time. Everybody listen to Nawal, it does take time. This is not overnight. My baby step was to read two sentences and not to get suckered in. It’s like the good stuff. This is what comes to mind, right? I’m a cookie person, so it’s going to be totally a T.H. random. If the cookie’s on the table, I’m going to eat the cookie. If the cookie’s not on the table, I’m actually going to forget the cookie’s even in the house.

Jessica: Right.

Nawal: True.

T.H.: So if I leave more than two, it’s like the cookie’s staring me in the face and I have to consume it. It’s a terrible habit that I had gotten into because I had been trained that way. Undoing that for myself was like creating my own boundary before I could even make a boundary for him. 

Nawal: Absolutely.

Jessica: You can’t be the only one who’s struggling with communications via text. I think we all fall into that pattern. How do you recommend communicating to a difficult ex, that text messaging is not an effective way, in a way that they hear it, and that you’re able to maintain your own composure?

T.H.: Hey, I want to answer. Then Nawal tell me if I have the right answer.

Nawal: Okay, go on.

T.H.: After you tell them you don’t want to communicate with text, and if they don’t listen, you ignore them. Am I right or wrong?  

Nawal: That is true, but you also have to give them an incentive to use email. In which case, more often than not with difficult people, we have to flatter their egos slightly. So what you say is, this is really important stuff and I really want to give it–your email or your messages are really important. I want it to give it the attention it deserves. I just can’t do that on text messaging so I’m going to go to email. From now on, let’s deal with email stuff. It’s a bit like a shit sandwich. I don’t know whether you guys have ever heard of that, yeah? So we’re getting a little bit of a, oh, you’re amazing, and this is what I need you to do, but you’re still amazing. Okay, so we kind of do it that way.

Jessica: But you’re still advocating for the communication to be written versus verbal on the phone, or having certain conversations only in person?

Nawal: Yeah, well, I wouldn’t go to the person. I would just stick to all major conversations by email. You’re going to need it in some written form. If you have funds available to you, then by all means let the lawyer or the attorney deal with it. But for most people, that’s just an incredible cost that they just can’t meet. And absolutely, as you said, if they then revert back on text messaging, you just don’t reply. Or you give that one response that one time, which is, as I said, I’ll now be dealing with communications via email. Then you don’t say it again. You say it once. They’re not stupid. They can read. The other thing that I would say is, I have other, as you said, our own boundary rules, which is always respond, don’t react. Which basically means any message that you get, you have to give it at least a minimum of 24 hours before you even think about responding, let alone actually responding.

T.H.: That’s a great tip.

Nawal: I would also– yeah, yeah, and the other thing is if you are getting text messages, I would actually use either a different phone. Or if you’re getting emails, use a different email address and stick to times between when you’re going to read those email messages, okay? So what you don’t want is, and I’ve got my phone here, that it’s coming in every five minutes that you can see it. You could be in a meeting and you see something and think, gasp, oh my god, it’s there. Whereas if you’ve got a dedicated email, and you actually explained to the other person, by the way, this is my new email address, this is where you and I will be communicating, I will only be checking my messages between X time and X time, so that they can send, but you have to stick to that boundary yourself. There’s no point in you going, okay, I’m only reading your messages between 10 and 3, and you’re there at 9 am checking them. You have to stick to it yourself. Those are your own personal boundaries. And also, learning, a big thing is if you are seeing text messages and having that trigger response, I suppose your own sort of boundary is to, I actually say this to my clients, physically breeze through it. The thing about our emotions is we’re very quick at going – I don’t want to deal with that. Push it away. Push it away and do something else. Actually, the best way to overcome the trigger responses that we have when we receive communication from someone difficult is if you literally just live through it. You have to allow that emotion to go through. Now, there are kind of four main trigger points or trigger responses, trauma reactions that you’ll have for something that you feel quite uncomfortable with. The two most popular kinds are fight or flight. Yes, I’m going to fight back, which some of us don’t really want to do, or we’re going to run away. Then there’s freeze where you just literally do nothing. I can’t respond. I can’t do anything. And then there’s another one, a fourth one, which isn’t that popular, but it’s called fawning. Fawning is to comply. What you have to do is be aware of these trigger responses, identify which one that you’re most associated with, and then try and battle against it. Try and just understand it but not do anything about it. We’re not saying push it away. I’m just going, oh god, I’m being triggered. Yeah, oh god, I feel really uncomfortable. I mean, it’s effective to even talk yourself through it.

Jessica: Let it be. Recognize it and let yourself in it.

Nawal: Absolutely. Recognize it, let it be, and just go, oh, here it is. I’m feeling anxious. Oh my god, I actually hate that text message. [I know what this is] It’s very normal for me. I just need to go through it. Because that’s progress and that is how we recover. We don’t recover by pushing our emotions away. Our emotions are neither good nor bad. They’re simply our emotions. They’re how we feel, and how we are being, and how we’re operating within ourselves.

The thing is to be aware of it. Then over time, you’ll notice that you can just learn to manage it. It’s a bit like people that are afraid of heights. It’s never going to disappear, but you just learn to manage. You learn to set those boundaries. I know I’m scared of heights, so I’m not going to climb up there. That’s okay. I’m okay. I’m afraid of that, but I’m going to put the boundaries in to protect myself.

Jessica: Everything that you’re talking about I think is so relatable for everyone on any level. No, I mean, it’s true because everyone deals with these issues at some point or another in your divorce. I had two amicable divorces, but I still had circumstances here and there spread out that are resonating with me with what you’re talking about. I know that that’s information that’s going to help so many people. I feel like we definitely have a lot more to discuss with regards to this because we really need to be able to take it a little bit deeper. But for today, that was amazing information. I hope that everyone also understands the practicality of the tips. Those are things that you can start doing now to be able to help yourself.

Nawal: Absolutely. Absolutely.

T.H.: And it’s for yourself. It’s for yourself. There are so many things that you’ve also said that are good for you to just use in your life.

Jessica: That’s right.

T.H.: With your job, with friends, with your kids. Like, how do you respond to people? Yeah, it’s really, really smart.

Nawal: It doesn’t have to be difficult people that you are married to. It can just be difficult people that you’re working with, or friends, or whoever, just putting in those boundaries. You hit upon something very true actually about you can have an amicable divorce, but at some point, there was something difficult. Anything can trigger that, a new partner, or the children, the children themselves – managing them, all of those aspects. So at any stage, there could be a crack point where it’s becoming slightly difficult.

Jessica: That’s right. Thank you so much for all of that today and I’m already looking forward to part 2.

T.H.: Thank you, Nawal.

Nawal: Fantastic. Thank you for having me, ladies. Thank you.

Goodbye: For everyone out there listening, if you know anyone at all who would benefit from what we talked about today please share this episode and everything exEXPERTS.  Be sure and click to subscribe, rate, and review our podcast wherever you listen to your podcasts and please follow us on social media @exEXPERTS Divorce, etc… on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube @exEXPERTS and our website at  Thanks for listening!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.