Can’t Co-Parent With Your Hostile Ex? Try This Strategy Instead

In a good-enough divorce, exes work through feelings of anger, betrayal and loss and arrive at a place of acceptance. Frustrations over the other parent’s values and choices are contained and pushed aside, making space for the Holy Grail of post-divorce life: effective co-parenting.

Co-parenting is possible only when both exes support their children’s need to have a relationship with the other parent and respect that parent’s right to have a healthy relationship with the children.

But some people never get to acceptance. They become, essentially, addicted to anger. They convince themselves that the other parent is incompetent, mentally ill, or dangerous. They transmit this conviction directly or indirectly not only to the children, but also to school staff, mental health professionals and anyone who will listen.

High-conflict exes are on a mission to invalidate the other parent. No therapist, mediator, parenting class, or Gandhi-esque channeling will make an anger-addicted ex take off the gloves and agree to co-parent.

If this scenario feels familiar, and you’re wondering how you’re going to survive raising kids with your high-conflict ex without losing every last one of your marbles, I offer you this counterintuitive suggestion: Stop trying to co-parent!

Try Parallel Parenting instead.

What is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel Parenting is radical acceptance. It means letting go of fighting reality. Divorce is terrible enough, but to have a divorce that is so hellish as to make co-parenting impossible is another kind of terrible altogether.

It’s helpful to conceptualize Parallel Parenting as an approach many Alcoholics Anonymous folks use when dealing with the addict in their lives: they stop going to the hardware store looking for milk. Why are you trying to have a reasonable conversation with someone who isn’t reasonable, at least with you? Stop expecting reciprocity or enlightenment. Stop needing the other person to see you as right. You are not ever going to get these things from your anger-addicted ex, and you can make yourself sick trying.

How to Practice Parallel Parenting

You tried to co-parent so your kids would see their parents get along, and to make them feel safe. That didn’t work. Now you need to limit contact with your ex to reduce the conflict in order to make your kids feel safe — and to keep yourself from going nuts. So how do you do this?

1. Communicate as little as possible

Stop talking on the phone. When speaking with a hostile ex, you will likely be drawn into an argument and nothing will get resolved. Limit communication to texting and e-mail. This way you can choose what to respond to and you will be able to delete knee-jerk retorts that you would make if you were on the phone.

2. Make Rules for Communication

Hostile exes tend to ignore boundaries. So you will have to be very clear about the terms for communication. E-mail or texting should be used only for logistics: travel plans, a proposed weekend swap, doctor appointments. If your ex tends uses e-mails to harass you, tell him you will not respond, and if the abuse continues, you will stop e-mailing altogether.

3. Do Not Respond to Threats of Lawsuits

Hostile exes frequently threaten to modify child support or custody arrangements. Do not respond! Tell your ex that any discussion of litigation must go through your attorney. This will require money on your ex’s part: phone calls between attorneys, disclosing financial statements, etc. It is quite possible that your ex does not really intend to put her money where her mouth is, so don’t take the bait.

4. Avoid being together at child-related functions

It’s great for your kids to see the two of you together — but only if they see you getting along. So attend events separately as much as possible. Schedule separate parent-teacher conferences. Trade off hosting birthday parties. Do curbside drop-offs so your child doesn’t have to feel the tension between you and your ex.

5. Be proactive with school staff and mental health professionals

School staff and therapists may have heard things about you that aren’t true — for instance, that you are out of the picture or mentally ill. So be proactive. Fax your custody order to these individuals so they understand the custody arrangement. Even if you are a non-custodial parent, you are still entitled to information regarding your child’s academic performance or mental health treatment and the school and therapists want you to be involved. Talk to school staff and therapists as soon as possible. Don’t be defensive, but explain the situation. When they see you, they will realize that you’re a reasonable person who’s trying to do the right thing for your child.

6. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Parallel Parenting requires letting go of what happens in the other parent’s home. Although it may drive you crazy that your ex lets 6-year-old Lucy stay up until midnight, there is really not much you can do about it. Nor can you control your ex’s selection of babysitters, children’s clothing or how much TV time is allowed.

Your child will learn to adapt to different rules and expectations at each house. If Sienna complains about something that goes on at Dad’s, instruct her to speak to him directly. Trying to solve a problem between your ex and your child will only inflame the conflict and teach her to pit the two of you against each other. You want to empower your child, not teach her that she needs to be rescued.

Parallel Parenting is a last resort, to be implemented when attempts at co-parenting have failed. But that doesn’t mean you have failed as a divorced parent. In fact, the opposite is true. By reducing conflict, Parallel Parenting will enhance the quality of your life and most importantly, take your child out of the middle.

And isn’t that what a good-enough divorce is all about?

Virginia Gilbert

Virginia Gilbert

I live in Los Angeles, where I specialize in helping people going through high-conflict divorce. On this blog, you'll find insights to help people who are considering divorce, are going through divorce, or have a high-conflict divorce that never seems to get any better.


  1. Patty on April 19, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    How does the new wife deal with her husband’s high conflict ex when she calls her names and blames her for things that are not even true! ? I don’t want anything to do with his kids because she is insane and I am insulating myself from problems she causes.

    • Virginia Gilbert on April 19, 2018 at 3:42 pm

      That sounds like a really challenging situation. I don’t know if the children are living in your house, but if they are, you can’t avoid interacting with them. I find a 12-step approach is almost crucial in these circumstances: you can’t control a crazy-making person, but you do have choices about how you choose to respond to them and manage your own reactivity.

      • Amanda on April 15, 2023 at 9:01 am

        My husband’s ex has subpoenaed me to go to her lawyers office for the sake of the child…. is this even legal? I’m 7 weeks pregnant and this woman lawyer likes to yell and stress out the person she is questioning. They want me to say something against my husband. Ex is wanting to get passport for child and is secretly married to a Dutch man. She tries to get her daughter to call this new man daddy. My bonus daughter doesn’t really like him. I don’t want to be subpoenaed everyday until the lawyer releases me…we think they want to harass me and stress me out.

    • Melanie on June 11, 2020 at 6:41 am

      So I’ve been in my step sons life since he was 2. He will be 11 this year. The birth mom has never been very involved in his life and throws him on my husbands mom on her weeks (we have joint custody). And only mothers him when its convenient for her. My husband doesn’t like communicating with her because it’s like talking to a wall. She thinks she’s always right. He wants us to communicate instead and she doesnt want to because I’ve made a comment about how I’m just as a mom to her son because I’m always picking up her slack. I’ve never threatened her. But she always wants to call our son on my phone and disrespect us by talking about things she doesnt need to know. Like what we do everyday her at our house. That isnt any of her business. So my question is does she legally have to talk to me? If he doesn’t want to coparent with her in the sense of texting or calling because all she does is start drama.

      • Virginia Gilbert on June 11, 2020 at 6:50 am

        Hi Melanie — I can’t advise on legal questions, so you’d have to consult with a lawyer. But if I had to guess, I’d say that unless you’re mentioned in the custody order, you have no legal obligation to talk to your husband’s ex. Have you considered getting your stepson a cell phone? That way you don’t have to talk to her, at least, not as much.

    • Jaime on July 13, 2023 at 9:54 am

      Don’t let the new wife talk to the old one. They are not her children and there is no need for her to interfere! Your children and your ex should only talk.

  2. Yvonne on August 11, 2018 at 5:07 am

    I found proof that my high-conflict ex allows his spouse to manage & participate in communications with me. So, I don’t know who I’m emailing with. I’ve addressed this in the past & we were told by a co-parenting counselor that this is inappropriate — but he’s still doing it. What do I do?

    • Virginia Gilbert on August 11, 2018 at 5:48 am


      Did your counselor say why she thought this was inappropriate? I’m not sure there’s anything you can do about it. To my knowledge, it’s not illegal, although you’d need to ask your attorney. I actually advise some people to get help drafting emails to their ex if this enables them to write in a less hostile fashion.

  3. Bhavini Patel on August 29, 2018 at 11:25 am

    My ex husband and I got along ok until last year he got married and the new wife does not want us to talk to each other. since then communication has gone down dramatically and we fight more often about things, which are brought about by lack of communication and trust. Now I realise that his new wife and him are making decisions about my daughter and schooling without including me at all. I am trying to talk to him about it, but he just swats me away and makes me feel like a nuisance. I fear that communicating even less will complete push me out of my daughters life (we are supposedly 50/50 coparents).

    • Virginia Gilbert on August 29, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      Hi Bhavani: If you share legal custody, he should not be making school decisions without you. Have you consulted your attorney?

  4. Givehimabreak on December 19, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    Hi Virginia
    Can you confirm that if I post a question here my personal details are private and secure or is there another way I can post a quick question to you? Many thanks

    • Virginia Gilbert on December 19, 2018 at 3:59 pm

      Hi there — I don’t give out anyone’s personal info but if you’d be more comfortable emailing me a question, you can contact me at [email protected].

  5. Bill on January 23, 2019 at 7:56 am

    Funny reading this because this is what I started doing when frustrations was getting the best of me……then she wanna try reaching out to me but I always tell her long as she has my son as a ward off the state I have nothing to say…….ward off the state meaning letting a judge decide how much time he can spend with me…..79 overnights

  6. Fiona on January 24, 2019 at 11:17 am

    Thank you for writing this. It’s the first time I’ve seen it written by a professional that it’s reasonable to avoid your co-parent. Numbers 1, 4 and 6 are exactly the way I’ve been managing. I went through what would be considered (by my therapist) an abusive divorce and was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of that and another major trauma. Needless to say, being in my ex husbands company is highly unpleasant for me. All around me I see divorced parents celebrating holidays, chatting at sports events, helping each other out and generally being friendly and while it feels like an additional failure on top of a failed marriage, it’s necessary for my peace of mind to dramatically minimize contact. I have had clear boundaries since we were in court 3 years ago and am functioning reasonably well with these boundaries in place. It’s not perfect but it reduces my stress and my son doesn’t seem any worse for wear.

    • Virginia Gilbert on February 4, 2019 at 8:16 am

      Hi Fiona — so sorry to hear about what you’ve been through, but it sounds like you’re doing a really good job of managing the crazy. All my best!

  7. Stacy on July 22, 2020 at 12:52 pm

    Thank you for this information. It has helped me set guidelines in communicating with my ex. My ex is harassing me by text. He knows that it is difficult to prove the validity of text messages in court. I told him I only want to communicate by email as we have before . He says I cannot dictate how we communicate. Is that correct?

    • Virginia Gilbert on July 22, 2020 at 1:05 pm

      Hi Stacy: That is actually a question for your lawyer. Often people have their mode of communication written into their divorce agreement. If you don’t have that, it seems to me that he can’t require you to communicate outside of email, if that’s your preference. But again, I would consult with an attorney on this one. Wishing you the best.

    • David on September 9, 2023 at 9:49 am

      Dealt with this. Screen shot the text then email the screen shot along with your response back then they loose their power of text not having time stamp and all the stuff they claim so it is not viable evidence in court. Not a lawyer but just from experience of my own.

  8. Jennifer Orrill on September 16, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    My spouse and her ex share custody of her two children. He has a roommate who is always getting involved about issues with the children, calling and yelling or being extremely rude, often both of them saying things like, we see what you’re turning her into, because we let her get a pair of play high heels. They keep nice clothes that we buy. We have tried to be civil, but one of them always gets an attitude or tries to argue. He tries to get my spouse to sign things without an attorney. It’s ok for him to be at work, and can’t get to his phone that instant, but complains when she can’t and is working. Says things like what are you hiding by not answering. The roommate has even tried to hit my spouse. That happened when she went to pick up the children and a headlight was dim on her car. They said the car wasn’t safe and refused to let the kids leave the house, wanted her to sign a paper saying she would fix the headlight. The roommate got in her face and drew her hand back. The kids were scared and crying. We then tried texting only and meeting at a police station, to which he said meeting at a police station was embarrassing to the kids and they needed to talk in person instead of texting because his phone didn’t always get messages and things got misconstrued. But everytime we try in person, he ends up yelling and manipulating the conversation. But if we text or call he most times won’t respond. Not sure what to do.

  9. Andrea on March 23, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    Should we tell our high conflict ex that we would like to parallel parent and not co parent?

    • Virginia Gilbert on March 23, 2021 at 3:01 pm

      No — if you do they will probably think you are being difficult. You can practice the strategy without naming it out loud.

      • Andrea on March 24, 2021 at 9:51 am

        Thank you for your quick response and article. It can be very isolating “coparenting” with a toxic ex. I had hoped that after our divorce and child custody agreement the harassing text and phone calls would stop. But it has been a constant and gets worse the more I stick to my boundaries. The manipulating text messages about everything I do is wrong and why can’t we coparent makes my head spin. Looking forward to parallel parenting.

        • J on January 21, 2023 at 6:15 am

          Thank you for this article. I didn’t know about parallel parenting until today. Hoping this helps me with radical acceptance and providing a healthy environment for my son since he is with his difficult father half the time. Father has been stonewalling me since before the divorce so co-parenting has been a major headache for me and he disparages me in front of him per my son’s self reports. Although not ideal, I will look into parallel parenting strategies to assist.

  10. Greta on August 29, 2021 at 2:01 pm

    Question, my fiancé and I are expecting our first. He has a 6yo daughter, and we have a wonderful relationship. His ex wife resents this, and the end of their marriage and has been hateful towards me ever since. He has implemented parallel parenting and they’re back in court to modify their decree/custody rules. My question is how do we approach the new baby news in this situation. Given her very hostile past she clearly will not be excited ans I don’t want her involved at all in our situation. We plan to tell his daughter after my first trimester. Do we have to tell his ex? When I told her we were getting married (before we told his daughter) she demanded it be the two of them that told their daughter about our engagement and I not be involved. I assume she will do the same here and even try to tel her daughter what our home should look like with a new baby. Communication is very limited due to her hostility (we’ve taken legal action against slander spread) and drop offs are now at the police station- if that’s any indication of the situation. Help! How do we make his daughter feel safe and secure with this news but keep his ex from ruining it?!! Thank you!!

    • Virginia Gilbert on August 30, 2021 at 6:55 am

      Hi, Greta. Congratulations on your pregnancy! Regarding your dilemma, I think it’s time for radical acceptance: you are not going to be able to control your fiance’s ex’s reactions. She’s probably going to have a negative reaction no matter what you do because she resents the fact that your fiance is moving on with his life. However, since you have a choice to make, I would tell his ex about the pregnancy after the first trimester. This is huge news that will impact her child. If you don’t tell her, she’s going to try to get info out of your stepdaughter, which puts your stepdaughter in the position of being a messenger. So what if she tells your stepdaughter what you should do with the baby in your own home? Your fiance’s ex doesn’t get a say in that, and you can explain that respectfully to your stepdaughter. Try to stop ruminating about what the ex is going to do (because you can’t control her) and focus on what you CAN control, which is the choices you make in your own home.

  11. Eve on March 13, 2022 at 10:07 pm

    My daughter will be 18 in 3 months. Her father asked her where she was going to college. She gave an answer he did not like, now every time that is his weekend with her, he’s mentally and emotionally abusing her, scaring her and threatening her. That if she leaves she will not help her in any way shape or form. He bad mouths me and my family. My daughter is so stressed out at this point, she is cared for her self and for me. Now he sent her with a message for me that he wants to talk to me. As he is a narsasistic person and mentally and emotionally abusive, I am a little scared to receive a phone call that he wants to sit down and talk. What should I do?

    • Virginia Gilbert on March 14, 2022 at 10:38 am

      Hi Eve — The good news is that your daughter will be a legal adult in 3 months and she can decide if/when she wants to see her father and be more in a position to dictate the terms of their relationship. My best advice for her is to be as financially independent from him as she can be so he does not have leverage over her. As for you, if you don’t have a reason to talk to him, I don’t see a point — especially if you feel that he’s going to be nasty. Don’t let your fear convince you not to set boundaries with him.

      • Beth on January 18, 2023 at 4:05 am

        What to do in this case if the daughter is 16 yr. old. Due to my ex’s controlling nature, she is losing her self esteem. She wants to do certain things in her life, make certain decisions in her life but he always threatens her that she cannot do this and that. It is simple things like doing a school activity, hobbies, taking her dog to his house (he loves dogs and has allowed him sometimes), swapping weekends etc.

  12. Joey W. on March 31, 2022 at 4:59 pm

    Would it be inappropriate to contact my ex’s wife about the possibility of her husband going to jail for failure to pay child support? My ex is a narcissist and hasn’t seen his kids in 1.5 years. Owes 35k in arrears and missed the last court date. The biggest part of me wants to just let him get in trouble and go to jail. A small part of me wants to warn ex’s wife, since she seems fairly level-headed. I’ve only texted with her once in 7 years, asking her to tell my ex to stop harassing me with lies. She responded that she tries to stay out of things. She will be plenty affected if her husband and father of her 2 kids goes to jail…

    • Virginia Gilbert on April 26, 2022 at 6:21 pm

      I understand the urge to do this, but you would be triangulating her and that will likely cause more conflict. This seems like an issue for your attorney to advise you on.

    • Beth on January 18, 2023 at 5:02 am

      What to do in this case if the daughter is 16 yr. old. Due to my ex’s controlling nature, she is losing her self esteem. She wants to do certain things in her life, make certain decisions in her life but he always threatens her that she cannot do this and that. It is simple things like doing a school activity, hobbies, taking her dog to his house (he loves dogs and has allowed him sometimes), swapping weekends etc.

  13. MommaLion on April 26, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    This method does work great…but what do you do when the kids are grown and it’s time for graduation and weddings and the ex is so bitter and hostile that he will ruin the child’s day? We can attend separately but who does our other child sit with? Who does the child go to afterwards to celebrate with? And take pictures? It’s just a mess. Why can’t he just get over it and be mature. Problem is my ex IS a 15yr recovering alcoholic and this has been the way all along… like dealing with an adolescent who has no coping skills. I’m thankful he doesn’t drink anymore but he still can’t handle life. Now the kids get to pay for it just because I want to be happy and divorced him. The guilt is overwhelming.

    • Virginia Gilbert on April 26, 2022 at 6:26 pm

      Well, you don’t “do” anything about him, because you can’t change him. He’s your kids’ dad, and they’re going to have to navigate their own relationship with him. My suggestion would be that the kids “go with” whichever parent they’re supposed to be with on that day per the custody order. I think if you don’t seem upset about it (even if you are), your kids will feel less anxious and at least know they don’t have to take care of your feelings, even if they feel like they have to take care of their dad’s. Channel the guilt you feel into being a good role model and showing them how to do hard things with dignity and grace. That is really one of the best gifts any parent can give to a child, married or not.

  14. Victor on May 25, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    How do I ask my extremely hostile estranged wife, who absconded with my daughter and severed all contact, that I want to see my daughter and she benefits from a meaningful relationship with her father?
    My only way of somehow contacting my estranged wife is via a third party. What message should I send to politely make it clear that it’s in the child’s best interest for her to foster/facilitate a continuous and meaningful connection between my daughter and me?

    • Virginia Gilbert on May 25, 2022 at 2:26 pm

      This is more than I can respond to here but the approach you take should keep the focus on what your daughter. Don’t say anything that comes across as blaming your ex. Something like, “I don’t want our daughter to interpret my absence as evidence that I don’t love her or am abandoning her and believe that it is in her best interest that she be able to continue a relationship with her father.” You might also want to consult an attorney on this matter. Good luck!

  15. Mom of teen on September 22, 2022 at 1:58 pm

    I am more or less using this technique. My question is about a cell phone for my teenager. The other parent bought a phone for our teenager without consulting with me. I cannot control or monitor what goes on with the phone. The phone is also old and battery dies quickly. I would like to purchase a new phone and add my teen to my phone plan instead, but am afraid of approaching the other parent. I don’t know how far they would go to retaliate. I understand my teen would be under their rules at their house.
    Do you have any advice on how I should approach this?

  16. Jessica on September 30, 2022 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you so much!! I had no idea that there was a name for a concept that I’m already practicing. (Parallel Parenting.) This completely gave me the confidence I needed, as I was thinking that not being able to co-parent in a healthy way with my ex, was failing our children. (Even though I tried for 6 drama filled, hellish years.) The life of my children, as well as mine, have been so much more peaceful since I started parallel parenting a year and a half ago and my children completely prefer it at this point. Thanks for posting this!

  17. Tiffany Skadron on October 7, 2022 at 11:01 am

    I left dad over 10 years ago. I always had our son dad visits when it’s convenient for him, pays minimal child support is always late or short on payments and none at all for several years. dad quit his job moved out of state and remarried with out notice in 2020 and filed in family courts for custody and visitation. I have full physical custody and we currently share 50% legal dad owes over $20,000 in child support and has not exercised visitation since March 2022. A support order was in place since 2016 initiated by child support services and is not based on presumed income. He just submitted a stop/cancel of support order April 2021. But is requesting all my financial documents in all avenues , employment, social security, and loans or financing info I’ve applied for , property , cars and any other services or items I have financed or purchased dating back to 2016. His wife tried to sue me in a separate lawsuit for over $200,000 for harassment which did not happen (it was dismissed but I had to hire a lawyer) they have continuously tried to blackmail and extort me for money over the course of this lawsuit. I have spent two years tax returns all my unemployment from the pandemic all my pandemic payments, and any savings on an attorney that I can no longer pay and has been released. Do I need to submit these documents for them to further harass me and try to extort me?

  18. Mr Varela on March 7, 2023 at 4:25 pm

    Hello. Why is it 10 years after the divorce and I can be happily remarried that when my ex sends rude emails and demands things instead of asking politely it still angers me. I love the the parallel parenting it has helped immensely so I highly suggest it. One year to go before 18 but I don’t feel divorced with the rude nasty comments. Help signed why still mad?

  19. Dana on August 5, 2023 at 7:42 pm

    My husband’s ex-wife is constantly using their almost 14-year-old as a pawn to manipulate and control him and his family. She talks badly and lies about us to their child. I do not deal with her because I know there’s no point but I don’t know what else to do. We are at the point of only seeing his kid once a week because of all the drama and her even trying to file false abuse claims. I am tired of having our names dragged through mud for her own entertainment. What if anything can we do? We’ve tried parallel parenting and that was before the false claims. It’s only been worse over time.

  20. Danny Muse on August 24, 2023 at 1:01 pm

    I have three boys two belonging to my ex of 13 years and one who has no idea he isn’t his blood Father! Our relationship was ruined easily by his dad aging parents who wanted him to help them and be there caregivers unbeknownst to him .I however have no attachment to them so I see the plot, hey we’re successful and there 40 year old son is home with his parents. And me and my kids are on our own. I get so angry because I can never finish a sentence without him interrupting or simply speaking over me as if he is in my home with our kids and I’m the one living with my parents . Remind you I have a 16 year old who is totally a different kid then I remember lol(teenager) changes only a male can understand, he doesn’t spend anytime with our children and argues me. Down when I express concern !

    I am not anger addicted. But I often not threaten but say to him I may get a increase and modify child support. Just to make him understand his minimal is not
    A cellphone bill and when I ask for dinner for them or money for markets he ask me to get government assistance!!! He told our youngest son. The reason we split is because I CHEATED on him !!!!! My son is 10! I just wished we could remain friends , best friends like how could something so long end so easily, why is respect so hard to get from someone for 13 years I called friend ?

  21. Desiree on September 1, 2023 at 3:33 pm

    I am really struggling with setting and keeping boundaries. He bullies me any time we text or talk, said he’ll just tell the kids what the schedule will be for visits. Very long story, but I still get physically sick whenever I have to be around him or talk to him about anything. I don’t know how to stop doing that. Why can’t I just set my boundaries calmly and not listen to the rest?

  22. Pinky on September 17, 2023 at 1:12 pm

    My sons father just told my son to call the police if he feels unsafe in my house. My son was “uncomfortable” that my fiancé, soon to be stepdad and his little sister’s father, yelled from the living room to get in the shower. Apparently my son and his dad have a code emoji for when he feels uncomfortable with my fiancé. My finance has done nothing to my son, and my son has never brought up any concerns to his dad. His dad will prove and ask questions and it seems like he is mentally and emotionally abusing my son. It feels like he wants my son to “find” and issue with my fiancé. He repeats that “that man” is not his father which is obvious. My fiancé doesn’t make my son call him dad or anything. We all are trying to live peacefully in my home and my sons father is creating issues.
    We don’t have a custody agreement but we broke up 3 years ago. We weren’t married but together for 9 years and he was a mean spirited and angry person. That’s why I left. I feel bad my son is witnessing his dads angry personality and behavior towards our family over here. He is a single man BTW.

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