Any divorcing parent knows that one of the hardest parts of a marital ending is feeling forced to stay connected to someone you don’t particularly want to see or spend time with. Not all co-parenting situations are toxic—in fact, many couples find parenting is easier after they have separated—but the adjustment to parenting separately can be tricky for anyone.
Children can be one of the biggest stressors on a marriage, and even when that marriage ends, the co-parenting relationship maintains its own level of stress. Once your custody has been set, you may be faced with all sorts of issues and circumstances that challenge you to reflect on your parenting strategies. Among your considerations: how best to cope with your ex as you figure out what this new relationship means and how it’s supposed to go.
Productive co-parenting isn’t about following any particular formula. Each couple has their own unique dynamic, story, and situation that needs to be worked out in a way that serves the context of that family. However, there are techniques, strategies, and practices that can improve both the co-parenting dynamic and each partner’s experience of that relationship.
In my work with divorce, my focus is almost always on what each individual can work on within themselves. I encourage couples and individuals to refrain from trying to change or control their partners, and to focus on their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors instead. Based on that philosophy, here are five strategies you can use to improve your co-parenting relationship that are completely within your control.
1. Use Empathy and Your Child’s Perspective
Having compassion for an ex can be hard when there has been betrayal, hurt, or rejection, but this is an essential component to co-parenting well. Seeing the situation through your child’s eyes will help you drop down into your heart, and it may give you a different perspective as you deal with your ex. Children simply want to feel loved, safe, and to spend time with their parents, so if you can make your main intention to help them in these respects, you’ll be co-parenting from a compassionate place. As you co-parent, remember it’s more about your child than you, and stepping into that place of empathy will be a good reminder. No matter how much you struggle with your ex, your children are always the priority.
2. Set Clear Boundaries and Maintain Structure
From the minute your marriage ended, your marital relationship shifted into something different, but you may still be engaging in old dynamics. Many of the ways you interacted with your ex in marriage are no longer appropriate or necessary, and a lack of good boundaries may make it even harder to transition into a new way of relating. Becoming clear about what works for you as you move forward untangling the relationship may help you set healthy boundaries. This includes how your children are picked up, whether your ex has a key to the house, and what kind of contact there is when you have the kids. Your boundaries may be violated, but it’s still important to communicate them.
3. Relinquish Control and Accept What’s Happening
There may be things you don’t approve of when it comes to your ex’s parenting style, or how they spend time with the kids. You may also feel differently about introducing a new partner or dating when it comes to parenting time. The reality is that more often than not you have no say over how your ex decides to live. Unless the situation is dangerous or neglectful, you need to learn to accept and let go of your need to control what happens in your absence. Instead of trying to control or change what’s happening, learn to let go, accept, and work with it as best you can. This is one of the hardest consequences of co-parenting, but also the one thing that can really reduce unnecessary stress.
4. Maintain Your Values and Live from Integrity
No matter how frustrated or annoyed you feel about co-parenting with your ex, maintaining your integrity and sticking to your values is essential. It’s easy to get pulled into ugly dynamics or engage in bad behavior when your buttons are pushed, but keeping your cool and staying true to yourself will feel better than reacting. It can help to make a list of the traits and qualities you want to uphold as you co-parent. These might include patience, kindness, respect, and/or grace. These are hard to stick to when you are dealing with someone who doesn’t have the same agenda, but rising above and taking the high road will be better for you and your kids.
5. Enjoy Your Time Off
Many parents spend the whole time they don’t have their children worrying and waiting for them to come back. It’s hard to not see your children half the time, but this alone time can be considered a silver lining. The more you take care of yourself by using that time to reboot and replenish, the better you’ll be for your children when you have them. Try practicing self-care, spending time with friends, exercising, or just having quiet time. All of these forms of self-support may lead to a greater sense of happiness, and you’ll have more space for caregiving and for dealing with your ex.
Learning to co-parent well is a growth-promoting process. You gain skills in negotiating, compromising, as well as stretching your internal capacities for compassion, patience, and empathy. All aspects of divorce can be used to transform the self, so making co-parenting another arena for becoming a better person may shift your focus and intention as you manage this challenging part of the process.
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