When a couple with children separate or divorce, finding a way to co-parent successfully can be challenging. Even if the separation is the best course of action for a couple whose marriage has turned toxic, deeply unfulfilling, or hopelessly stagnant, powerful emotions inevitably accompany the end of a marriage. Although there may be relief and a sense of hope for new beginnings, it’s more typical to feel anger, grief, hurt, confusion, numbness, or temporary despair. The end of a marriage can be a death of sorts, even if it’s the death of a fantasy: of your partner’s unconditional love, of your ability to fix anything, of perfect security or absolute trust.
In the midst of disentangling shared lives, roles, routines, finances, and responsibilities, strong negative emotions can make it hard for one or both members of a couple to do what is best for their children, particularly during a tumultuous, uncertain time. This includes working together to create a new normal, containing criticisms and complaints about the other parent, and focusing on the children’s vulnerability and need to feel loved and safe.
Continuity in parenting and structured routines is important when parents separate. If continuity is difficult, try to find ways to help the children understand and make sense of the lack of continuity. For better or worse, moving from sharing roles and responsibilities in a two-parent household to being co-parents in different households requires a degree of maturity and selflessness that can seem out of reach when hurt and resentment run deepest, as is often the case in the wake of a split. It’s precisely at this juncture, when partners may be feeling emotionally out-of-control, lonely, and a bit like orphaned children themselves, that a new type of alliance between them can act as a protective factor for children. In The Co-Parents Handbook, Bonnel and Little suggest what some might consider a highly advanced mindfulness practice for exes: moving from “spouse mind” to “parent mind” (2014). Noticing which of these two minds is active at any given moment and consciously choosing to relate to your ex as a co-parent rather than as a spouse can make a huge difference in how you approach parenting issues.
Changing the dynamic with your spouse from marital antagonists to task-focused collaborators takes time and will be a work in progress after any separation. Sometimes, it only happens in fits and starts. Often, finding shared parenting ground with your ex will require deep breathing during communication, trial and error, self-compassion, forgiveness, and determination as you move through multiple adjustments, compromises, disappointments, and triggering events.
“Research shows that parents who can put aside their differences for the sake of the children, learn to get along, and co-parent effectively make the transition to a new family structure less stressful and traumatic. This model increases the likelihood of children maintaining a positive relationship with both parents, which greatly minimizes the negative effects of divorce on children,” says Francine Ronis, a parenting educator and therapist in McLean, Virginia (personal communication, 2017). Despite the challenges you and your ex will face in this process, it’s important to set your joint sights on a higher set of priorities that transcends grievances in the interests of a greater good: your children’s ongoing physical and mental health.
Dissimilar rule structures, inconsistent discipline or consequences for unwanted behaviors, and widely divergent parenting styles may have a more lasting adverse impact on children from the toddler years into the preteen years, when a young person’s sense of self is particularly malleable (Karen, 1998). During these formative years, lifelong foundational templates for behaviors in relationships and in the world are being laid, and these templates—sometimes referred to as schemas—impact a person’s sense of self, agency, emotional resilience, and competence (Cloitre, 2004).
Imagine the challenges faced by the children in this divided family, a composite of cases drawn from people I’ve worked with in the therapy room over the years (names have been changed to protect confidentiality):
The more you can spare your child any “messenger” type of role and work directly with your ex to co-create rules, routines, and effective strategies for supporting your children and discouraging acting-out behaviors, the more ease and cooperation you’ll evoke in your children.
Leah and Dave divorced after Dave discovered Leah’s affair with a coworker. They communicate infrequently, usually via text, though sometimes they send each other articles supporting their distinct parenting approaches to prove a point. They live in nearby apartments and share custody of their 4-year-old daughter Rose and their 6-year-old son Matthew, alternating care every two weeks. When the children are with their father, he holds them to a structured play, meal, and bedtime routine, though he rarely bathes them and is lax with hygiene habits such as brushing teeth. He expects Leah to take care of their dental and medical visits and vaccinations, though he has never discussed this explicitly with her. He allows the kids sugary snacks and processed meals but restricts their exposure to iPads, iPhones, and television. He has an authoritarian parenting style, uses time-outs, and when he’s at his wit’s end, he yells.
Leah, on the other hand, plays things by ear when the children are in her care. She allows them to sleep in her bedroom rather than requiring them to remain in their own bed at night, unless her boyfriend is visiting. When Rose has tantrums or when Matthew begins begging for video games or new toys, she finds it less time-consuming and stressful to acquiesce than to set boundaries or enforce consequences on continued whining or begging. On nights her boyfriend stays over, she rewards the children with video games for staying in their beds. Although she’s a wonderful chef and cooks healthy meals, the children often reject her food. She handles this by lecturing them on potential future health crises, or sometimes she simply breaks down and starts to cry. Although she takes the children to their medical appointments, she resents Dave for delivering the children to her on different occasions with lice, viruses, rashes, cavities, and ear infections, and expecting her to handle it.
Whatever your position on how Leah and Dave are parenting Rose and Matthew, the inconsistencies in how they handle routines, discipline, health issues, mealtimes, bedtime, sweets, and technology is likely to create serious problems in their co-parenting relationship. It may also set the stage for difficult-to-manage behavioral issues in their children. If Dave gets them on a successful sleep schedule, that schedule will be disrupted every time they visit Leah and are allowed to sleep in her bed, and he will have to reinvent the wheel every time the kids return to him. If Leah tries to educate the children on healthy food and provide them with nourishing meals, her efforts will be undermined when they go to their dad’s house and revert to Captain Crunch breakfasts and pizza dinners. With both parents making assumptions and judging the other parent’s way of handling things, self-righteousness may polarize them beyond their true values and intentions, making it harder to blend approaches and unify around a shared, effective way of handling repetitive challenges and issues.
10 Ways to Co-Parent More Effectively
Here are 10 practical ideas to try out if you’re serious about setting the stage for a more productive co-parenting relationship (these suggestions presuppose that neither parent is a danger to themselves or others):
- Understand your unconscious parenting style and how it may be a reaction to or a repetition of the way your own parents parented you. Are you authoritarian, authoritative, or permissive? It’s important to find ways to make your co-parenting style a conscious choice, one that serves your children’s developmental needs rather than your own fears (Tsabary. 2016).
- Take a co-parenting class. Many community centers and law firms offer co-parenting classes, sometimes for free.
- Read a co-parenting book. There are many great books out there with helpful insights and tools. If you’re not a big reader, marriage and family therapist Polly Ely has created a range of hand-held scripts (available at www.thelabmethod.com) which you can keep in a kitchen drawer, purse, or backpack and read for on-the-spot guidance navigating challenging exchanges with your kids (2016).
- Listen to parenting audios. There are many parenting and co-parenting audio programs available for download at nominal fees on the internet or for rental at public libraries. Child psychologist Dr. Renee Hackney, for example, has an audio library on her website providing research-supported psychoeducation on a wide range of parenting topics (2017).
- Communicate regularly with your ex, even if it’s through texts or email, to coordinate schedules and keep each other informed of school events, lessons, medical issues, or other relevant information. The AzAFCC has a helpful Co-Parenting Communication Guide with specific suggestions for communication tailored to the exact medium you are using (2011).
- Notice what your ex is getting right. Express gratitude and appreciation through texts, email, or in person. For example: “I’m so grateful for the notes you write to me and put in our daughter’s backpack keeping me posted on the stuff you think I should know about your time together.” Apologize when you do or say something you regret.
- Talk to your ex about the pros and cons of your routines, find common ground, and agree to keep certain parts of the children’s routines consistent between households. Co-create a co-parenting agreement, something that helps unite you in your intentions, vision, parental rights, obligations, and mutual goals (Family by Design, 2012.) You can also co-create a co-parenting mission statement, post it on the refrigerator, or make it a daily reminder as a screensaver. For example: “Our mission as co-parents is to work together, to respect and support our separate relationships with our kids, and to help our children develop into kind, confident, resourceful, happy human beings.”
- Find ways to support each other that will allow for greater consistency while permitting flexibility. Examples: providing a few frozen home-made meals at drop-off for the parent who hates to cook, or keeping the children on the other parent’s sleep schedule even if that requires extra effort.
- Discuss the rules that vary between households with your children, and explain why you and your ex have different views about these rules. Express your belief that your child has the ability to respect both sets of rules, just as they might whisper when they’re in a library and laugh loudly when they’re at a playground. Give your children space and time to share their feelings about the inconsistencies.
- When a serious difference or grievance arises, figure out a way to work through it respectfully. Learn to contain and compartmentalize your negative emotions in your children’s presence. Avoid making negative statements, judgments, or even indulging in subtle innuendoes about your ex’s wrongness, badness, or inferiority. If possible, minimize the amount of time you spend spinning your mental wheels judging, blaming, criticizing, and complaining about your ex, whether to yourself or others. Although it’s appropriate and necessary to feel and work through your anger and grief, it’s inappropriate and harmful to overexpose your children to these processes or to remain stuck in a victim role.
Drop deeper into the underlying vulnerability your anger is protecting you from. Take responsibility for some part of why your marriage didn’t work, and rise to the challenge of making your relationship as co-parents a successful one. This will empower you to accept your situation, grow, and move on. If you need a mediator or a therapist to help you do this, get one. Agree to ground rules for respectful communication and stick to them. It’s important to minimize aggression/aggressive language or behavior toward your ex at pick-ups or drop-offs or at events where you’re together, such as birthdays, holidays, or graduations.
Keep in mind your child’s father or mother is one of a kind to your daughter or son, even if stepparents enter the picture. Try to see your ex through your child’s eyes. Children internalize their relationships with their parents as reflections of their own identity. The more you can spare your child any “messenger” type of role and work directly with your ex to co-create rules, routines, and effective strategies for supporting your children and discouraging acting-out behaviors, the more ease and cooperation you’ll evoke in your children. In addition, when you can help your children maintain a realistic and positive connection with your ex, you’re helping them to cope with your separation or divorce, feel safer and more loved, and develop a healthier sense of self.
- Arizona Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (2011). Co-Parenting Communication Guide. Retrieved from http://www.afccnet.org/Portals/0/PDF/AzAFCC%20Coparenting%20Communication%20Guide.pdf
- Bonnel, K., & Little, K. (2014). The Co-Parents Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted, Resilient, and Resourceful Kids in a Two-Home Family from Little Ones to Young Adults. Bellevue, WA: CMC Publishers.
- Cloitre, M., Cherry, S., Levitt, J., & Martin, A. (2004). A Two-Phase Treatment for Adults with PTSD Related to Experiences of Mass Violence, The Manual.
- Ely, P. (2016). The Lab Method. Retrieved from https://www.thelabmethod.com/
- Family by Design Ventures. (2012). Family by Design, the Community for Parenting Partnerships. Retrieved from http://familybydesign.com/content/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/FBD-Co-Parenting-Agreement.pdf
- Hackney, R. (2017). Parenting Playgroups. Retrieved from http://parentingplaygroups.com/MemberResources/index.php/welcome/
- Karen, R. (1998). Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape our Capacity to Love. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Tsabary, S. (2016). The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting. New York, NY: Viking.
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