Parenting Partners Must Endure Beyond Divorce

Unhappy child and fighting parents in kitchenAll too often, I see couples who are just trying to “make it” through their divorce. They, and popular opinion, seem to see divorce as a specific life event, time-limited, and with a clear start and end point. That is categorically not the case. Divorce is a process—usually with antecedents long before the initial separation and repercussions long after the final signing of the papers. This is particularly true when children are involved.

When working with parents who are in the process of separating or divorcing, I find it is incredibly helpful to the process to take the long view. Instead of focusing on the immediate situation, or “crisis” as some of them call it, I ask them to step back and make some long-term goals. I ask them to consider their child’s high school graduation, college graduation, wedding, and the birth of the first grandchild. What do they want these milestone events to look like? Do they want to be able to sit together and applaud with shared pride at their child’s achievement? Do they want to be able to share a table and even a dance at their child’s wedding? Or do they want those special days to be tense—to have their child dread having both parents in the same room, so focused on the anxiety of managing the parents that he or she can’t fully enjoy the day? I have yet to meet a parent who says, “I choose tense and anxious,” or, “I want to spoil my child’s celebrations.”

Once we have shifted our focus to long-term goals, we have the leverage to recast current behavior as that which will either help achieve those goals or interfere with them. Helping parents understand that the divorce will not, except in very rare cases, put an end to their interactions also helps them recognize that how they interact now will impact how things look in the future.

To accomplish this requires a paradigm shift. Divorce does not end family relationships; it redefines them. Parents may no longer be romantic partners or life partners, but they will, in most cases, continue to be parenting partners. Recasting their relationship and redefining boundaries and expectations is significantly more helpful than encouraging the view that the relationship has ended permanently. Each family will create its own sets of expectations, but there are a few general guidelines all can follow.

Parenting partners must communicate effectively with one another. They do not, however, bear the responsibility to be attuned to or responsive to the emotional needs of the other in the ways they did when they were married. Parenting partners should behave at the very least respectfully and civilly with one another. Ideally, they would be able to behave amicably, but unlike romantic partners, they are not expected to behave lovingly to one another. Parenting partners should recognize their common goals—primarily to raise healthy, well-adjusted children.

I often compare parenting partners to business colleagues—those working on a long-term project (raising healthy kids) together. If the co-workers refuse to communicate with each other, undermine each other at every opportunity, and treat each other with suspicion and hostility, the project is doomed to fail. A successful working relationship is one that is categorized by a shared sense of responsibility, respect, restraint, and cooperation. Working with people who trigger us or push our buttons may not be fun, but in the workplace, we set aside our personal feelings for the good of the project. We try to focus on our co-worker’s strengths, we exert some self-control, and we find healthy ways to communicate and work through conflict and disagreement. These are the same skills we need to bring to shared parenting.

It is not easy. It will not go smoothly all of the time. There will be interactions, conversations, and events that may not go as hoped. But if each member of the divorcing couple is truly willing to engage in collaborative co-parenting, they can ride out the bumps in the road and eventually find their stride—and perhaps even dance at their child’s wedding.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC, Family Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gwen

    November 10th, 2012 at 8:54 AM

    Is it really so hard to remain nice to each other and not fight all the time?My parents separated when i was just 5 and whether it was my birthday or the school graduation,there was the cold war and sometimes the odd argument.It was horrible for me,I just think adults can and should behave in a more matured manner and especially because it concerns their own child!

  • Erika

    November 10th, 2012 at 3:14 PM

    @Gwen – Your story is exactly why I am so passionate about the work I do with families. It doesn’t have to be as hard as it seems to be for so many people, but so often their very real pain prevents them from being the co-parents they want to be. With the right support and the right mindset, co-parents can actually develop healthy, strong, supportive relationships.

  • Mary Reid

    November 11th, 2012 at 8:53 AM

    I see too many families who think that the parents are divorced now so they never have to talk to each other again.

    What?! You have kids together. For me I can’t see a time when you would totally never be able to talk to this person again unless you had no childen and had absolutley no reason to have to talk to each other again.

    But once you have children, there is a tie that binds you together for all time, and you have to still remember to parent with the grace and dignity that these children deserve.

  • D.L

    November 11th, 2012 at 11:29 AM

    What I often see is that couples will fight tooth and nail for custody of the child but are yet unable to understand the need of the other parent in a child’s life.They take custody as a personal victory and do not seem to be thinking in the best interests of the children involved.Whether the child would really be happier with a particular partner or how often he should really have a visit from one parent.

    All these things need to be considered when filing for divorce.After all,the child has to handle so many questions in his mind.Lets try and make it a little easier by doing what’s best for the child.

  • Berne

    January 21st, 2018 at 6:53 PM

    My has been invited to every family event since we split up. I have tried to be nice and civil (at least I thought I was) but my adult daughters (who are not his biological children) are usually telling me or giving me the “be nice mom” look so I started to avoid him or act like he wasn’t there. Which apparently isn’t any better. He yelled at me at a family function for something Our son had told him I said and honestly I did say the words but in a different text. Apparently my youngest daughter heard the words to, also not in the actual text so when he turned and yelled at me I was shocked and could barely respond. All I could say was I didn’t say that and then my youngest daughter (whom I have been very close to) chimmed in and said she heard me saying it and again I was shocked. She’s my baby why didn’t she of all people have my back. I was very hurt and walked into the kitchen. I didn’t leave the party but All of the sudden I felt like the step parent and didn’t belong. He called me after I got home to talk about something else I told him off. I always let him call me about other stuff he wants to vent about and I try very hard to be civil at family functions (and there’s a lot) and it makes me physically sick but I do it for my children. I raised my daughters alone for sixteen years because their father had died and we had a very special bond so it was hard for me to let him in. Now I wish I had never met him which is sad because we have a son with CP. I haven’t spoken to my daughters since it happened and I don’t know what I would say if I did. I am deeply hurt by this and don’t know what to do. Any suggestions?

  • Rx_Mode

    May 30th, 2019 at 2:47 PM

    Forgive them and communicate w them. Your their mother for heavens sake and they are sisters. I think this would be difficult not to have dialog about with you alone in your mind worried and thinking out opinions and scenarios. I’ve been there, done that. No matter what kids do you are their mother. Bitterness will root your guts. It’ll ruin any love feelings you are supposed to be having towards your situation. Only love conquers all. Not hate. Never hate. Hate destroys the life you lead.

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