All 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.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.
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