Why is being a co-parent so hard?
So you’re divorced or divorcing, and it may be brand new and feel like your entire world is cracking up and falling apart — or you may be farther along on the divorce journey and you’re feeling a little more settled and you may already have a new home or a new job or even a new partner. No matter where you are on the divorce ride, sometimes it can be stressful, difficult and/or even painful.
The often painful process of divorce can also bring the worst out in people. In the worst case scenario, both ex-partners are full of anger, bitterness and regret and they may even act mean and vengeful towards each other sometimes. There are resentments and grudges and very negative emotions towards each other. In the divorced couples where there is a lot of negativity and resentment, there is probably a history of intense marital conflict that preceded and then maybe even caused the divorce. Then, perhaps, a difficult, long contested divorce process may have thrown more gasoline on the conflict fire! This ongoing and habitual conflict almost always spills over into problems and conflicts co-parenting any children involved.
Then, often, on top of the divorce conflicts and unhappiness, other issues may also pile on top too; finances may now be more difficult; maybe your child is struggling at school or socially; you may be time stretched with new responsibilities and one or both partners may be dating or even remarried and some jealousies may then be ignited that then creates even more disharmony. There also may be big differences in parenting philosophies or styles and parenting may become another front on the divorce battleground.
Regardless, trying to co-parent isn’t easy at the best of times and it’s even harder when there are conflicts, resentments and jealousies. But it’s not impossible. So here are some great strategies to try to start better co-parenting with your ex-partner.
1. Setting Priorities
Take a good hard look at what you want to happen in your situation. Chances are you want to do the absolute best for your child. Some people by constantly arguing about rules, bedtimes or drop off times or about splitting the cost of the extra sports fees with their ex, may actually feel like they are acting as a champion for their child. By arguing with your ex about what you feel is the best bedtime or even berating them for being late for a pickup — you may feel you are really doing what’s best for your child and feel like you’re sticking up for your child’s right.
But is that really true? Instead, those parents are probably actually harming their children to some degree by exposing them to regular negativity and conflict, often about things that really aren’t important. Keep the focus on what’s best for your children, and what you can do to work toward providing the best and most calm life you can for them. Providing them with a loving, stable, and conflict-free environment is what they need to thrive! If you expose them to high levels of ongoing conflict, arguing and negativity you can actually make them more susceptible to problems with their emotional and mental health!
2. To Co-Parent Well is to Communicate Well
Because going through a divorce can be such an emotional and taxing process, your communication patterns with your ex-partner will likely suffer to some degree. It may be really emotionally difficult to communicate with them and you may not want to talk to, or even hear from your ex, even on your best days. However, it’s super important that communication regarding the children is maintained in the best ways possible. Ignoring their (appropriate) texts and phone calls may feel good in the moment, but it really just makes thing more difficult for everyone in the long run. Communicating well with your co-parent also assures that your children are not being used as messengers:
e.g. “Tell your mother you have a soccer practice on Friday” “Tell your dad the child support is due!”
Using your children as messengers is a really unhealthy habit to get into — it puts them in a role they shouldn’t be in, can affect them emotionally and cause them a lot of stress! Instead, try to communicate directly with your co-parent, maybe even finding creative ways to communicate to avoid conflict if necessary. Maybe experimenting with texting or email, or even snail mail letters may help if telephone calls are too much. Also, remember, that sometimes texting can be a really terrible way to communicate as it really doesn’t convey emotion well and there is always an expectation for a fast response. And maybe most importantly text fighting is really unproductive and no fun at all for anyone. If conflict levels are high, maybe using email in a “business-like” way might help? Try to treat your co-parent like you would a co-worker or a work client that you don’t necessarily like.
3. Communication: Just the Facts Jack
When communicating with your ex, remember that if you’re harbouring bitterness or resentments and there are suitcases of unfinished emotional business with your ex — there will often be a strong desire to express your own emotional needs when you communicate with them. Make a commitment to yourself, maybe even in conjunction with your ex-partner that for the sake of your children’s well-being, you’ll keep conversations focused on the issues around your children and not the divorce itself. Often to be a good parent you need focus on their needs and not your own!
4. Stop Being Rigid!
In my private practice working with many people going through divorces or custody issues — an area that often makes co-parenting difficult is if one or both partners are too rigid and set in their view of how the situation should unfold. There must be a rigid bedtime for both households, or the pickup or exchange time must be set in stone or the custody agreement must be followed to the letter, even when a wee bit of flexibility might be better for all involved. Really? It’s probably better to learn how to “go with the flow” sometimes.
Being flexible actually reduces defensiveness in the co-parent relationship and overall that reduces conflict levels! Learning how to compromise and cooperate with your co-parent will not only benefit both of you in building a more functional co-parent relationship, but it will also model the kind of positive behaviours to your children that will help them throughout their own lives! Be flexible and make a true effort to avoid any and all conflict about the small stuff that will inevitably come up — only stick to your guns if something is truly important. And note: very, very little is actually that important!
5. Attitudes & Perceptions
One of the best ways to improve co-parenting is to slow down, take a deep, deep breath and really try to stop seeing your ex as the villain in this particular story. Even though they may have cheated or left suddenly or even both; or they were greedy in the settlement or they may have acted in other really selfish or callous ways — the fact is — you still need to deal with them on a regular basis in the best way you can for the sake of your children.
At the very least you need to be civil towards them since that is truly in the best interest of your kids! You don’t even have to like them — you just have to be civil and get along with them without any game playing or unneeded negativity. It’s about making the effort to end or avoid the seemingly endless and useless conflicts about whose house has the child’s new package of underwear or who has to pay the extra $20 uniform deposit at school.
One way to start to change your attitude towards your ex is to really try to see your ex in a more positive way — and if you can’t possibly see your way to positive — maybe shoot for just seeing them in a less emotional and neutral way. Even if just thinking about them makes you feel an excess of negative emotions — with time you can actually learn how to step away from that negativity to a more neutral place. One way to do this is to genuinely see your ex as a flawed and imperfect human being. And since they are a flawed and imperfect human, maybe even cut them a little slack sometimes? Maybe if both co-parents made a bit of individual effort to have some empathy, respect and kindness towards each other, co-parenting might be actually easier and your children might flourish!
Really make the effort to step away from your own grudges, bitterness and anger. Why should you let all the negative emotion and poison you hold towards your ex may you feel so crappy, months and even years after the actual divorce? Why let them take up that negative space in your mind or affect your emotions to such a great degree? The answer is you don’t need to, in fact, people who hold bitterness and grudges often greatly affect their own emotional well being and even their physical health. So make an effort to put those resentful and even hostile grudges to rest. If you really struggle in this area it may be helpful to see a therapist who may be able to help you unpack all of that negative emotional baggage you’re holding on too.
6. Don’t Expose the Kids to the Conflict
Any kinds of bickering and fighting in front of your children can have a very negative and long-term impact on your children. They should not be bystanders to any arguments, criticisms or other negative behaviours. Children are like sponges and without a doubt they will see and learn these behaviours themselves. Also, being witness to constant conflict may make them feel that their world isn’t a safe place to be, and will cause them lots of stress which may predispose them to mental and physical health issues!
Here are some proven methods to help keep your children out of the crossfire:
- Never speak poorly of your ex-spouse in front of the kids. Never, ever, ever
- Don’t let or encourage your kids to take sides in the conflicts — they don’t belong in the middle!
- Provide a safe non-judgemental place for them to express their emotions
- Don’t include kids in what are adult issues and decisions
7. Self Care
Maintaining your physical and emotional health is important not only for you but also for your children as well. Having a healthy, happy, rested parent will help them adjust to all of the challenges of the divorce situation. Your children are very dependent on you, and you really owe it to them to give them your absolute best as a parent — and that means being physically and emotionally healthy. As well, taking time to care for yourself will also help you take the negative focus off of your divorce, and shift the focus back on to you moving forward, (where it should be) and on making positive changes in your life.
Maybe it’s yoga, or deep breathing, or mindfulness meditation, or physical exercise or even just getting a few good nights sleep — by taking care of yourself you can deal better with all of the challenges of life and co-parenting.
Here are some more good self-care tips to try: 7-steps-to-emotional-self-care
Although your ex is no longer your life-partner, you and they are still connected on some level, and will always be co-parents of the children that you have together. Learning to get along better, communicating better and making the effort to do so will bring comfort to your children as they learn to cope with the divorce. As you go through the journey of divorce, you often mourn the relationship you’ve lost, and also the dreams you had of the future. It can be very stressful and upsetting for all involved. If you’re really struggling with all of the emotions and stresses of co-parenting and/or a divorce contacting a professional for counselling may be helpful.
This blog is not intended as medical advice, treatment or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a mental health or medical professional.