As difficult as divorce is, co-parenting may be even more difficult. And co-parenting with a difficult ex could make you want to hitch a ride with Thelma and Louise.
The drama, the crazy-making, the accusations and bad-mouthing, the manipulation, the constant pushing of limits….Co-parenting with a difficult ex can be incredibly frustrating.
How can you maintain your sanity and ensure that your children have access to at least one ‘adult’ parent?
You know that good co-parenting means you put the children first. But you can do only so much if you are co-parenting with a difficult ex.
And what if your ex is a narcissist or toxic person? How do you pull off a shared effort with someone who is incapable of putting anyone else first?
Strategies for co-parenting with a difficult ex all have two non-negotiables at their core. The first is the highest good of your children. The second is the maintenance of your personal integrity and sanity.
If you can keep those commitments in focus at all times, you will more easily navigate your ex’s efforts to throw you off-course.
Power struggles are often at the heart of why couples divorce. When it comes to co-parenting, however, there is no room for pulling rank.
If your ex thrives on control, you will have to decide if you can co-parent without power struggles.
Many of the strategies for co-parenting with a difficult ex are the same as those for co-parenting without power struggles.
Here are 9 tips for co-parenting with a difficult ex.
1. Accept what you can’t change. Control what you can.
You will never be able to change your co-parent. No matter how much s/he needs to change (in your opinion), that work belongs to your ex.
What you can and must control are your own life and responses.
If you are co-parenting with a difficult ex, you know your buttons are going to get pushed. You will need a steady temperament and resolved composure in order to maintain your commitment to great parenting.
2. Recognize the dynamic and how it plays out.
How does the interaction with your ex go from 0 to 90 in the course of a breath? Are there recognizable patterns to your communication? Do you have fears that get triggered? Are those fears based on reality and logic?
What can you do to interrupt an unhealthy dynamic and steer it in a direction that empowers and protects you?
Remember, the children and your integrity and sanity are non-negotiables. And the only person you can control is yourself.
3. Set new boundaries.
Again, this is really about you and how you are going to engage (or not) with your ex.
Don’t allow yourself to be baited. Take defensiveness and emotional reactions off the table. Set time parameters for communication, and stand by them.
Limit the means of communication — for example, no texting, but email and parenting portal only. (Talking Parents is a free option for both avoiding disputes and documenting communication between co-parents.) You may also want to consider blocking your ex from your social media.
It will be up to you to stand by your boundaries when your ex challenges your resolve.
4. Don’t respond immediately.
So much of co-parenting with a difficult ex is about not engaging. Of course, you will have to engage on behalf of your children. But you do have the power and right to choose when and how you engage.
If your ex says or writes something that causes an immediate dump of adrenaline into your system, take a breath and step back. Do your “reacting” in your own mind or in venting with a friend. Do your “responding” once you are calm.
Sleep on your response. Choose a doable ‘delay time’ for responding to anything other than emergencies. You’re not on-call for your ex.
5. Don’t respond to everything.
Just because your co-parent pushes your buttons in order to bait you into engaging doesn’t mean you have to engage. Stay focused on what co-parenting is about: It’s not about hashing out your unfinished marital discord or diminishing one another.
Respond to communication about the children. Let the rest go…or add it to a happy hour vent session with a trusted friend.
6. Business is business.
Co-parenting with a difficult ex may require you to keep your communication business-like, factual and pragmatic. Focus on the children and their needs. The fantasy of co-vacations with exes is best left to Hollywood and the rare exception to the rule.
You don’t have to announce it. Just quietly and consistently do it. Keep a dedicated journal for documenting dates, times, communication, breaches of agreements, support payments, etc.
The information is for your eyes only — until if and when you may need it in a legal setting. Having proof can save a lot of mud-slinging when things turn into “he said, she said.”
8. Consider a court order.
If your ex consistently barges through agreements and boundaries, you may need to consider filing a court order. You can talk with your attorney about your options for modifying your parenting plan so that co-parenting works better.
9. Evaluate if co-parenting is possible.
If your efforts to co-parent in a healthy way consistently end up in chaos and distress, you may need to consider parallel parenting. (This is especially true if your ex is a narcissist or is alienating you from your children through power plays, parallel parenting may be the only choice.)
How is your co-parenting arrangement affecting your children? Your sanity? Your ability to stay in integrity without feeling crazed by your ex?
If you are holding up your end of the deal but are continually undermined or thrown off-course by your ex, it may be time to consider a new arrangement in the best interest of your children and your own sanity.
Co-parenting with a difficult ex makes an already painful journey that much more painful. In an ideal divorce, both parents would rise to the task of parenting the children they love with dependability and maturity.
But life doesn’t play out on balanced scales. Couples divorce and people disappoint. In the long run, you still have to live your own life.
If you are the one concerned enough to read this article, you have the ability to influence your children’s life in a sustainably positive way. You may even be able to influence a shift in your co-parent’s behavior.
You can also protect your own happiness in the process.
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