Author: Kara Bellew
Co-parenting with an ex-partner can present many challenges, even for the most emotionally-evolved or amicable of exes. From negotiating different parenting styles to dealing with the attendant jealousy that arises when one parent moves onto a new relationship (and everything in between), co-parenting after a separation often requires both emotional stamina and a very thick skin. Despite how easy Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin make it look, “conscious uncoupling” can still be an elusive concept for many parents after a separation. Take for instance, Jessica Ciencin Henriquez, who authored a recent Time magazine essay entitled, “Raising my son with my ex-husband is the hardest thing I’ve ever done” in which she candidly lays bare her struggles with co-parenting. While it is rare to achieve the whitewashed version of co-parenting perfection as espoused by Gwyneth Paltrow, co-parenting should not become the “hardest thing” you have ever done.
Co-parenting can invariably be made easier and thus more successful when both parents commit to the following:
(a) equally valuing the co-parenting relationship and recognizing its importance in the lives of the children;
(b) maintaining a shared focus on the children’s emotional well-being and demonstrating a greater flexibility—even warm affection—towards one another;
(c) evincing an understanding of the harm that can arise from the disparagement and/or minimization of each other in the presence of the children;
(d) sharing an appreciation for the importance of the children having an attachment to both parents. This shared commitment to the above does not emerge overnight but rather evolves over time.
As such, there are many resources that can be implemented along the way to assist with the process and ultimately make co-parenting after divorce easier.
Valuing Each Other as Co-Parents
Absent abuse, neglect, or other extreme circumstance, it is critically important that children maintain a relationship with both parents. A separation, particularly an acrimonious one, can sharpen the focus on the other parent’s negative qualities. This can make it easy to lose sight of the positive, particularly when there is a history of betrayals such as adultery or substance abuse precipitating the separation.
There are, however, tools that can help even the angriest parents eventually see the positive qualities in each other. First, structuring a parenting schedule that minimizes the transitions between the parents—such as having most drop-offs and pick-ups take place at school or camp—can help ease tension and provide some distance to heal. Second, individual therapy to work through feelings of anger and betrayal is often essential. Third, a parent coordinator, often a psychologist or clinical social worker who works with both parents, can be helpful in resolving conflicts and encouraging more effective communication. By having a third party available to address conflict, parents can feel more empowered to communicate openly and honestly.
With these resources and support systems in place, over time, it may then become easier to acknowledge the positive qualities of the other parent, value the co-parenting paradigm, and recognize the importance of having both parents in the lives of their children.
Maintaining Focus on the Children
Maintaining focus on the children and your shared love for them helps strengthen the co-parenting paradigm. After a separation, most parents implement a schedule—either by court order or agreement—that defines each person’s access time with the children. While schedules provide necessary structure and predictability, they can often be so rigidly implemented that they become a predicate to exclude the other parent from important events in the children’s lives. Maintaining a reasonable degree of flexibility, such as inviting the other parent’s participation even when it is not “their time” per the schedule, can promote good-will and spare children unnecessary disappointment. Striking the right balance between rigidity and flexibility, however, can often be a source of frustration, particularly when one parent is rigid and the other more accommodating.
A parent coordinator, for example, can often help address these disparate parenting styles (which often extend beyond adherence to a schedule) and help co-parents find a balance which feels appropriate and well-suited to meet their needs and the needs of their children. Another option might be to utilize specialized software, such as Family Wizard, which can ease the burden of managing two households by making scheduling more transparent and user-friendly.
Refraining from Disparagement and Marginalization
Children are incredibly astute—they can hear their parent’s disparagement of each other even if it is not overt (an eyeroll or a deafening silence when a child brings up the other parent can speak volumes) and feel the discord when one parent is deliberately marginalized from events or activities. This can result in children internalizing their parent’s acrimony and in extreme circumstances, feeling compelled to choose a side, align with one parent, and reject the other. This is commonly referred to as parental alienation—a phenomenon largely regarded as antithetical to a child’s best interests because it can lead to a myriad of social and emotional difficulties. If alienation is taking place then it is incumbent to address it with a skilled and specialized therapist who can intervene to address it. If left unaddressed or unmanaged, it can do long-term psychological harm to a child. That said, when parents evince civility—even warm affection—towards one another, children feel increasingly at ease to enjoy both of them without the attendant turmoil that arises when they are exposed to parental conflict and feel caught in the middle of it.
Encouraging Attachment to Both Parents
Navigating the post-separation landscape often reveals one’s deepest insecurities and most profound frustrations. This is yet another reason to build and maintain an infrastructure of support, whether it be through individual therapy, group support systems, or a parent coordinator. No matter how difficult, however, it remains incumbent upon co-parents to value the attachment that their children have to each parent and encourage it wherever possible. This often requires the difficult task of setting aside the differences that precipitated the separation, no matter how painful and putting the children’s best interests first. Ultimately, a child’s attachment to both parents promotes and protects their emotional development, and cannot be overlooked.
Every co-parenting relationship has its challenges, particularly as the relationship evolves and changes over time. Recognizing the fluidity of the relationship and implicitly understanding that co-parenting can only be successful when both parents value its importance makes it far easier to manage the challenges and militate against unrest. By remaining mindful of the above, co-parenting can be made easier and lead to happier parents and healthier children.
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