You and your ex don’t have to co-parent to raise healthy kids. You just have to avoid conflict.
While co-parenting is advised by experts as an optimal situation for a child’s well-being after divorce, attempting to do so with an ex who has a high conflict personality or a personality disorder is usually unsuccessful. In most cases, an amicable relationship can’t be achieved between parents and parallel parenting is the only paradigm that should be attempted.
Co-parenting, at its best, is a wonderful opportunity for children of divorce to have close to equal access to both parents—to feel it is okay to love both of their parents. Dr. Joan Kelly, a renowned psychologist, reminds us that the outcomes for children of divorce improve when they have positive bonds with both parents. These include better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance. However, few experts discuss the drawbacks of co-parenting when parents don’t get along or one parent has a high-conflict personality.
What is the solution for parents who want their children to have access to both parents but have high conflict? According to Dr. Edward Kruk, Ph.D., “Parallel Parenting is an arrangement in which divorced parents are able to co-parent by means of disengaging from each other, and having limited contact, in situations where they have demonstrated that they are unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner.”
In other words, parallel parenting allows parents to remain disengaged with one another (and have a parenting plan) while they remain close to their children. For instance, they remain committed to making responsible decisions (medical, education, etc.) but decide on the logistics of day-to-day parenting separately.
According to parenting expert, Dr. Kruk, children of divorce benefit from strong and healthy relationships with both parents and they need to be shielded from their parents’ conflicts. He writes: “Some parents, however, in an effort to bolster their parental identity, create an expectation that children choose sides. In more extreme situations, they foster the child’s rejection of the other parent. In the most extreme cases, children are manipulated by one parent to hate the other, despite children’s innate desire to love and be loved by both parents.”
For instance, Ben and his ex-wife Alyssa divorced two years ago and their attempts to co-parent have been disastrous. After interviewing them and their two children (separately and together) it appears that the conflict between Ben and Alyssa is so intense that their two daughters often feel loyalty conflicts. According to Ben, Alyssa frequently bad-mouths him and criticizes his parenting. Describing his ex as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Ben says that interacting with each other at drop-offs, making shared decisions, or even speaking to her has been an incredible challenge.
In most cases, trying to co-parent cooperatively or having an amicable relationship with an ex who has a high-conflict personality or a personality disorder is problematic and not a realistic expectation because they’re so focused on themselves and their needs. According to family therapist Virginia Gilbert, MFT, attempts to co-parent with a narcissist will keep you engaged in a battle. She writes: “Targets of high-conflict personalities need to accept that it isn’t wise to be “authentic” with their ex. Strategic, limited disclosures and iron-clad boundaries are essential in managing a high-conflict divorce.”
When parents argue excessively and for too long, it can leave children feeling insecure and fearful. Even if it’s not the parents’ intention to cause harm, ongoing conflict can threaten a child’s sense of safety.
Truth be told, parents forget that children are vulnerable to feeling in the middle between their parents’ arguments. High parental conflict can send them into high alert. As a result, children may have difficulty sleeping, concentrating on school or social activities, or be plagued with fear and anxiety about their future.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to prevent your children from the damaging impact of long-term conflict during and after divorce. This process won’t be easy but is possible with a willingness to work on changing your approach and using the strategies outlined below.
7 Steps to successful parenting with a high-conflict ex-partner:
- Don’t tolerate demeaning or abusive behavior from your ex and be sure that you and your children feel safe. This might mean having a close friend or family member on hand when you talk to your former partner. If you plan for the worst (and don’t expect that your ex will have moved on or be caring) you’ll be less likely to be blindsided by his/her attempts to control or get back at you. Be sure to save all abusive emails and text messages. Don’t respond to them since this can perpetuate more abuse.
- Do accept help from counselors, mediators, or other helping professionals. Make sure you have plenty of support from a lawyer, friends, family, and a therapist. Use a third party mediator when needed. Therapists who utilize cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) are usually the most successful dealing with survivors of a relationship with an ex who has a personality disorder. Be sure to ask a therapist if they have experience with this treatment method.
- Keep your eye on the big picture in terms of your children’s future. Although it’s stressful trying to co-parent or even parallel parent with a difficult ex, it’s probably in the best interest of your children. Adopt realistic expectations and pat yourself on the back for working at this challenging relationship for your kids.
- Focus on the only thing you can control—your behavior! You alone are responsible for your own happiness. Don’t be persuaded by your ex to do something that you’re uncomfortable with just to keep the peace. Adopt a business-like “Just the facts, ma’am” style of communicating with him/her.
- Minimize contact and set boundaries with your ex. High-conflict personalities thrive on the possibility of combat. Be prepared and write a script to use when talking to him/her and try to stick with it, using as few words as possible. For instance, if he/she tries to persuade you to reunite, say something like: “I tried to make this relationship work. Nothing has changed and it’s not healthy for us to stay together. I wish you well.”
- Don’t express genuine emotion to your ex or apologize for wrongdoing in the relationship. If your ex is a perilous or abusive narcissist, they might interpret your apology as proof of your incompetence and use it against you, according to Virginia Gilbert, MFT.
- Make sure you have a parenting plan that is structured and highly specific—spelling out schedules, holidays, vacations, etc. to minimize conflict. Using a communication notebook to share important details with your ex can be an essential tool and help you stay detached and business-like.
It’s crucial that you take an honest look at the impact your ex’s behaviors and the dynamics in your relationship are having on you and possibly your children. Once you accept that you can only control your own behavior – not a person with a high conflict personality—your life will greatly improve. After all, you deserve to have a life filled with love and happiness! Go for it!