Co-Parenting: What It Is and How To Make It Work
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We all know that divorced families are pretty common these days. All of us know people this has affected, and for many, we are the ones in the midst of it ourselves. Divorce is never easy, not for any of the parties involved. Even in the most amicable divorce, which is really quite rare, there are still feelings of loss, hurt, and failure to cope. Add some animosity, contention, and anger to this recipe, and it can seem unbearable. What most people want in a divorce situation is to never have to see or speak to their ex-spouse again. But, when you have children, this is simply not an option. This person you had children with will be a part of your life forever, as he or she is the mother or father of your children.
Moving forward as co-parents during and after divorce is one of the most difficult things to do. Sometimes, you have so much hatred and bitterness towards your ex-spouse that it feels impossible to be civil with one another, so be in the same room with him or her, or even to speak with one another at all. Oftentimes, particularly when there was infidelity, or when one partner has moved on to a new relationship rather quickly, it’s just too much for the other partner to bear. Painful emotions and a desire for vengeance get in the way of doing what is best for the children.
When one person feels the divorce was the other parent’s fault, it is easy to drag the children into your misery. Trash talking the other parent becomes second nature. I’ve even heard people tell me that they’ve told their children as young as 2 years old “the truth, so they would know it wasn’t my fault and that I didn’t want this”. Many might believe that as long as it’s true, it’s okay to tell the children what happened. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Children need to be protected by their parents. It is your job to only give children information that is appropriate to their developmental level and that fosters a healthy relationship with both parents.
So how is a person supposed to put all these negative feelings aside? How can you co-parent with the very person you hate more than anyone else on the planet? Well…it’s certainly not easy. But it can and must be done. Here are some tips for how to best co-parent.
- First and foremost, you must work through your own feelings about your divorce. Whether you wanted this divorce or not, whether there was infidelity or not, whether you hate your ex-spouse or not, there are always plenty of feelings that arise. Divorce is a real loss, the death of the relationship, family and future that you had planned for. It is important to grieve this loss, just as you would grieve any other loss, and allow yourself to actually feel all of the feelings that may arise. It is completely normal and healthy to feel anger, sadness, guilt, shame, even joy when a marriage comes to an end. Anger often lingers and is most likely to interfere with your ability to co-parent. Get help from a professional to guide you through your anger, and teach you healthy ways to cope with it. This will allow you to be a better parent and have a better relationship with your children.
- Do not put your children in the middle of your problems with your ex. I repeat, DO NOT PUT YOUR CHILDREN IN THE MIDDLE. They did not ask for this. They did not cause this. They are innocent children. Their lives have been turned upside down. That’s enough for them to have to handle. No matter how tempting it becomes, your children are not your confidants, they are not to be used as spies, and they are not your friends. They need and deserve to have healthy relationships with both parents. (The only exception to this would be if there is an abusive situation, in which case, you will need a lawyer to assist you with keeping your children safe.) They do not need to know “the truth”. You don’t need to lie to them, but you should only be telling them benign and age-appropriate information. For example, it is not okay to say, “Well, Mommy cheated on me and left me for another man. Mommy ruined the marriage. She is a liar and a bad person and this is all her fault.” Rather, you could say, “Mommy and Daddy decided to live apart. We had some problems we just couldn’t solve. You didn’t do anything wrong, and we both still love you very much.”
- Remember that your ex-spouse is still the mother or father of your children, and always will be. No matter how hard you try, you will not successfully convince your children not to love this person. As a matter of fact, it is more likely that you will alienate them and damage your own relationship with them if you trash talk your former partner. Kids are accustomed to and supposed to love both of their parents. Unless a parent did something specifically hurtful directed at the child, this will not change. The children are 50% of the other parent, so whenever you insult the other parent, you are basically insulting 50% of you own child. Emotionally, this takes a huge toll on children. They already feel caught in the middle of divorce, with conflicted alliances to both parents. They don’t want to upset Mom by loving Dad, and vice versa. But they do love both of you, so stop acting like children yourselves. Your children will be angry, their grades will drop, they will be at risk for drugs, anxiety and depression. They are not equipped to handle this much emotional turmoil. Do everything in your power to make things the best as you possibly can for them, despite the divorce.
- Understand that getting along and successfully co-parenting does not mean you like each other. It simply means you are willing to act like adults and put the well-being of your children above anything else. That seems like a no-brainer, but believe me, people will go to great lengths and sacrifice their own children in the name of vengeance. At the end of the day, the only one you’re really hurting when you act that way is yourself. Children are smarter than we often give them credit for. Eventually, they do learn the truth about both parents, and choose what types of relationships they want with each parent. Time and time again, I can tell you that the parent who did the trash talking ends up with the worst relationship in the long run.
- Get professional help learning how to best co-parent. Even if you don’t always agree about parenting and hate each other’s guts, you have to come to some resolutions about parenting, just as you would if you were still married. Pick your battles, and stand your ground for the things that are most important to you, but remember you cannot and will not always get your way. Learn to compromise and agree to support each other’s parenting and not undermine one another. Be a united front when it comes to parenting. Keep your personal issues personal. You can fight and deal with your problems away from the children. They don’t need to hear or even be aware of the problems between the two of you. That is not their problem, so don’t allow it to become one for them. Be a grown-up. Put the children first. Take the high road. It really does pay off.
Co-parenting, a situation where two parents work together to raise a child even though they are no longer together, is challenging, to say the least. But with a lot of effort and commitment to doing what is best for your children, it can be done. Divorce is never ideal. But research shows that how divorce affects children is largely determined by how the adults handle themselves. Do the right thing and divorce does not have to ruin your children’s lives, nor does it need to ruin yours. You can learn to get along with your spouse for the sake of parenting, and you can learn to move on and live a happy and fulfilling life. Now that’s a gift to your children!