You have read all the co-parenting how-to books. You’ve got your co-parenting plan written in detail and your weekly update phone call with your ex scripted, even with a Plan B just in case he or she is in a snarky mood.
You: Hi (Ex)! I’m just calling for our weekly update conversation! Little Johnny has a dentist appointment on Thursday and he has been invited to a birthday party on Friday. I can pick him up if…
Ex: (Yep, snarky) You didn’t tell me he had a dentist appointment!
You: (Conciliatory) Um, that’s what I am doing now. I just scheduled it today.
Ex: Well I’m not paying for it since I didn’t know about it!!
You: (Game on! Plan B is already out the window.) What? Wait! I’m telling you about it now!! And you sure as %$&# ARE paying for it!
Ex: Oh yeah?? We’ll see what my attorney has to say about that!!!
You: Fine!! You just have YOUR attorney call MY attorney then!!!
Who wins? I’m pretty sure that little exchange just bought one of your attorneys another semester of college for THEIR child.
Does this conversation ring a bell? Are you a divorced or separated parent who wants to co-parent cooperatively with your former partner, but your partner isn’t cooperating? Do all of your best intentions at rational and productive interactions with your ex seem to end up with you resembling something out of “Night of the Living Dead” and reaching for the phone to, yet again, drag an issue into court?
Cooperative parenting is obviously best when both parents are dedicated to working together for the benefit of their children, but it isn’t always the case that both parents are willing to do the hard work to put aside their own hurt and anger to work cooperatively as parents. Sometimes years of painful conflict leave us wounded, bitter, and unable to move past our own hurts to focus on the needs of others, even our children.
Even if you are alone in the desire to co-parent effectively, there is still much that you can do to accomplish very positive co-parenting patterns, to increase the odds of getting cooperation down the road, and to model how to effectively deal with difficult people or situations for your children. There is a chance that if your former partner is being difficult with you, he or she may also be acting in ways that are confusing or even hurtful for your children, and observing your behavior can teach them how to protect themselves from getting caught in the middle of unnecessary conflict.
Many co-parenting specialists have recommended that parents treat their new relationship as a business; a parenting partnership. This is excellent advice and I recommend this as well. Unfortunately though, a partnership takes commitment on the part of each partner to maintain good business standards, and if one of the partners is not cooperating, the rules change.
The following guidelines are for those of you who are co-parenting with someone who may be angry, unstable, or just plain nasty. The overriding principle here is to remember that you must remain focused on what will reduce conflict and minimize harm to the children. It may not always feel good to swallow back your own anger, but remember you are training your children to deal with difficult people as well, and this is a very valuable gift to give them. It is worth the effort.
Five Guidelines to Co-Parenting with an Uncooperative Ex
1. Pretend you are a hostage negotiator.
Gosh Chris, that sounds a bit extreme! Really??? Yep! Although your children hopefully aren’t literally being taken hostage by an angry parent, remember that they are the ones who have to go for visits with the other parent, stay for weekends, or even share time equally. They are the ones who will be with the other parent and be subject to whatever anger or vitriol that parent might be dishing out when you are not there to protect them or help them dodge the verbal bullets.
You have to make a choice in your interactions with this person: do you want to win at any cost or do you want to keep the conflict away from your children? If this parent consistently brings the children home late just to cause you frustration, you can greet them at the door and thank them for returning the kids safely or start an ugly fight that will leave your kids fearful, confused, and feeling like this is all their fault. If you are trying to arrange a weekend visit or need to discuss a special arrangement, put on your best ‘hostage negotiator’ hat and don’t get hooked into his or her baiting for an argument.
I am by no means saying this is easy. In fact it may be the hardest thing you will do as a co-parent, but remember the overriding principle: Reduce conflict and minimize harm to the children.
So how do I become a hostage negotiator, Chris? Here are a few tips used by actual hostage negotiators to achieve resolution, reduce the risk of conflict, and most importantly ensure a good outcome for the hostages, or in our case, children.
- Establish the tone of the communication; use a calm voice and speak in a respectful manner regardless of what’s coming at you from the other person.
- Be supportive and encouraging about the outcome; “I am sure we can find a solution that works for all of us.”
- Reinforce any positive movement toward resolution on their part; “That’s great if you would be willing to do that; it would really make a difference.”
- Compromise whenever you can. This will not only reduce conflict but lead to a greater chance of compromise on their part in the future.
- Listen actively; summarize what they’ve said to ensure you understand, don’t interrupt, affirm your understanding after you’ve checked out the gist of what they are saying. The purpose of this is to diffuse their anger, which will then reduce conflict.
So here’s the scenario again in ‘hostage negotiator’ mode:
You: Hi (Ex) I’m just calling for our weekly update conversation! Little Johnny has a dentist appointment on Thursday and he has been invited to a birthday party on Friday. I can pick him up if…
Ex: (Still snarky) You didn’t tell me he had a dentist appointment!
You: (Conciliatory) I’m sorry. I just scheduled it today, but I can see that I could have called to discuss it with you before I called the dentist. Is this Thursday ok for you or would you like me to reschedule it? (Now, I’m no Pollyanna and I’m also thinking to myself “You creep, you’re not even TAKING little Johnny to the dentist, I AM!” Here is the strategy: by not taking the defensive and instead being as agreeable as possible, you are taking away his or her power to rattle you and avoiding conflict.)
Ex: Well I’m not paying for it since I didn’t know about it!!
You: Ok, then let’s go ahead and reschedule it so you are more comfortable with the plan. He needs a check-up so when would be a good time for me to schedule it?
Pfffft. The bomb is diffused. The children, if they are watching, have witnessed you being willing to be flexible and staying in control of your behavior and interactions. They know that you are in control. Which leads us to Number 2.
2. Stay in adult mode no matter what.
Your children need at least one parent who is in control of his/her behavior. BE THAT PARENT no matter how the other parent acts or interacts with you.
Does this mean you have to be a door mat and take verbal or emotional abuse? NO. What it does mean is that what can be most damaging to your children is for them to see both of their parents behaving in frightening and harmful ways. If both parents are out of control, who can they depend on to bring safety and security to their world? Your children are watching you and looking to you for a way to make sense of their world. If they see you unraveling every time you interact with their other parent, the world is going to look like a pretty scary place to them; a place where even their mother or father can be brought to virtual insanity by the words or actions of others.
Children need to know that someone is taking care of them, and that someone needs to be able to assure them that they are up to the task. Your interactions with the other parent need to mimic a business-like interaction. If you are speaking on the phone with your ex and their interactions begin to be verbally abusive or confrontational, say to them that you will be happy to pick up the conversation when they are able to be polite and professional, and hang up the phone. Unplug it if angry phone calls continue and let it go to voice mail. If they are dropping the children off and are, yet again, two hours late, greet your children warmly, thank your ex for bringing them back and say goodnight. Are you beaming with gratitude? Probably not, but the alternative will lead to an angry shouting match on the doorstep just before your kids go to bed for the night. It might feel justified to you, but it will hurt your children. I guarantee it.
When you interact with the other parent, don’t talk down to them either. Treat them as if they are acting like an adult even if they aren’t. If they are having a temper tantrum, walk away. If you join in the fray your children are going to be standing by watching their two parents acting like angry toddlers and where does that leave them? Remember the overriding principle: avoid conflict and minimize harm to the children. I’ll repeat that a few thousand more times, it’s that important.
3. Let the children be children.
When we are parenting with an angry or uncooperative former partner, it is critical that we have people in our lives who can provide extra support and help to us. YOUR CHILDREN ARE NOT THOSE PEOPLE. Again, children need to know that you can take care of yourself in order for them to truly trust that you can take care of them, and if you are leaning on them for support in dealing with their other parent who will THEY be able to lean on? Find support from therapists, counselors, clergy, friends, support groups, or other family members, but let your children just be children.
And it has been said many times by parenting specialists but bears mentioning again. No matter what your former partner does, DON’T put the children in the middle of your conflicts. Have difficult discussions when the children are not present, and don’t use them as spies or messengers. They are children. Their jobs are to be kids; leave espionage to the CIA.
4. Keep the end goal of parenting in sight, and don’t sweat the details.
The goal of parenting, whether together as a couple or apart, is to bring your children safely to adulthood with the tools they need to live successfully. It is easy to get caught up in the details of parenting and forget the overall goal. When your children are adults, will it have made them better people to have gone to bed at 8:30 instead of 9:00? Will they have survived childhood if they missed a few weeks of taking their Fred Flintstones multi-vitamin while they were visiting Dad over the summer?
Think of your children as adults. Try to imagine them telling you what was most important to them while they were growing up. Will they say “Wow Mom or Dad, I’m really glad we spent so much time fighting in court. It was fun watching my baseball league money go to the lawyer’s kid!” Wouldn’t it be better to hear them say “Hey Mom or Dad, I know it was hard raising us alone and dealing with my other parent. Thank you for keeping me out of it and not going to battle over every issue. It helped me to learn how to deal with him/her too.”
Remember too that your relationship with your children when they are grown is being established right now. Today. If your children are witnessing you as a blaming and angry person, that won’t magically change when they hit 18, or get married, or have your grandchildren. Keep your eyes on the prize. It will pay off for you and your children.
5. “Act as if” the other parent has your children’s best interest at heart.
I didn’t say it would be easy. I’ve been there myself and felt the rage of a protective parent. The truth is that unless there is actual abuse happening, the other parent probably does, to the best of their capacity, love his/her children. None of us loves perfectly, obviously some better than others, but it is important to your children that you respect their other parent’s love for them. If you are in any way causing your children to feel that their other parent does not love them, or does not love them enough, you are hurting your children. Put aside the marital issues, the old hurts and conflicts, and see that person in the only capacity that matters now; as the other parent to your children.
If that parent disappoints your children, help your children not to see that as a problem with their parent’s love for them because this will be translated by your child as “I am not worthy of love from my parent.” It also doesn’t help to say “Your Mom/Dad is a lazy bum and won’t support you,” because you are talking about the contributor to half of your child’s gene pool.
What can you say when your child is disappointed by yet another no-show at visit time? You can tell the that you love them, and their other parent does too. You can say that people aren’t perfect and make mistakes, but this doesn’t mean that they (the children) aren’t beautiful and wonderful and deserving. You can take your child on a fun outing and offer the other parent another time to visit over the weekend if that one didn’t work. Remember, its all about the children.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.