Ron L. Deal
The goal of co-parenting (at a minimum) is to contain the anger and conflict expressed between homes in order to cooperate and compromise on issues of the children’s welfare. Sounds easy, but what does that look like in real-life? Perhaps the experiences of Julie and Terrance can help explain what a healthy co-parental relationship means in practical, everyday terms.
Julie, twelve, complained in a therapy session that she couldn’t invite both her parents to her music recital, “If they both come they’ll just scowl every chance they get. I tried inviting them both last year, and mom wouldn’t speak to me for two days because dad brought Amy [stepmom]with him. She refuses to be in the same room with them.” Unfortunately, Julie learned the hard way that she had to take turns inviting her mom and dad to her events. If one couldn’t attend, she could invite the other, but never at the same time. This put her in constant turmoil, as she was forced to choose which parent she would invite to certain events, and if the other parent wanted to attend but wasn’t invited, Julie felt guilty. “Why can’t they just put aside their differences and tolerate a couple of hours in the same room?” she asked me. Good question.
Because Terrance’s parents always ended up fighting on the phone, he became the middleman to their visitation arrangements. His mother stopped speaking to his father and asked Terrance, at age nine, to communicate her preferences for drop off and pick up. Terrance had no choice but to oblige, since he enjoyed spending time with his father on weekends.
In both these examples, children carried undue emotional anxiety and burden because their parents could not set aside their differences, be responsible adults, and cooperate on behalf of their child. An effective co-parent arrangement for Julie’s parents would mean she could invite both parents to her recitals and not worry whether they were fighting or anxious. An effective arrangement for Terrance’s parents would include them finding a way to talk rationally about their schedules instead of triangulating Terrance. The bottom line: cooperative co-parenting allows children to be children and adults to be their parents. Here are some guidelines to follow.
1. Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household. Agree that each parent has a right to privacy and do not intrude in his or her life. Make space for different parenting styles and rules as there are many healthy ways to raise children. Do not demean the other’s living circumstances, activities, dates, or decisions and don’t try to control your ex’s parenting. If you have concerns, speak directly to the other parent, but realize they may not share your concern.
2. Schedule a monthly (perhaps more often) “business” meeting to discuss co-parenting matters. You can address schedules, academic reports, behavior training, and spiritual development. Do not discuss your personal life (or your ex’s); that part of your previous relationship is no longer appropriate. If the conversation turns away from the children toward old personal battles, simply redirect the topic back to parenting matters or politely end the meeting. If you cannot talk with your ex face-to-face due to excessive conflict or hurt, use email or speak to their answering machine. Do what you can to make your meetings productive for the children.
3. Never ask your children to be spies or tattle-tails on the other home. This places them in a loyalty bind that brings great emotional distress. In fact, be happy when they enjoy the people in their new home (“I’m glad you enjoy fishing with your step-dad.”). If children offer information about life in the other home, listen and stay neutral in your judgment.
4. When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don’t capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent. Listen and help them to explore their feelings without trying to sway their opinions with your own. If you can’t make positive statements about the other parent, strive for neutral ones.
5. Children should have everything they need in each home. Don’t make them bring basic necessities back and forth. Special items, like clothes, an iPod, or a comforting teddy bear for younger children, can move back and forth as needed.
6. Try to release your hostility toward the other parent so that the children can’t take advantage of your hard feelings. Children can manipulate parents and stepparents much more easily when adults harbor angry feelings toward one another.
7. Do not disappoint your children with broken promises or by being unreliable. Do what you say, keep your visitation schedule as agreed, and stay active in their life.
8. Make your custody structure work for your children even if you don’t like the details of the arrangement. Update the other when changes need to be made to the visitation schedule. Also, inform the other parent of any change in job, living arrangements, etc. which may require an adjustment by the children.
9. Regarding children who visit for short periods of time or spend time in another home: Sometimes it is tempting to only do “special activities” when all of the children are with you. That may leave some children feeling that they aren’t as special as others. Do special things with differing combinations of children (it’s alright if someone feels disappointed he or she wasn’t able to go). Let the lives of those living with you remain unaltered, as much as possible, when other children come for visitation. Keep toys and possessions in a private spot where they are not to be touched or borrowed unless the owner gives permission (even while they are in the other home).
10. If you and your ex cannot resolve a problem or change in custody or visitation, agree to problem solving through mediation rather than litigation. Legal battles tend to escalate emotional and spiritual battles between homes. Avoid them if at all possible.
Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies and author of the bestselling book The Smart Stepfamily and numerous other resources for stepfamilies and ministry leaders. Copyright, 2009. www.SmartStepfamilies.com