(see also Co-Parenting with a Difficult Person)
Imagine a situation where you have a last minute event that suddenly arises where you need someone to step in and take the children for a time. Imagine that you can call your ex, who is happy to help you out and get some extra time with the children, and imagine your children being excited that they get to spend some bonus time with their other parent rather than being left with a babysitter. Is this scenario possible? Absolutely, but it takes cooperation and a dedication to building trust.
Do not expect that at the end of a marriage or relationship that you and your ex can easily or instantly make this transition to healthy and beneficial co-parenting.
Often getting to this level of trust and cooperation takes work on both sides, and that work ideally begins immediately upon living in separate households. Unfortunately the “adversarial” nature of divorce and child custody proceedings means that parents are encouraged to track all the failures of the other parent and to use that against the other parent in arguing over allocation of parenting time. That fact, combined with the very long period of time that it takes from the beginning of filing a Motion or Petition to when the Court enters a final Order, makes it very difficult to effectively co-parent. The length of the litigation process and the adversarial nature of the process also set the stage for emotional hurt, personal attacks, distrust, and competition rather than cooperation. Never mind the fact that the litigation process takes place in a time of great stress, and few people are on their best behavior or have good self control in a time of great stress. So, how do we get from the end of a relationship or marriage to a good co-parenting relationship?
Here’s my advice, based on what I have seen that works:
1. Let’s Be Realistic About ... (click to open/close)
a. Being Realistic About Your Co-Parent:
As you may know from other portions of this site, I practiced Family Law with my father for a little over 8 years. One of his favorite sayings was “you picked this lemon out of the garden of love.” When I use that saying in this context, I mean this: the person you had children with is who they are, and you cannot expect them to change their personality.
If you had a partner who you felt placed work commitments ahead of child needs or child events, that partner is not likely to suddenly change their priorities. If you had a partner who was late for everything, that partner is not going to suddenly start being on time for everything. I think one of the most important things you can do to save yourself constant stress and disappointment is to set your expectations in accordance with who your co-parent is.
And help your children to set their expectations in accordance with who their other parent is. I am NOT advising that you tell your children things like “your other parent thinks work is more important than you are”, or “Mom/Dad is late again, like always”. Those kinds of messages to children are incredibly harmful, and should be avoided at all costs. What I am advising you to do is to plan around who the other parent is so that you aren’t setting expectations that the other parent is not likely to achieve, and that you plan around the realities of your co-parent.
So, for example, if you know the other parent is always late, try not to plan child exchanges right before you have an appointment somewhere. Also, try to plan child exchange locations where the children are not going to be bored waiting. If you have young children, consider doing the child exchange at a park or at a McDonalds that has a play area, so that the child won’t be disappointed if the other parent is late. If your co-parent has a highly demanding job, or has historically relied on you to do things like staying home with sick children or taking children to day-time appointments, then have a realistic conversation in advance with the other parent as to what their plan is for getting children to appointments during their time and during your time, or for taking care of sick children. In making that plan, try to help each other out and think of solutions that are going to be the easiest for your children, and that are going to encourage parent/child contact without becoming overly burdensome on one parent or the other.
2. United FrontOne of the frightening things about divorce or separation is that you suddenly have no control over what happens on the co-parent’s parenting time. You don’t get to say what the chores will be, when bedtime is, or what is a proper diet over at the other parent’s household. When two separate households have very different rules and expectations, it is harder for the children and ultimately harder for the parents. In that scenario, each child exchange starts with the child’s adjustment to the different rules of the other household, which can cause dissent between children and parents, and between parents and parents. So, how do you try to avoid this?
Cooperation between parents. Easier said than done. As early as possible in your case, try to sit down with the other parent and talk about what the two of you have done with your child in the past for discipline, chores, bedtimes, expectations, etc. Talk about how each of you feels about what has worked or what has not worked. Put your own strong feelings about “what is the best way” aside to try to negotiate a compromised method that will work in both households to which both you and the co-parent can commit. There is far more value to the child (and to the parents!) of having similar structure in both households than there is value in holding to a 7:00 vs. 9:00 bedtime, for example. Having similar structure in both households reduces stress on a child, increases their sense of security, eases the transitions between households, and sends a clear message to the child that you and your co-parent are a united front.
That same “united front” message includes a message to the child that despite the fact that you and your co-parent have personal differences which led to the breakup of your relationship, you are able to put aside your differences to be a team when it comes to parenting your child. Remember that Sun/planet thing I wrote about earlier? In showing a united front, you are keeping your child feeling like the Sun with the parents revolving as the planets, rather than having your child feeling like a planet revolving two separate Suns. A major area where it is difficult to show a united front is in the area of discipline. Plan ahead with the co-parent about what discipline methods are acceptable, and again, try to make them consistent between households.
Even if you do not agree with the co-parent on whether or not to discipline the child, back the other parent’s play. Privately, you can discuss your feelings with the co-parent to express why you disagreed with how they handled the situation, but in front of the child, you need to show that you and the other parent are on the same page. It is so very tempting when you have had a broken relationship with the co-parent, and particularly in the midst of the divorce or parental rights proceeding, to want to be the “good guy” with your child and have the other parent be the “bad guy”. I guarantee you, the good guy/bad guy approach will backfire. Not only does it encourage your child to have negative feelings toward one parent, but it also encourages your child to play one parent against the other.
The good guy/bad guy approach further upsets the child’s feeling of stability, making the child feel like the parents are not in control, and encouraging the child to try to take control of the parents. And let me promise you: you can only stay in the “good guy” seat for a certain period of time before your child wants to do something you are opposed to, and they appeal to the other parent who becomes the new “good guy” with you becoming the “bad guy.” Lastly, and obviously, the good guy/bad guy approach is also terrible for co-parenting as it engenders distrust and hurt feelings between the parents.
3. New Pattern of CommunicationIn most broken relationships, the method of communication has become abysmal. There are habits we form in communicating with people, and when the communication has become poor or hostile, it is often exceedingly difficult to break that pattern and find a new way of communicating. With the pain and anger that tends to go along with the end of a romantic relationship, and which is typically enflamed by litigation, it is vital to take a step back and analyze the nature of the communication with your co-parent.
Analyze it in a simple and unemotional way by asking the simple questions of “is this working?” and “am I getting what I want?” If the answers are “no”, then you need to find a new way to communicate. I highly recommend seeing a mental health person to talk about what the communication habits have been and to get guidance about how to change the communication to a method that is effective. Often, that will mean finding a way to set new boundaries, exerting new levels of self control, and thinking about how to encourage good listening and communication from your co-parent. At the end of the day, remember this: you cannot change the co-parent; you can only change yourself.
4. Be GraciousNever underestimate the power of positive reinforcement. Don’t be burdensome on the co-parent. If you have been realistic about things when entering into your parenting arrangement, you are less likely to be overly burdensome on the co-parent. Don’t be difficult. In any decision about the child, think about what would be best for your child, and make the decision based upon that rather than basing the decision on how you feel about your co-parent or how cooperative your co-parent has been.
When the co-parent does something nice or is helpful, for Heaven’s sake, THANK THEM! Tell them you appreciate it. You want to encourage such help in the future. And when a co-parent has done nice things, make sure you remember that when they ask you for a favor. Think about what you wish the co-parent would do for you, and then try to set that standard by doing that for the co-parent. (For example, send pictures of the child to the co-parent, and send updates to the co-parent. Encourage the child to call the co-parent when the child has had a success or a difficulty.
Tell the co-parent how great it was that they were able to help the child get an A on the math homework or to work as a united front to help the child improve their spelling.) The more you and the co-parent can cooperate to help each other out, the more you keep the child in the central “Sun” position with the parents being the rotating planets, and the more easy co-parenting will become.
5. Should I Pay for That?One of the murky legal areas, and one of the frequent questions I get from clients goes something like this: “I already pay $X in child support every month, and now the other parent wants me to pay for soccer too. Do I have to pay for that?” Ideally, you and your co-parent will plan ahead in your parenting plan for how extra-curricular expenses should be divided (and yes, this is typically in addition to child support.) However, even under that scenario, there are always unanticipated child expenses that arise.
Child support is meant to even out each parent’s financial obligation to provide a child with food, clothing, and housing. It isn’t really meant to cover all the nitty gritty expenses that go along with being a parent. However, unless you have an agreement with your co-parent (or a court order) for how expenses should be divided, a parent is not necessarily legally obligated to pay for those nitty gritty expenses.
I encourage parents to analyze the question this way: if you were still living with/in a relationship with the co-parent, would you guys have paid for this expense? If so, (and assuming you can find a way to get the money for it) then suck it up and pay your share. Jointly paying for activities and other child expenses shows the child that they are important to you, that you support them, and it again sends the message of a united front.