Going through divorce can be a difficult process for all parties involved. However, when children are involved, divorce can become that much more complicated; rather than parting ways, both parents must still work together for the benefit of their children. Navigating this new family dynamic can be one of the trickiest aspects of divorce, and many divorcing parents may question whether or not it is possible. After all, the logic is that if most couples divorce due to irreconcilable differences, how could they possibly get along and co-parent after the divorce. This hand-out will explore this issue, and offer general principles and tools for being an effective co-parent after divorce.
Principle 1: Do something different. Effective co-parenting requires an ability to exercise reason. While there may be a serious temptation to blame the other parent for all the problems in the relationship, it is important to critically examine your own contributions and commitment to the co-parenting relationship. Often divorce is a result of a series of interactions or events gone wrong in a marriage. In order for the co-parenting relationship to be effective after divorce, each parent should take inventory of the ineffective aspects that need to change, and do something different. Reason would follow that if it was not working before, than do not keep doing it.
This requires each parent to take responsibility for their own behaviors, words, and interactions with the other co-parent. Recognize your ability to change and grow through this process, and remain open to the idea that your ex-spouse is capable of that same growth.
Principle 2: Improve your communication. Effective co-parenting also requires the utilization of good communication skills. In high conflict marriages and divorces, effective communication is often lacking. Considering principle 1, if your communication strategies were not working before divorce, than change how you communicate as co-parents. After divorce, good communication becomes pivotal in coordinating, planning, reducing conflict and addressing matters related to the children. Regular communication between co-parents is a must. The frequency of these interactions can vary depending on the co-parents, though it is good to have consistency and an agreed upon date and time to have these conversations (e.g., every third Sunday at 8 pm, or every Thursday at noon).
Each parent can consider these general tips to improve the way they communicate: Use “I” messages, employ reflective listening statements, and keep the conversation on track to meet its original intended goal. “I” messages can help you be clear in your message and keep the focus on what you are trying to say rather than making personal attacks at your ex-spouse (I feel…, or I am… rather than you feel…, you are…). Reflective listening statements can help you avoid conflict as well. As the other parent becomes attacking, or critical, rather than retaliating, you can use a reflective listening statement (I hear that you are really mad about this). This helps the other parent to feel heard and understood, allowing you to meet your objectives and have effective communication. Finally, always stay on the original purpose of the conversation. If the conversation is veering to unwanted topics, bring it back to the original issue. This can help both parents to stay away from rehashing marital issues, diving into each other’s personal lives, and becoming embedded in conflict.
However, if avoiding these issues and staying on topic is extremely difficult, than writing out a script or dialogue is also advisable. In the script, you can write out your part of the conversation and anticipate the other parent’s responses, and then address how you will handle their responses. Having this script can help you to stay on the goal of the conversation and avoid sticky areas.
Principle 3: Contain conflict. Improving your communication skills will also help you to contain conflict. Reducing conflict is a very necessary piece in effective co-parenting with the goal of minimizing the children’s exposure to co-parental conflict. At a bare minimum, co-parents should contain their anger to cooperate for the welfare of their children. However, it is even more favorable for each parent to promote and encourage positive relationships with the other parent. Children benefit greatly from having positive relationships with each parent; oppositional parenting can be harmful for the children, and is a parental stance that does not consider the needs of the child.
In containing conflict, there are some general dos and don’ts. Do keep any conflict, or disagreement out of the earshot of the children. This means that when you have to discuss potential conflict areas, plan ahead and hold that conversation when the children are not around. Do listen to your child’s feelings toward the other parent fairly. Through divorce, children can become confused and angry toward you or both parents. It is important to let them explore their feelings without taking advantage of them. Again, encouraging positive relationships with each parent is most beneficial to the children. Don’t say negative things about the other parent around the children and don’t place children in loyalty conflicts. Children profit most from having loving and caring environments around them, with both parents being involved in their lives.
Principle 4: Form a new kind of relationship. One of the main challenges divorced couples face is how to disengage as a couple and place a boundary between their marital issues and their new co-parenting relationship. It takes a process of separating your past marital relationship from your parenting present, now defining your relationship as parents only. The big difference being that in the current co-parenting relationship, both parents now put their focus on putting the child’s needs first and foremost.
It can be helpful to think of co-parenting like a business relationship. Both partners function like business partners to succeed in the common goal of meeting the child’s best interests. Like any business relationship, partners stay away from the personal and intimate, respecting the other parent’s boundaries and sticking to discussing the children. Each parent should be autonomous, but working toward the same common goal of meeting the child’s needs. At times it is better to let differences on certain issues be (i.e., parenting style), and focus on bringing uniformity to more critical areas for accomplishing goals.
Principle 5: Work Collaboratively. It is important that co-parents develop a way to work together. Co-parenting relationships are effective as both parents agree on how to raise the child, and cooperate in meeting shared objectives as they work toward their common goal. Having these shared objectives and goals can help parents work collaboratively toward creating a consistent environment for their children—an environment conducive to meeting the child’s needs. Increased consistency between each household can help to lighten the emotional burden felt by children by reducing children’s anxiety, and distress.
The basic consistent structure between homes should be child-centered. This can include implementing similar rules and principles of conduct for the children. However, this does not mean that all rules need to be coordinated, but major rules and expectations should be similar. Remember the purpose of creating consistency between homes is to help both parents meet their shared objectives and goals by improving the emotional functioning of their children.
In conclusion, though divorce is difficult, parents can and must learn to function in their new roles, working together for the benefit of their children. While this will require each parent to make changes, work on communication, and at times bite their tongue to reduce conflict, it allows parents to focus on the child’s best interests and meet their needs.
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