Many divorced parents contact me and ask for advice about co-parenting with a difficult or high- conflict ex-partner. They often seem surprised that they are still dealing with the same dynamics in their relationship with their ex and ongoing challenges.
Marie put it like this: “I thought that after my divorce Tom and I could cooperate more easily but he gives me a hard time about little things, arrives late to pick up our two young children, and tries to constantly change his co-parenting schedule. I sought a counselor for support since we have joint custody and this stresses me out because we have to see each other often. I don’t want out children to suffer.”
What is the solution for parents who want their children to have access to both parents but one parent is challenging? According to Dr. Edward Kruk, Ph.D., “Parallel Parenting is an arrangement in which divorced parents are able to co-parent by means of disengaging from each other, and having limited contact, in situations where they have demonstrated that they are unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner.”
In fact, parallel parenting allows parents to remain detached with one another (and have a parenting plan) while they remain close to their children. For instance, they remain committed to making responsible decisions (medical, education, etc.) but decide on the logistics of day-to-day parenting separately.
Here are 7 tips for co-parenting (or parallel parenting) with a challenging or high conflict ex:
- Be the parental role model your kids need to thrive. Show compassion toward your children and don’t bad mouth their other parent in their presence. Children are vulnerable to experiencing loyalty conflicts and shouldn’t be in the middle between their parents.
- Keep your eye on the big picture in terms of your children’s future. Although it’s stressful trying to co-parent or even parallel parent with a difficult ex, it’s probably in the best interest of your children. Adopt realistic expectations and pat yourself on the back for working at this challenging relationship for your kids.
- Focus on the only thing you can control – your behavior! You alone are responsible for your reactions to your ex’s comments and behavior. But don’t be persuaded by your ex to do something that you’re uncomfortable with just to keep the peace. Adopt a business-like “Just the facts, ma’am” style of communicating with him/her.
- Minimize contact and set boundaries with your ex. High-conflict personalities thrive on the possibility of combat. Be prepared and write a script to use when talking to him/her and try to stick with it, using as few words as possible. For instance, if he/she tries to persuade you to change the parenting plan, say something like: “I’m not comfortable with this idea. I’m sure you have good intentions but this won’t work for me.”
- Make sure you have a parenting plan that is structured and highly specific – spelling out schedules, holidays, vacations, etc. to minimize conflict. Using a communication notebook to share important details with your ex can be an essential tool and help you stay detached and business-like.
- Do accept help from counselors, mediators, or other helping professionals. Make sure you have plenty of support from a lawyer, friends, family, and a therapist. Use a third party mediator when needed. Educate yourself about strategies to deal with a difficult or high-conflict ex.
It’s important that you take an honest look at the impact your ex’s behaviors and the dynamics in your relationship are having on you and your children. Once you accept that you can only control your own behavior – not a person with a difficult or high conflict personality – your life will greatly improve. After all, you and your children deserve to have a life filled with love and happiness!
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020.