I spoke with busy NJ divorce attorney Katherine Wagner to find out what techniques she has observed her clients using to successfully co-parent their children following divorce.
Co-parenting after divorce is never easy, and is certainly made more difficult if you feel lingering anger or resentment toward your ex.
But you have a child together, and for the sake of that child you need to put negativity aside and try to work together, amicably, to create the atmosphere of security, stability, and predictability that all children need. Keeping these three tips in mind will help you get there.
What is Co-Parenting?
Co-parenting is when both parents are actively parenting their child. This skill is required of any divorced couple with children, unless there has been domestic violence or substance abuse in the home.
It requires parents to separate their personal relationships with each other from their relationship as co-parents, and then focus on being a co-parent - not an ex. Your marriage fell apart, true - but your family does not have to.
Co-parenting requires some emotional restraint and that you put your child’s needs ahead of yours.
When Is Co-Parenting Necessary?
Co-parenting can and must take place if the parents have joint physical and legal custody, but can also take place if one parent has physical custody and the parents share legal custody, or if one parent has sole physical and legal custody and the other parent has scheduled parenting time.
The Benefits of Co-Parenting for Children of Divorced Parents
When a divorced couple promises one another that they intend to work together and does their best to do so, their child can have close relationships with both parents, a stable home life with consistent rules and expectations, and a model of what it looks like to work together despite differences.
These are powerful life lessons for any child. And, if you practice collaborative and civil co-parenting with your ex, your child will then know that he or she is more important to you than the conflicts that ended the marriage.
3 Tips to Successfully Co-parent After Divorce
#1 - Put Your Feelings About Your Ex Aside
If you are unsuccessful with this first tip, you will not be able to co-parent with your ex. It is that simple.
It is not easy to put strong feelings aside but it must be done for the sake of your child. You and your ex need not be friends, but you will need to remain civil, calm, and open to discussion about parenting.
One or both parents probably feel hurt, angry, or resentful about the divorce. That’s fine. The point is to separate your behavior as a parent from your feelings as an ex.
If you need to express feelings about your ex or the divorce, absolutely DO NOT express them to your child. It is not your child’s fault that you and your ex got divorced and it is not healthy for your child if you put them in the middle of your conflict, or try to get them to choose sides.
Keep your issues with your ex away from your child. Don’t indulge in saying negative things about your ex to your child. Your child has the right to have a relationship with your ex, the quality of which you must let him or her decide.
#2 - Work as a Parenting Team by Communicating and Collaborating with Your Ex
Civility should be your priority. If you conduct yourself with dignity and grace, and calmly speak with your ex during every interaction, not only are you more likely to be heard and understood by your ex, but you are providing an excellent model for your child.
You must take the high road and encourage your ex to do the same, either expressly or by modelling that behavior. Emailing or texting might help keep communication between you calm and productive.
Do not overshare about your current life or rehash old arguments with your ex. That is asking for trouble. Instead, resolve to make your child the focus of every and any conversation you have with your ex, starting right now.
Here are a few more techniques for keeping the conversation civil and productive:
- Make sure your custody arrangement is in writing and clearly spelled out. This will avoid a whole host of potential conflicts. If you and your ex need to modify the written arrangement, file a motion with the family court judge and get that modification in writing.
- Listen to your ex. Even if you do not agree, you can respectfully consider his or her point of view. A good start would be for you to ask your ex’s opinion on something - that will open the door to a productive talk.
- Don’t let your ex push your buttons. You know he or she can - resolve to refrain from reacting to that.
- Communicate with your ex frequently - perhaps as often as a few times a week, but at least once a week, to discuss any concerns or parenting goals. The more practice you get, the better you will be at discussing co-parenting strategy with your ex.
- Think of yourself as half of the co-parent team. You both want the same thing - for your team to “win” by raising a happy healthy child and having good relationships with that child.
- Collaborate on uniform expectations and rules in each household. This should be a no-brainer, but how many divorced parents do you know who try to sway their child’s affections by spoiling them? That’s not co-parenting - that’s war.
- Make important decisions collaboratively as co-parents, such as medical requirements and education, etc.
- When you disagree - and you will - remain respectful and keep talking with your ex. There may be room for compromise on this issue, or if not this particular issue, on some other issue in exchange for letting the current issue go.
- Be flexible, and your ex will be flexible too. Things come up and sometimes the schedule needs to be modified. Be prepared for that and take it in stride.
#3 - Make Transitions from One Household to the Other as Easy as Possible for Everyone.
You will not be able to avoid these transitions but there are ways to make it easier on everyone, not just your child.
- Always deliver your child to your ex on time.
- Dropping off your child, rather than picking him or her up from your ex’s avoids the feeling of taking the child away from the other parent. You and your ex should resolve to always drop off your child with one another - on time, of course.
- Remind your child of when they are going to your ex’s house in advance, so there are no surprises, and pack together well before.
- Invest in two of the commonly-used things, such as toiletries. It just makes packing easier and leaving things in both parents’ homes will make your child feel like part of the household, not a visitor.
What to Do if My Child Does not Want to Visit My Ex?
This is common. The first thing to do is discuss it with your child and find out why. It may be something simple, such as none of the favorite foods at the ex’s house, or it may be something a bit stickier - perhaps the child is uncomfortable seeing the ex start to date…? You don’t know until you ask.
Again, this is something you and your ex can collaborate on to resolve. Stay calm, as your ex will probably be upset by your child’s refusal to visit.
But once you get to the bottom of the problem, if you’ve been practicing co-parenting effectively you will be able to flex and compromise to make life better for your child - together.
Veronica Baxter is a legal assistant and blogger in the Philadelphia area.