Co-Parenting – How to Co-Operate with Your Ex to Protect Your Child

Co-Parenting - How to Co-Operate With Your Ex to Protect Your Child

“You can be bitter or you can be better,” my mom used to say. It’s become my mantra for relationships. With respect to an ex, a former beloved that’s now reduced to two letters, this mantra is hard to maintain. Demonstrated by this study on relationships, 55% of Americans admitted to blaming their exes for the failure of their marriage. That number jumps to 65% when considering only women.

The path to forgiving an ex starts with yourself. Your relationship to you is the one that will dictate all others. For example, I am a needy person. I deal with a sort of separation anxiety that leads me to stay in relationships with huge red flags. It’s a daunting acknowledgement. To recognize it however, allows me to see it objectively—as a weakness and a strength.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “the great epochs of our life are at the points when we gain courage to re-baptize our badness as the best in us…” Yes, I’m furious with myself for exacerbating my misery. Yet, it may be this trait that leads me to a great love.

Through forgiveness of our actions, we can relieve ourselves of bitterness. When you become so enraptured in your own self-betterment, their trespasses may also wash away. With time, you may notice that your former loathing becomes more of a distaste, and eventually, an indifference.

With respect to co-parenting, this process is an absolute necessity. If you and the other parent cannot be amicable – or civil, at least – then your children will almost certainly feel the consequences. Co-parenting can be an everyday battle, one that takes relentless hard work and re-focusing. 

How to become co-parents that interact with grace and ease.

  • To start out on the right foot, attempt an amicable break-up. This isn’t always easy, or possible, but if it can be done it will make a difference to everyone. If married, consider an “uncontested” divorce. This involves agreeing on every aspect of the separation—from the division of assets to a parenting plan. 
  • Remember the adage that time heals all things. Do not expect instant rapport with your ex, especially if there was trauma in your relationship. There will likely be feelings of rage and jealousy in the first few years, if not more. Notice these feelings, acknowledge them, and try not to feed them.
  • Emotional distance is another critical aspect that is highly correlated to time. Until it’s realized, best to “fake it ‘til you make it.” To achieve a serene demeanor, it may help to pretend that you are at work. In our professional personas, we are less likely to be take hits personally. It may behoove you to mimic this aloofness when dealing with an ex. Treat each interaction as a business deal. You two have a common goal; let that not be overshadowed by ego.
  • A good team shares values. Especially when co-parenting, it’s important to be sure that everyone is explicitly on the same page. Consider sitting down with your ex and writing a family “mission statement,” that outlines high-level values & tenants. Ideally, it will help each parent make sound decisions in uncertain moments. To help get the wheels turning, try reading a company or organization’s mission statement. It would be a nice accompaniment to the legal parenting plan, which outlines the day-to-day logistics.

How to talk about your Ex?

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” so opens the novel Anna Karenina.

When interacting with your child, it’s crucial to consider how your words affect your family on whole. The emotional and physical well being of your children is biggest consideration. Try hard to put aside any personal urges that may conflict with that well-being. Below are some important guidelines to follow, so that you can guard the mental health of your children:

  • Do not speak badly of your ex. Don’t demean the way they parent, or tell stories that cast them in a negative light. This will only cause your children to feel as though they have to choose sides between their two parents.
  • In the same vein, make all efforts to humanize your ex (and not to dehumanize them). For example, call them either by their name or, if possible, mom/dad (as in, “Mom is going to pick you up from school today.”) Try to avoid the phrase Your father/Your mother as this subtly places blame on the child for existing.
  • Watch out for any micro-aggressions you may commit. Micro-aggressions are brief and nonchalant behaviors that are subtly hostile and often subconscious. They include any objectification or degradation of your ex—making a comment about their body or new beau, for example. Over time, these little habits can have a deeply destructive effect on your children.
  • Do not try to “win” in the court of public opinion. Your children can and will love you both separately and equally. 

About the Author: Marlo Spieth

marlo-spiethMarlo Spieth blogs and does outreach for Avvo. With resources like: tax forms, an attorney hotline, and even online divorce, we make legal easier. She’s learned about divorce and co-parenting from observation, interviews, and editing the Avvo Stories blog. If she could be described as “emotionally intelligent”, it would be mostly thanks to her mom, Susan.

Please note: The views and opinions expressed herein are the author’s alone and do not represent Avvo. Also, the legal information herein is intended for general informational purposes only and is not the provision of legal services. Please acknowledge that such information consists of third party data and contributions, that there are certain inherent limitations to the accuracy or currency of such information, that legal and other information may be incomplete, may contain inaccuracies, or may be based on opinion. 

3 Comments

jennifer davies

Did share custody for 18 years difficult We keep the focus on what was best for our daughter She 20 now and happy successfully who has two parents who love her unconditionally she has a close relationship with both parents so my message is don’t use child to hurt each other they didn’t cause the relationship break down

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Georgia

This is a nice, short piece. Lovely advice. Basic. When you have a toxic ex, who doesn’t do any of these things, and you, as a parent have to counsel your child/ren through time spent with them, it can be good to acknowledge the reality of what your ex is like. The hard part is to only do this in response to something your child reflects back to you. You cannot instigate this or you come across as the bitter ex. Yes. By 13 kids can see very clearly how things are. As Maya Angelou said (and I’m paraphrasing a lot here) “Do your best. When you know better, do better”.

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Kerry durkee

One will do better (simply, by) practicing the art of (having) Compassion w/an integral mindset. “How you treat others, (ultimately) speaks alot about you & your character’s ‘integral side’. Once, children are involved (then, it’s not about, the) parents, any longer. “Love” brought children into this (union) world & just-because the Love (is no longer there, between the adults, doesn’t mean, that-the) children, are the ones (meant-to) suffer, for it. Mature-acting adults, protect their children’s well-being. They would never think-to using (their kids) as weapons, against.

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Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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