By Guest Blogger Christine Murray, PhD, LPC, LMFT, Director of the Healthy Relationships Initiative
Parenting is full of joys and challenges in all families, but parents who are separated or divorced can face unique challenges. Through our work with the Healthy Relationships Initiative, we often encounter parents who are having a difficult time reaching a positive, cooperative relationship with the other parent. In today’s blog post, we’ll share some tips for positive co-parenting, as well as for when to consider a different approach—parallel parenting.
Now, when most people think of “healthy relationships” a separated or divorced couple usually doesn’t come to mind. But it is possible to build healthy relationships, even when partners choose to end their romantic relationship. When children are involved, a healthy co-parenting relationship between the former partners is one of the best things that parents can offer to their children. Some tips for fostering a positive co-parenting relationship from our HRI Divorcing with Dignity Toolkit are as follows:
- Set up effective communication channels. Determine which communication channels are most likely to work in your unique situation (e.g., phone, in-person, email, text, or even a co-parenting app). Work together to figure out which communication channels work best for different types of information and decisions. For example, a simple text may work well for scheduling updates, but an in-person conversation (perhaps even facilitated by a counselor or mediator) could be better for more complicated decisions like where to send a child to school.
- Maintain a respectful tone. You can act respectfully toward someone even if you may not actually like or respect them! Commit to using positive communication skills and showing kindness and respect to your co-parent, even if you still have negative feelings toward them or about the way your relationship ended. This can be very challenging. However, remember that a disrespectful, unkind tone to your communications is likely to increase the chance that the conversation will spiral into a more negative place and create additional levels of stress and conflict.
- Set boundaries around your interactions with each other. Try to stick to topics of conversation that are related directly to your children. Unless there’s some real need to do so and you and your former partner have achieved a positive level of cooperation and communication, it’s best to avoid discussing the past of your relationship. It’s possible to move forward to a positive co-parenting relationship without fully resolving or settling your past conflicts that occurred while you were together. Take time to figure out what topics and interactions are essential for engaging with each other and set boundaries to help you both stay within those limits.
- Be patient. Establishing a positive, healthy co-parenting relationship can take a lot of time. Have realistic expectations based on the nature of your relationship, including how the romantic aspect of your relationship ended. Although some divorced parents can idealize co-parents who are able to celebrate holidays together and otherwise get along fabulously with one another, know that getting to that level of a positive co-parenting relationship can take a long time, if it ever happens. Try to be patient and focus on the small steps you can take each day to build a more positive co-parenting relationship to best support your children.
Of course, achieving a healthy co-parenting relationship is not easy, and for some people, it may never be possible. Working toward a healthy co-parenting relationship requires a certain amount of emotional maturity, cooperation, and willingness to work on oneself and the relationship—and sometimes, one or both people lack one or more of these characteristics. This especially may be true if one of the people is abusive, narcissistic, or has untreated mental health or substance abuse issues.
An alternative to co-parenting when cooperation just isn’t possible (either for a period of time or ever) is called parallel parenting. The term parallel means that the parents minimize their coordination and interactions as much as possible, and each parent focuses on their own parenting when the children are with them. With parallel parenting, the parents set firm limits on their interactions with one another, and their communication is as minimal as possible—and it may even be done through a professional, such as a counselor, mediator, or attorneys. It’s basically, “You parent your way, and I’ll parent my way.” There may be times when intervention is required, such as if there are concerns about a child’s safety, as well as when conjoint decisions must be made if required by a custody agreement or court order. But, overall, parallel parenting involves very minimal interactions between the parents. Two resources for learning more about parallel parenting can be found through Psychology Today and Healthline.
It can be distressing to parents to shift to a parallel parenting approach, especially if they understand the benefits of a positive co-parenting relationship. However, it’s important for parents using this approach to keep in mind that it may be the best available option to provide for their children, especially if it minimizes the potential for conflict and strife between the parents. Also, remember that children can adapt to different environments and sets of rules. For example, kids can adjust to different sets of expectations at home and at school, so they can learn to adjust similarly between two homes.
As many separated and divorced parents have learned the hard way, you can’t force another person to change. It’s likely that conflicts and challenges will arise (just as they do when parents are still happily together!), but you can learn to navigate these by using positive communication and effective conflict management skills. Whether in co-parenting or parallel parenting, focus on doing the best you can each day to be the best person and parent you can be. Remember that the one of the best things you can do for your child is continue to grow, learn, and work through challenges so that they can experience and observe people and relationships that are as healthy as possible. This will foster a sense of safety and security that they can carry into their own future relationships throughout the rest of their lives.
Our Healthy Relationships Initiative (HRI) team is excited to partner with Triad Moms on Main on this blog series. In this series, we offer general guidance to relationship or family questions submitted by TMoM community members. If you’ve got a question to ask, please share it anonymously on the form at this web-site: https://goo.gl/forms/CLQxhyBzCgJdfJ7P2.
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