Published for Psyched SF
We have heard it too many times. The decision for couples with kids to break up happens, and the shit hits the fan. Wars over money, time with the kids, new partners, and parenting styles go from 0 to 60, and the ones who suffer most are the kids. Our culture wasn’t given a road map for this life transition and most people feel lost and alone with their once best friend having become a lost ally and sometimes even an enemy.
There are two main problems I see as a clinician having worked with hundreds of couples in transition and having experienced it myself. First, people who get divorced are often grieving their relationship while at the same time sorting out assets and rules. As a clinician I find this combination combustible and often unmanageable. And second, there is often a winning or losing dynamic that gets set up in a divorce that can negatively affect the children.
Here are some tips for being able to peacefully co-parent after a divorce.
5 Key Phases for Maintaining a Balanced Co-Parent Partnership while Protecting Your Kids.
If you’re lucky it’s mutual, however most often it is one part of the couple who decides to call it quits while the other one is still fighting for it. Whether you decided individually, with your couples therapist or as a couple, coming to the realization and naming it is crucial no matter how painful. Often times the one who ‘realizes’, holds back on sharing, thinking that the problem will go away or that if they wait long enough the other person will become too miserable to stay. This causes more long-term damage to the whole family unit and each other than it gains.
2) Truth Telling
Truth telling in the separation and divorce process is respectful. The truths I’m talking about here are discussing parenting styles, fears, wants and needs. There are so many moving parts and new agreements that both of you will feel overwhelmed. Keep in mind here that the more you help one another by sharing and listening to the overwhelm and individual needs, the more you personally benefit. If you’re ex is happy and at peace step by step, you’re kids will be too and you will benefit. Also in the same way that you collaborated on keeping the kids lives in tact and well functioning while you were together, this grounding and stability is needed even more in the transition. Work as a team on this and everyone benefits. Again, if you ex is happy you are happy, I see it work every time.
When you are under the stress of shifting your life, you and your ex will be making decisions around custody, money, and parenting. Don’t hold yourself or your ex to anything. Try out an arrangement, see what works and doesn’t work, and come back together to re-up the agreement or change it. When your ex is happy, your kids are happy and thus you are happy.
Be willing to negotiate. The more you are willing to be flexible and try new things so your ex is more comfortable in their new life, the more they will be flexible and understanding with you. Positive treatment and empathy go a long way, further than you might expect.
5) Grief (anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance, denial)
Grieving the relationship that was, no matter how messed up it got, how unhappy you were or why you are leaving is vital. Grief has five stages: anger; depression; bargaining; acceptance and denial. These stages can come in any order and often repeat themselves until acceptance is truly felt. Many divorced couples remain bitter for years because they never allowed themselves to fully grieve the relationship, the good parts especially.
Specific Tips for The Co-Parenting Process
Positive Communication: a therapist can be helpful to form Positive Communication Strategies for Co-parents.
Clear Agreements: Make clear agreements on how to divide up time between kids, family time and self-time (for activities, dates, etc).
Acknowledgement: Acknowledge the desires, dreams and needs of one another via positive communication.
Communication with Kids: Once new ways are in practice and running smoothly, discuss changes with your kids in age-appropriate ways.
Family and Friends: Share about the changes with family and friends. This will bring up others judgments, fears, projections and opinions. Be a support to one another here.
Jealousy: Work with jealously flare-ups from dating and more foundational jealousy of longer term dating others.
Ultimately you may end up being a support to one another in dating, life, dreams and family. Celebrate your successes!
Finally, a focus on compassion, empathy, respect and care qualities will set you up for more peace and positive exchange. The more you have for your Ex the more you will receive.
Keep in mind that break ups are hard on everyone involved. If you once cared about your ex, practice this care in a new way, which is the shared love and concern for your kids. It’s worth it and you may be able to maintain a new form of family that celebrates what is there rather than what has been taken away.