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When Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work…

There has been much ado online recently about successful co-parents.  Shared family vacations, shared family photos, shared holiday celebrations…even matching t-shirts.  This is the ideal when two parents, despite their differences, co-parent organically.

In my experience, there are three categories of co-parenting styles:  1) those who do it organically; 2) those who “make it work”; and, 3) those who can’t. 

Those who co-parent organically succeed at reinventing what it means to be “family” despite separate households.  They share the same beliefs about parenting, communicate well, and do not espouse the “territoriality” or “children as possessions” behavior (my time is mine…my child, my way…only I know best) that hallmarks, to varying degrees, the other two categories.  These folks are the most likely to have no parenting agreement or custody order, or if they do, it lives in a drawer and they live life doing what’s best for their children.

The second category, of those who “make it work”, do what is best despite their feelings toward the other parent.  It works, but it’s not ideal.  Some succeed on their own, usually referring to their parenting agreement or custody order when they disagree.  Others succeed with help, such as from family therapists and parent coordinators or online tools like shared online calendars and co-parenting software (like ourfamilywizard.com).

And then, there is the last category, of those who cannot co-parent.  Much as I never like to say “never”, there are those parents who cannot and will never co-parent.  Domestic violence.  Estrangement and alienation of the children.  Child abuse and neglect.  Undiagnosed or unmanaged mental health issues.  Addiction.  Inability to disengage from (and, so, thriving on) conflict.  And so on.  The characteristics vary, but this category is typically hallmarked by safety issues, threats, unending and escalating litigation, child protective or welfare services and police involvement, as well as territoriality and possessiveness of the children.

The failure of co-parenting does not mean that one parent is entitled to make all legal custody decisions regarding the child’s health, education, welfare, and religious upbringing.  Parents can be required to make shared or joint legal custody decisions even if they cannot co-parent.  So, parents who cannot co-parent can (and often do) find themselves required to communicate and engage even if they would rather not.

If you find yourself in this void, here are some tips for those who cannot co-parent:

Seek professional input to consider and confirm if you have exhausted all other options.  Create a plan for how to interact with and react to a parent who cannot co-parent.

Set realistic expectations.  Do not expect to co-parent with someone who cannot.  Set new goals for how to model positive parenting to your child(ren) without co-parenting.

Disengage.  Identify how you contribute to the conflict and stop or change those behaviors.  For example, minimize parenting time/schedule transitions between parents and have them coincide with school, daycare, and camp drop off and pick up instead.

Minimize and deescalate communication.  If possible, stop telephone and in-person contact.  Consider limiting communication to e-mail and text.  Limit communications to necessary facts.  Do not respond in anger.  Compartmentalize when you read and respond to written communications.  Write responses, but wait to send until after a cooling off period.

Engage a professional, if you have not already, to facilitate required communications with your ex on decision-making and legal custody.

Attend appointments and events separately.  This may mean not attending a special event, but if it avoids an explosive interaction with your ex, this is better for your children.  Schedule separate parent-teacher school conferences and take advantage of school/teacher e-mail distribution lists and websites (like Edline).  Don’t attend medical appointments together – instead, call for updates or participate by telephone.  Be proactive about staying in touch with your child’s providers, instead of relying on your ex to keep you informed.  Be creative about participating in your child’s events and successes, even if you do not attend in person.  Send congratulations in your absence, participate by video, or attend but do not engage.  Think outside the box to show your support, while avoiding a scene.

Don’t criticize or talk about your ex to your child or in your child’s hearing.  Better yet, don’t at all.  It gets you nothing and takes up time, emotion, and energy that you don’t have to spare.  Plus, when you talk badly about your ex to or in your child’s hearing, your child receives that as the half of him or her that came from the other parent is bad too.

Model the parenting you want reciprocated, expecting nothing in return.  You lose nothing by being the best parent you can be.  And, you set a good example for your children.  Step-parents also are an opportunity model organic co-parenting in an intact family, bearing in mind the different roles of parents and step-parents.

Create routine and structure at home.  Give your children the stability they need and deserve, in contrast to the upset caused by the other parent’s involvement.

Set boundaries and let go.  If you must leave to avoid a scene, do it.  Walking away is not running away, but a boundary and setting an example.  Let go of the other parent’s parenting style or weaknesses.  Focus on your parenting time and what you can control.

Co-parenting requires acceptance of and respect for the other parent and the child’s relationship with that parent.  Without these, instead of forcing yourself into co-parenting that doesn’t work, focus instead on what you can do to reduce conflict for your children.  Let go of co-parenting that doesn’t work and focus on being the best parent you can be.

Lindsay Parvis is a family law attorney who represents parents in contested and uncontested child custody cases and is frequently appointed by the court to represent children in high-conflict custody litigation.

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