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How to Co-Parent When Your Partner Kind of Sucks At It

Photograph by Twenty20

With co-parenting quickly becoming the new norm in America, how do we ensure this new arrangement works for everyone involved? Several recent studies show relationship satisfaction can drop steeply after a couple has kids, and all too often, the issues that caused the rift reappear as parents try to co-parent.

Family Turning Point is a practice helping parents resolve the most common co-parenting headaches by teaching them communication, conflict resolution and co-parenting skills through psycho-educational presentations, family interventions and co-parenting support groups. With several decades of experience under their belt, the Family Turning Point team has seen it all. The team sat down with Mom.me to share their best advice for co-parenting, including what to do when the other parent kind of sucks at it.

What are the biggest obstacles you see in successful co-parenting?

In our 30-plus years of working with separated parents, the biggest obstacles we’ve noticed are the lack of effective co-parenting communication and conflict resolution skills. These were often the reasons parents broke up in the first place, and they continue to pop up time and time again as parents struggle to raise their children.

The other obstacle that often goes hand-in-hand with this is that parents are too focused on themselves and their feelings toward co-parenting. This often leads them lose sight as to how their immature behavior negatively affects their children’s emotional well-being.

What does a successful co-parenting relationship looks like?

The characteristics of a successful co-parenting relationship are a low degree of conflict and tension between the parents, their ability listen to and empathize with one another, their willingness to be accountable for their action and to focus on the needs of the children first.

So let’s flip that: What does a terrible co-parenting relationship look like?

The worst case scenarios we deal with are intractable or unsolvable conflict situations. This is where the parents focus solely on mistakes and shortcomings of the other parent. Their thoughts, feelings about and actions toward the other parent are negative, and the parents disregard how their child feels about the other parent. An intractable conflict is like a magnet that pulls in everything negative about the other parent and completely disregards anything positive the other parent might be or do.

The parents who are in this kind of conflict feel hopeless that the situation would change and are unable to fathom any positive development. Any peace making gestures a parent might offer are interpreted as disingenuous or manipulative, and these situations rarely resolve on their own.

Parents need to understand that their memory can’t be trusted. Chances are when parents argue about an event from the past, both parents’ memories are wrong.

How can you make a co-parenting partner less terrible?

The first thing is to step back from the situation and think about the needs of the child. Both parents need to realize the detrimental effects their actions are having on the child, especially when the conflict interferes with a parent’s ability to parent well. This includes situations where a parent fails to fulfill school or other responsibilities or undermines the other parent’s authority.

Unfortunately, we rarely see cases where someone successfully changes a co-parenting partner’s actions, unless they were so horrific that authorities had to get involved and the parent is cut out and forced to undergo parenting education by the courts. The faster and more successful path is to establish clear expectations and put them down in writing, and then to work on one’s own thoughts, feelings and behavior in a constructive way. In most cases, the other parent will respond in kind.

When parents fail to do this it can often become an emotional trap. The parent intentionally goes against parenting wishes in order to punish the co-parent. The only way to practice self-care and protect yourself and your kids from those negative emotions is to treat co-parenting like a business relationship and to take the emotion out of it.

What does being more business-like look like in co-parenting?

The first step is to establish clear boundaries regarding communication, for example via email and address topics only related to the children. Billy Eddy with the High Conflict Institute has written many books on dealing with high conflict people. His “BIFF” technique (Be Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm) has shown to work successfully in high conflict co-parenting arrangements. Parents can also learn how to calm themselves and focus on positive things in their lives by practicing mindfulness and not let themselves be caught up in the drama the other parent might be causing.

If all that fails, what are other tools and tactics available to co-parenting moms whose partners aren’t cooperating?

There are many tools available to parents. The court can always intervene and enter co-parenting orders. If it looks like your relationship is heading in this direction, then it’s best to start documenting all interactions and moving communications to text only, that way you will have materials to support your request for modified parenting time.

If you feel that communications are your biggest bottleneck, there are also agencies that will monitor and correct your written communications, such as ProperComm.

At what point do you advise parents to get professional help?

There are two kinds of professional interventions: legal and mental health. If the parents are involved in a complex family court case or uncomfortable representing themselves, the parents might wish to consult with an attorney. Many cases can be resolved though through confidential mediation.

Parents should consider seeking support of a mental health professional when they notice if they have difficulties managing their thoughts and emotions or notice that their children are displaying concerning behaviors, such as regression, acting out or refusing to spend time with the other parent.

In your experience, do most co-parenting relationships improve over time?

The majority of co-parenting relationships do improve over time. Things typically improve as the parents become increasingly capable of moving past their failed romantic relationship, building a new and fulfilling life of their own, and forging a business-like relationship with each other. Once parents truly put the kids at the center of their agreement, things tend to improve.

A key skill for parents to learn is to stop seeing themselves as victims and blaming the other parent for the problem.

What are the key parenting skills that co-parenting parents need to develop?

Parents need to understand that, like all humans, their memory can’t be trusted. Humans regularly create false memories but believe them to be true. Memories can also be changed and manipulated. Chances are when parents argue about an event from the past, both parents’ memories are wrong. That’s why it’s important to keep a journal of important events, and to focus your energy on the future, rather than the past.

Another key skill is the understanding that humans engage in cognitive distortions, or irrational thoughts that affect emotions and decisions. People are often unaware that they have cognitive distortions. For example, when people engage in catastrophic thinking they can only see the worst outcome possible. When people engage in black and white thinking they think in absolutes, such as always or never. Another distortion is confirmation bias. This bias leads people to seek out information that supports their beliefs and to disregard any information that questions or disapproves them. Many people find it very helpful to sit down, make a list of their most powerful feelings and beliefs and see if any of the common cognitive distortions may apply. It’s a powerful and eye-opening experience.

Another key skill for parents to learn is to stop seeing themselves as victims and blaming the other parent for the problem. Doing this gives your power to the other person and makes you feel out of control. The key is to stop blaming and jumping to conclusions and to learn to sit down and listen. Once you do that, you can discover what both of you really want and find an acceptable solution.

Many parents resist co-parenting. How does this impact the child?

Avoiding co-parenting almost always leads to an increase in conflict between the parents, which children can sense and become worried. It is one thing for a family member to be absent, but when the parent is present (even in intervals) and that relationship is tense, the child’s first impressions of relationships may be negative and result in unhealthy or anxious relationships in their future.

There are also real physical consequences of failing to co-parent that can cause physical harm. A parent might find a new pediatrician for the child and unknowingly double-vaccinate or prescribe medications that a child is already receiving or that interact with something the child is already taking. Parents can avoid this by always sending a brief correspondence to the other parent informing them of medical or other updates.

What is the single most important piece of co-parenting advice you can give?

Think before you react.

There is a difference between reacting and responding, and the first one usually is based in self-interest, while the second focuses on the child’s well being and protecting their relationship with both parents. It is paramount that parents understand the importance of the child having a positive and trusting relationship with both parents, even when one of them isn’t perfect.