Co-parenting After Divorce: a therapist’s guide

parents holding hands with a toddler photographed from behind

My ex-husband and I divorced about 10 years ago. It was actually a very amicable divorce; although both of us realized that while we could probably live together as roommates for the sake of the kids, it was not a fulfilling relationship for either one of us at all. I was a passionate and emotional person, and well…..he  wasn’t. We both love our children very much, and we knew that in order to be the best parents for our children that we could be and teach our children about healthy relationships, we could not stay married to one another. I will say, I’m very fortunate that our divorce was so amicable and that we have managed to co-parent our children, who are now 15 and 19, quite well. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had our bumps, but overall, we communicate and work together well, all in the best interests of our children. 

As much as we all would like, when you have children, your relationship with your now ex-partner does not end. In fact, it will probably never end, even after your children turn 18. There will be high school and possibly college graduations, maybe weddings, potentially grandchildren, and a mess of holidays that are still centered around family. It’s important for the sake of your children that you find a way, ANY way, to remain cordial with your ex whenever the children are watching. You do not have to be friends with this person, but you do need to find a mature way to interact civilly with them.

When I have done co-parenting counseling with high conflict divorces or break-ups, I establish the rules for inside and outside my office right off the bat. 

Rules for co-parenting after divorce

Rule 1: Your relationship is over

It’s done. We are not here to repair anything that happened between the two of you, because one or both of you has made the decision that you are done trying to do that. We will not be rehashing any fights or covering any old ground in these sessions. Any unresolved issues you have related to the relationship should be covered in your own individual counseling with another provider. 

Rule 2: Your mutual focus is now on raising your children

The two of you have a business relationship, and the business is making sure your children are happy, healthy, and well taken-care of. In order to do that, we are going to solely focus on communication: what to communicate about the children, and how to communicate it. Period. 

Rule 3: No bad-mouthing the other parent 

No, really. Even in subtle, passive-aggressive ways, in front of your children. If you want to bitch about them, save it for your friends when the kids aren’t around. Your child is comprised of half you and half your ex, so when you talk negatively about your ex, you’re talking about half of your child. We don’t want children to feel like they need to pick sides or feel betrayal for liking their other parent. That really messes kids up.

Establishing good communication with your ex

After those rules are well-understood, we get to work on improving the dynamics of communication. This entails first learning what needs to be communicated, which is a pretty easy answer: any relevant detail about the children. This information changes depending on the child’s age of course: when kiddos are young, you’re very likely going to be sharing information about sleep schedules, feedings, changes in poops, coughs, fevers, things like that. It is important to a child’s health that the schedule and routines be fairly similar at each parents’ house. 

Children thrive on routine! I often recommend a communication notebook that goes back and forth between homes where each parent can simply record what they’re doing…..for informational purposes only. You do not get to judge the other parent for only feeding them half a jar of yams when they usually eat a whole jar at your house….kids are fickle, especially their eating habits! However, if you are noticing large discrepancies between important things like nap schedules, it’s important to bring that up in a non-confrontational way. Be curious and ask questions, rather than assuming and attacking. There may be a very valid reason that little Johnny didn’t take his normal 90 minute nap on Tuesday.

As your children get older, communication will change to focus on school and behaviors. It is important for kids to have consistency about major rules and discipline between each house, which is why co-parenting is vital. For the sake of the child(ren), talking about behavior infractions and discipline between households not only supports your former partner, it supports the health and well-being of your child (which is your focus, right?). In addition, each parent should make sure they’re meeting the basic needs of this child….making sure they have food, clothing, enough sleep, and enough physical activity. You will need to communicate about sports/activity schedules, parent-teacher conferences, doctor’s appointments, etc….and yes, the other parent has the right to attend all of those things, regardless of how you feel about them. If at all possible, make sure both of you receive communication from places like schools or doctor’s offices, so as not to rely on one parent to get the info and share it all with the other. Also, we DO NOT ever use the children to communicate things to the other parent. That puts a responsibility on them that they should not have. 

It is impossible to ensure everything is the same at each home. There are going to be some differences. When you have separate homes, you do not get to make that call for the other parent. Barring abuse or neglect, learning to tolerate the parenting practices of your ex is necessary, albeit difficult. If your ex is more lenient than you are, it can and often does make your job much more difficult. Being as consistent as possible between households is best for the kids; however, this may not always happen. You can and should communicate your concerns, and it might or might not make a difference. This, unfortunately, is one of the difficult things we have to find a way to accept – we cannot control what happens in the household of the other parent. We can only be the best parent we can be for our child(ren), helping them understand that they will have to adjust to a lot of different styles of authority in their lives, and having differences in parenting styles will help them figure that out in the long run.

When your children become adults, it’s fairly obvious that the communication between the two of you will be minimal. Your adult child now gets to determine the type of relationship they will have with both of you. Your job now will be to be cordial at events that your child(ren) want both of you to attend. You don’t have to talk to each other, but you do need to be respectful. Remember, it’s for the sake of your kids. We don’t stop caring for or about our kids when they grow up and that means co-parenting is a permanent state. The foundation you set during their childhood will serve you well as you watch your babies fly.

Related article: The case for shared custody (of your babysitter)

Tips for communicating with your co-parent 

As far as how to communicate, as mentioned previously, having a calm, curious attitude is key. Here are my go-to tips for ongoing healthy communication. 

Tip 1: Ask questions

Ask questions if you want to understand something the other parent is doing, rather than stating your assumptions to them. This sets the tone for discussion and collaboration. Aim for curiosity and you’ll be surprised by how open your co-parent becomes.

Tip 2: “I” statements

This technique is a staple of couples counseling, but it’s common for people to use it in the wrong way. If you have thoughts or feelings about something the other parent is doing, own those thoughts and feelings by using “I” statements…..”I feel _(state a feeling word)_ when this happens (describe the details, not your assumptions), and I’m wondering if we can talk about that”. It’s important that it’s not a “fake I statement”, like “I feel like you never bathe our child, can we talk about that?” (notice there’s no feeling word in that sentence, it’s actually an accusation). When your ex shares feelings with you, your job is to try to understand where they are coming from even if you don’t agree. If the understanding isn’t there for either side, you can try to explain it in different terms or ask more questions. 

Tip 3: Call a timeout 

Just like toddlers, adults need a reset moment when emotions run too high. Make it normal to ask for and offer a break during hard conversations. If at any time anyone starts getting upset, it’s important to table the discussion for later. Let them know this is important, but you’re not in a good space to talk about it now, and ask to resume the discussion later. Your ex (and you) are free to live your life and make decisions that are best for you, but if those things affect the children, you have to find a way to talk about it. And you might have to find a way to let it go. 

Tip 4: Know when to let it go

When is a difference in parenting a matter of preference and when is it harming your child? It’s important to ask this before you head into a big conversation. What are you willing to let go and where can you compromise? Think about what needs to be dealt with right away and what can sit on the back burner. Sometimes it’s not just about picking your battles but timing them.

Co-parenting with a toxic ex

These skills are fairly easy to implement when you are dealing with a rational person, but much more difficult (and sometimes impossible) to use when you’re dealing with a toxic, abusive, or narcissistic ex. The key in those business relationships is boundaries. Keeping communication to a minimum, sticking to only important details about the kids, and limiting personal information, thoughts, or feelings is key when interacting with a toxic ex. 

They are fueled by reactivity, so if they put out messages that push your buttons, your job is to find any way you can to get to a calm, reasonable place before you respond, if you respond at all. Getting defensive will not be effective and in fact means they’ve got you looped into their drama. As difficult as it is, do not engage in debates with this kind of person, it will not go well! If there are differences of opinion or criticism, as long as your focus is on doing what’s best for the kids while they are in your care (and documenting inappropriate or potentially harmful things when they are in your ex’s care), that’s all you can control. Remember, you cannot change their faulty opinion of you, nor do you need to try. 

Any concerns of an abusive or neglectful nature should be addressed with a professional, including a therapist, police, an attorney, or with child protective services. It’s also important that if your ex was abusive in any way, get yourself into a good therapist who is familiar with abusive relationships, as they can help you heal those wounds and learn better ways to communicate with that kind of ex partner.

Key takeaways

In summary, despite your hatred or apathy for your ex, finding a way to put that aside and heal from that (which means allowing yourself to go through the grieving process), is of the utmost importance for your children. You no longer need to work on your intimate relationship with that person, but you do need to make sure the transition from one household to two households is smooth and as easy as possible for the kids. It’s important to remember that the biggest influence on children thriving through divorce is the ability of the parents to remain amicable with one another and co-parent effectively. 

It’s never too late to improve your communication with your ex. Your kids will see you trying and reward you for your efforts. You got this!