Co-Parenting With an Uncooperative Ex-Spouse

How do I handle conflicts with my ex-spouse over different parenting styles? Our divorce settlement stipulated that we would share responsibility for the children. The arrangement sounded fine on paper, but it's a disaster in practice. I'm a firm believer in structure and discipline. Unfortunately, that goes out the window every time the kids spend a weekend in the home of my ex-spouse, who cares nothing for rules or guidelines. What can I do about this?

Conflicts of this kind are usually the result of fuzzy thinking and vague or non-existent communication. You may be divorced, but if you care about your kids you owe it to them and to one another to be more intentional about getting on the same page. Shared responsibility implies a degree of mutual cooperation. You can’t cooperate if you don’t take time to talk.

What should you talk about? First of all, you need to find some common ground. Try to do this in as positive and friendly a fashion as possible. Resist the temptation to criticize or blame. In particular, don’t put your ex-spouse down in front of the children. If you want to work together, you’re going to have to learn to exercise self-control. Begin by affirming the good things he’s doing with the kids. From there you can move on to questions like, “How do you think we can do a better job? What do Johnny and Susie need most from both of us at this point? What are we doing right and what needs to change?”

If you handle it right, a conversation like this can bring out areas of mutual agreement between you and your ex-spouse. It will reveal those rules, standards, and values that you share in common and that can be made to apply in both homes. By building on this foundation you can begin to make real progress toward a genuine meeting of the minds. It would also be helpful to arrange two or three sessions with a professional Christian counselor who can coach you through this process. An objective third party can steer you away from anger, accusation, and other negative forms of communication. Later on you can ask the counselor to sit down with parents and kids to talk about relationships, assumptions, and expectations. (By the way, if either you or your ex-spouse has remarried, we’d suggest that you keep this discussion between yourselves for the time being. Stepparents will have to be involved at some point, but you can avoid unnecessary conflict by asking them to stand aside until you’ve worked out your differences.)

What if your ex-spouse won’t talk? What if he refuses to cooperate with you in any way, shape, or form? In that case you’ll have to come up with another plan. A lot depends on how bad the situation really is. If it’s simply a matter of petty disagreements or different parenting styles, you may just have to learn to live with it. A friend, a counselor, a pastor or a support group for divorced parents can help you meet this challenge. If, on the other hand, it’s a question of serious neglect or abuse, some kind of intervention might be needed. You may even want to think about going back to court with the aim of revising the custody and visitation provisions of the settlement.

If you’d like to discuss these recommendations at greater length with a member of our staff, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Helping Children Survive Divorce

Co-Parenting Works

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life

John Rosemond: Parenting with Love and Leadership

Divorce Care

Co-Parenting International

National Center for Fathering

Smart Stepfamilies


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