At a minimum, biological parents who have divorced should contain their anger and conflict in order to cooperate and compromise on issues of the children's welfare.
At a maximum, the co-parents can strive to enforce similar rules and standards of conduct in each of the children's homes.
Most co-parents find it difficult to accomplish the former; only a few are able to achieve the latter. Nevertheless, co-parents should do everything they can to build cooperation between the two homes.
I'll let the children explain what a functional co-parental relationship means in practical, everyday terms.
- Julie, 12, complained in a therapy session that she couldn't invite both her parents to her music recital. "If they both come they'll just scowl every chance they get. I tried inviting them both last year, and Mom wouldn't speak to me for two days because Dad brought Amy [stepmom] with him. She refuses to be in the same room with them." Julie learned to take turns inviting her mom and dad. If one couldn't attend, she could invite the other. Unfortunately, this put her in constant turmoil, as she was forced to choose which parent she would invite to certain events. If the other wanted to come but couldn't, Julie heard that parent's disappointment and felt guilty. "Why can't they just put aside their differences and tolerate a couple of hours in the same room?" Good question.
- Because Terrance's parents always ended up fighting on the phone, he became the middleman to their visitation arrangements. His mother stopped speaking to his father and asked Terrance, at age 9, to communicate her preferences for drop-off and pickup. Terrance had no choice but to oblige, since he enjoyed spending time with his father on weekends.
In both these examples, children carried undue emotional anxiety and burden because their parents could not set aside their differences and act like adults.
An effective co-parent arrangement for Julie's parents would mean she could invite both parents to her recitals and not worry whether they were fighting or anxious. An effective arrangement for Terrance's parents would include their finding a way to talk rationally about their schedules instead of triangulating Terrance.
The bottom line is a system that allows children to be children and adults to be their parents.
Action Points for Co-Parents
1. Keep the goal in mind. Working with an uncooperative ex spouse is difficult, especially when you find it tough to give them any credit for change. On some level many ex spouses need to view the other as incapable of change. This leads you to look for evidence that the ex is the same and can't be trusted; you might also discount evidence to the contrary.
Keeping the goal in mind means doing everything you can to be a Cooperative Colleague and remaining open to the possibility that your ex spouse might change along life's way. When treating children who are members of a post divorce family or stepfamily, a standard part of my clinical work is to call ex-spouses for a consultation. I generally find them to be much less disagreeable than the other parent assumes they will be. In fact, they are often eager to improve the living conditions for their children. Remember, if you can grow up and change, so can they.
2. Be businesslike if necessary. Many co parents have learned how to handle difficult ex spouse relationships. Some use note cards while speaking on the phone to help keep them on task. Others avoid personal contact altogether, relying on answering machines, letters and e-mail. No matter what your avenue of communication, treat the contact as you would a business deal. Don't get personal, seek the win/win solution, and stick to discussing the kids.
Having a business mentality may help you to avoid being sidetracked when your buttons get pushed. For example, one good business principle that applies in many circumstances is trying to find the common ground. Whenever possible, agree with some aspect of what your ex is saying even if you disagree with the main point. "You're right, every teenager wants the independence a car provides; I'm just wondering if he should be rewarded with one right now given his poor grades." If you can't "close the deal" because of personal pain or attacks, politely take a time out from negotiations. Return to the table later when you have gathered yourself.