Spouse 1: “I’ve had enough.”
Spouse 2: “I’m sick of this.”
Spouse 1: “I’m finished.”
Spouse 2: “I’m out of here.”
Spouse 1 and 2: “But our children still need us both!”
The decision to divorce is a complex and painful one for all who face marital crisis. Typically, misunderstanding, hurt, and anger have been part of the couple dynamics for a long time before the decision is made. When the marriage involves children, the relationship is never really over, but the roles must change.
Form a Parenting Partnership
I hope you know some “unique” couples. You know who I’m talking about. Those divorced spouses who still seem to like each other as friends. People often wonder why they got divorced in the first place because they appear to get along so well. In truth, they have worked hard at developing a parenting partnership for the sake of their children. It is not something that happens overnight and certainly not at the beginning of the divorce process. It involves continued effort and commitment throughout the developmental stages of their children’s lives. Even if you had a miserable marriage, you need not be stuck with a horrible divorce relationship.
Perhaps you think, “We never communicated well in the marriage, why would we start doing any better now?” If so, your motivation for communication needs to shift. The children who fare best in the long term, post-divorce, are those with two parents who cooperate and maintain a supportive relationship. Even if you did not choose the divorce, you can choose to increase the odds that your children will have a positive outcome.
Divorced parents are usually put to the test when communicating about visitation, schedules, money, medical issues, holidays, friends, grades, and kid problems—in other words, life. Those “delightfully different” couples who cannot live together but seem to get along post-divorce have spent time and effort developing rules and honing their communication skills.
Ground Rules to Developing a Parenting Partnership
- Create a vision and stay focused. Foster a mindset that your shared children need a healthy relationship with each of you into their adulthood. To preserve that ideal, you will have to avoid bad-mouthing the other parent or rigidly adhering to a schedule just in order to “win.”
- Set boundaries. Messages should be direct between parents. If you are having difficulty reaching an agreement about an issue, give yourselves permission to think it through when you can both cool off. Most co-parenting decisions are about planning. Can you agree on a regular time to communicate with each other? Can you decide on the optimal method of communicating? (In person at a neutral place, by phone, by fax, by e-mail?)
- Be respectful. Treat your parenting partner politely, as you would a colleague or a co-worker. Be thoughtful about the language you use in discussing difficult topics regarding your children. Avoid labeling the other parent and your children.
- Restrain yourself. Hold onto your anger, hurt, and frustration. It has no place in front of your ex-spouse or your children. Develop a separate support network of friends, family, and/or a counselor/minister that gives you a safe opportunity to vent without having to manage the after effects! This network should discourage you from retaliating or undermining the co-parenting framework.
Cooperative Communication 101
- Preparation. Pre-plan your words before making contact with the other parent. Anticipate the trouble spots when possible and prepare yourself for those points. In some partnerships, it is useful to send ahead an agenda to keep the communication on topic and concise.
- Organization. Stick with the original purpose of the communication. If you need to discuss car pool schedules, don’t try to slip in a shot about two-year-old unpaid medical bills.
- Attention. Active listening requires intense concentration. This cannot be achieved while you are simultaneously planning your comeback line.
- Acceptance. Let’s face it; you have less influence over your ex-spouse’s habits now than you did when you lived together. There are many ways to raise emotionally healthy children—and your ex-spouse will likely have a different way. Invest your energy on managing your own rules, rituals, and customs at your house.
- Clarification. At the close of your conversation, try to summarize the main points. Strive to settle any miscommunications before you end the conversation.
A Party of One?
We understand that you might feel stressed about your ex-spouses ability to “play by the rules.” Be patient. It will always be in your children’s interest that you behave well. Never give up hope that you will be able to negotiate and cooperate. Persist in modeling appropriate, polite, and respectful behavior towards your co-parent.
At the very least, your attitude will teach your children that it is important to try to get along with others. At the very best, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be unique like some couples who participate together, or separately, but cordially, in the many milestones of their children’s lives—where the children aren’t filled with dread but are able to focus on their own special moment? We recognize that it is continual effort, and incredibly hard work, but we know your children will thank you for it in the long run.
Ann Benjamin, M.Ed., and Lisa L. Marotta, Ph.D., are counselors who enjoy encouraging families to make healthy life choices every day. The Offices of Paul Tobin, Ph.D., and Ann Benjamin, M.Ed., in Edmond. This particular article they dedicate to their friend and colleague, Susan Lasuzzo-Papa.