After a divorce, the prospect of co-parenting can put you in a difficult and sad place, regardless of your relative ability to successfully communicate with your ex. You’re already dealing with grief over your relationship not being what you had hoped, and it can be daunting to realize that the child you love so much requires you to collaborate with the source of your pain. But with some recalibration, you can have a successful co-parenting relationship that achieves its goal: providing your child with a loving, stable foundation.
“Yes, co-parenting is a challenge; however, you can find your high road that will lead to mutual understanding and compromise for both parents,” says Darlene Taylor, author of the co-parenting guide It’s Not About Us.
Getting on that high road can be messy and, at first, make every facet of parenting feel awkward and strained, but it’s important to stick with it. Whether you’re searching for practical steps for getting things off on the right foot or waypoints to get you through the tough early days, here are eight ideas that can help lay a strong foundation for a healthy co-parenting relationship that works for you.
1. Set The Right Parameters
Even in the process of divorcing, you can take a first step toward building a good co-parenting relationship: agreeing to the ‘Right of First Refusal.’ When this clause is placed into the parenting plan, “[it means that] the parents agree that when each has custody, if they won’t be available to be with the children for one or more nights, they will contact the other parent first to offer him/her to take over custody before calling another family member, nanny, friend,” says family law attorney Scott Levin.
Even if you’re on good terms with your ex and such an agreement feels redundant, put it in writing anyway. It benefits both of you, and with it firmly in your parenting plan, you’re setting yourself up for success down the line. Think of all the disagreements that simply won’t come up at all as a result, and where else you’ll be able to apply that bandwidth as a parent.
2. Plan To Change The Plan
Once the difficult work of agreeing on a parenting plan is done, the thought of opening the door to re-litigating it at any point in the future might be too painful to consider. But setting it and forgetting it will ultimately create friction.
“Proactively check in every once-in-a-while to ensure your family’s co-parenting plan is still good and functional for everyone involved,” says Taylor. “Don’t be afraid to adjust to life’s changes. If and when you are comfortable, you can bring your children into these conversations to see how they feel, what they are comfortable with, and what they want.”
If everyone agrees that nothing needs to change, then great. But resentments can easily fester when a plan that sounded great in theory is only working in practice for one party. It’s a sign of goodwill to give yourselves the space to adapt down the line.
It’s a sign of goodwill to give yourselves the space to adapt down the line.
3. Think Of It As A Business Relationship
It can help to kick off this new relationship with your ex the way you would a business relationship, where the emotional dynamic is backgrounded in favor of the task at hand.
“Focus on your role, what you need to do to meet that goal, and what you might need from your partner to reach that goal,” says Taylor. “Communicate clearly, concisely, and with respect, as you would a colleague or acquaintance. Work back toward a more casual, friendly relationship. Try to keep responses brief, informative, friendly, and firm.”
These BIFF responses, as Taylor calls them, help keep tensions low and ensure trust is continually re-built as you go along.
4. Separate The Partner From The Parent
If therapy is a part of your post-divorce strategy for general mental well-being, then you’ll have already identified some areas where individual work might make this process easier for you. However you proceed, it’s worth exploring ways to reframe your ex for yourself in a way that will allow you to work with them productively.
“A key element to getting through a situation like this is learning to separate the partner from the parent,” says Taylor. “These are two very separate and distinct roles.” The ultimate goal, she says, is to find a way to focus on how they behave as a parent while compartmentalizing any hurt you have connected to your relationship.
“Though your issues with them may be valid, if they do not affect your ex-partner’s ability to parent, they should be kept out of the co-parenting relationship,” she says. “They may be your ex, but they will always be your parenting partner.”
5. Take Measures To Avoid Financial Stress
If you don’t reach an agreement about your respective financial responsibilities within the co-parenting arrangement, money can continue to wreak havoc on your relationship long after your marriage has ended.
“If the end of the relationship has caused financial hardship for one of the parents, it may be very difficult for them to be willing to work together,” notes Taylor. “Do your best to get the financial issues decided upon early so that both parties can feel secure as they move forward into the new version of this family. If money broke your relationship, it can prevent you from moving forward in your co-parenting relationship.”
A third-party will almost certainly be necessary to make this happen, and this is one of the areas where they’ll be able to do the most good.
Be willing to give what you want to get back from your parenting partner.
6. Set Rules For New Romantic Partners
No, your ex shouldn’t exert any influence over who you start seeing (and vice-versa). But how those new romantic partners are introduced into your child’s life is your business, to a certain extent, and this inevitable contingency should be planned for in advance as well.
“New relationships can cause major conflict,” says Levin, “but by discussing under what conditions these new romantic partners will meet the children in the future, the parents avoid a major potential problem that will otherwise arise.”
This can include boundaries like agreeing on how early in the dating stage it’s appropriate to introduce a new partner to the kids and making sure that a heads-up will be coming your way about this meeting first — you don’t want your kid to feel like they’re keeping a secret from you.
Plus, as Taylor writes in It’s Not About Us, treating this meeting as an eventuality and planning for it affords you the ability to actively give your child permission to like your ex’s new partner. They need to feel confident that having a relationship of their own with this new partner is neither a threat to you nor a betrayal.
7. Tell Family And Friends That The War Is Over
The support of your family and friends will be essential in moving past the pain of your divorce, and you need to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who are encouraging your efforts to build a healthy co-parenting relationship.
“Friends and family can continue to fan the flames of the break-up while making healing and moving forward more difficult for parents,” says Taylor. You may have to have a sit-down with some of your supporters early on to help them realize you need their support in a different way than you may have needed it during the divorce itself. They, too, will have their part to play in mending your relationship with your ex as a shared parenting partner.
8. Give What You Want To Get Back
At the end of the day, the above steps are all in service of the number-one thing you can do to make your co-parenting relationship healthy: Be willing to give what you want to get back from your parenting partner.
“If you want them to trust your judgment and decisions, you have to demonstrate that same level of trust toward them,” says Taylor. “If you want grace for any missteps (of which there will be many), then you must extend that same grace to them when something goes awry.” In other words, you don’t want them to argue with you just because it’s you, so try your best to return the favor.
In It’s Not About Us, Taylor illustrates this idea with an excellent point, one that’s easy to lose sight of. “If you were still married,” she writes, “you’d be laughing at your parenting screw-ups together. Now that you’re no longer partners, resist the temptation to put those blunders under a microscope and judge.”
You want to be able to hold each other to a reasonable standard — when you manage that, it’s entirely possible to find your way to a co-parenting relationship that can bring you both more joy than you could have imagined.