What to do if an Ex Refuses to Co-Parent

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Two Healthy Homes | Co-Parenting Classes

by Dr. Erica Ellis

Founder of Two Healthy Homes. Licensed psychologist, best-selling author, and a leading global expert on co-parenting and child centered divorce.

Successful and healthy co-parenting requires certain basic conditions to be present; a court ordered custody arrangement with joint legal and physical custody, effective communication between the divorced or separated parents, the ability to resolve conflicts, a specific parenting plan where responsibilities are shared, and a desire to present a unified front in raising the children. Further, for this parenting to work, the separated parents must be able to stay focused on their shared “job” of raising their children, and not be distracted by their own emotional issues with each other. 

What happens if your former partner or spouse (or you) refuses to agree to a co-parenting plan and wants to litigate for either sole custody or to create a parallel parenting plan? This might be based on their perception that your parenting styles are too different to effectively co-parent or that the level of conflict between you is too intense to allow you to work together in an amicable, cooperative, and safe way. 


There are unfortunately circumstances where litigation is the only option and where co-parenting is not feasible. These might include the presence of domestic violence or substance abuse or a complete breakdown in trust or communication. However, many partners choose to litigate for the wrong reasons, predominantly emotional ones. These include wanting to hurt their spouse in the same way they were hurt, wanting to destroy their life like they feel theirs was destroyed, or “taking them for everything they are worth”. It is important to understand that going to court will take not only a huge financial toll but a huge emotional toll as well. It will further destroy any chances you might have of working together on behalf of your children and will expose them to more parental conflict and subsequent emotional harm. Therefore, it. is essential to only pursue litigation when it is absolutely necessary given the negative impact it will have on all of your lives for years to come.

Empower Yourself to Create a Healthy Future for Your Kids

If this ultimately becomes your only option, there are still ways that you can effectively parent your children and minimize the potential for further emotional damage. Let’s start with you because you are the foundation upon which everything else is built. If you crumble, the rest of your family will collapse along with you.

Given that, your ability to parent is going to rest upon you getting yourself to a positive, healthy place in your life. That is obviously not going to happen right away, and it will take time and effort to get to that place of healing. But it is important to keep yourself focused on that goal since it will play a huge part in how effectively you are going to be able to handle the challenges of your parenting relationship with your children and your former spouse.

The first step in this process is to empower yourself with the belief that YOU ALONE have the ability and the responsibility to protect your children from divorce-related damage. It is essential to not get caught up in the blame game and to fully accept that you can’t simply sit around waiting for your former partner to change their behavior. You might be waiting forever if that is your approach.

Part of this process is actively refraining from bad mouthing your former partner to your children, not using them as pawns in your parental conflicts, not engaging them as messengers or secret keepers, and supporting their relationship with their other parent. This shift in your thinking and behavior is going to allow you to focus on the things that are within your control to change and will lay the groundwork for a more productive parenting relationship with your children.

The Personal OATH

Part of your future happiness is going to rest on your ability to let go of the unrealistic desire to change your former spouse and to focus on the steps you can take to make your future better. This is not an easy task but can be aided by building in a daily affirmation of what you can and cannot control. Starting every day with this OATH will serve to help you make this happen: Own what is in your control, Accept what is not in your control, Take charge of your future, and Heal yourself and your children.

Additional Co-Parenting Steps

There are additional steps that you can take to best take care of yourself and your children when parenting your children independently. They include:

  1. Teach your children by example by being the best parent you can be. Work to be present, consistent, reliable, and even-tempered 
  2. Spend quality time with your children, regardless of your other commitments. They need you now, more than ever, and your presence and involvement in all aspects of their lives (school events, extracurricular activities, social interactions) is crucial to their emotional well-being. 
  3. Create support systems for yourself and for your children. This can involve self-care such as exercise, meditation, healthy eating, good sleep habits, or a co-parenting class. It can also involve seeking professional care from a therapist should any of you need more emotional support than you can provide on your own. 

The realities of parenting your children when your former spouse refuses to co-parent with you are certainly not easy. However, it is still possible to be a great parent to your children and to emotionally move beyond the conflicts that initially led to your separation or divorce. Work at i to make it happen, and you and your children will certainly reap the benefits.


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