While it is certainly not easy, it is possible to co-parent with someone you hate. Here are the ABCs of doing this effectively – which is essential to the long-term emotional well-being of the children involved.
Avoid Exposing Children to Parental Conflict
The single greatest predictor of children’s adjustment to parental divorce or separation is the level of parental conflict that they are exposed to.
Specifically, the more fighting, yelling, bad mouthing/speaking negatively, and undermining that children witness the more emotionally damaged they will be. Therefore, it is essential that parents find ways to protect children from their negative emotions and behaviors, whether they are obvious or subtle. Children feel the tension and strong negative emotions between their warring parents and it is essential to do everything within your power to shield them from that toxicity.
How do you accomplish that goal when all you feel is anger and hatred toward your ex? How do you manage your behavior when being in their presence triggers those powerful painful emotions? Here are a couple of effective strategies for doing just that:
- Either on your own or with the help of a family therapist, work to understand the painful emotions underlying your anger. Typically, these include sadness, grief, betrayal, rejection, and guilt. This self-reflection will allow you to start the process of moving beyond the surface anger and work through the more vulnerable feelings that are fueling your hatred.
- Empower yourself to take control of your emotions and commit to no longer giving your ex the power to control you and your reactions. Remind yourself prior to every interaction to stay calm, not get sucked into conflict, and not lower yourself to their level of inappropriate behavior.
- Remind yourself daily that your and your children’s mental health is more important than proving a point with your ex. Redefine what it means to win an argument. Protecting your children from parental conflict is always more important than being right, proving what a horrible parent they are, or rehashing all the ways they hurt you.
- If co-parenting without constant conflict is no longer possible, it will be essential to create a parallel parenting arrangement which minimizes the amount of contact that you will need to have with each other and the amount of conflict that your children will witness. This will go a long way toward protecting both you and your children from further emotional damage.
Boundaries Must be Established and Maintained
In any separation or divorce where children are involved it is important to have a well-defined custody arrangement and a very specific, detailed parenting plan. This becomes even more essential in high conflict separations or divorces, or in the case of co-parenting with a narcissistic ex, where there are a lot of strong negative emotions and minor disagreements can easily escalate into major battles. The more specific you can be in creating this plan at the outset the less chance there will be for disagreement and conflict about details in the future.
It will be essential to include the following boundaries in your parenting plan to avoid future conflict:
- You will respect and support your ex’s parenting time rather than undermining it
- You will maintain the parenting schedule as consistently as possible
- You will not impose your parenting style on your ex
- You will allow your children to spend time with their other parent free from interference
- You will make transitions between homes as smooth and conflict-free as possible
- You will not put your children in the middle of your conflicts or pit them against their other parent
Communicate as Business Partners
You do not need to be best friends, or even friends, to effectively co-parent with your ex. In fact, it is possible to work together on your children’s behalf even when you are co-parenting with someone you hate. The key is to reframe your relationship as a business partnership where the joint venture is raising your children.
We all have colleagues that we dislike, or perhaps even hate. But we figure out how to go to work each day, act professionally, effectively communicate, and get the job done. This same strategy applies to your co-parenting relationship with an ex that you no longer like or respect. You need to strive to put your emotions aside, maintain a business-like and professional demeanor, and stay laser focused on what your children need from you.
For this to work in the co-parenting realm, you will need to commit to the three components of a business relationship that I refer to as the KFCs. They are:
- Keep your emotions in check so things don’t escalate
- Focus on your shared goal, which is successfully raising your children, so you don’t get distracted by your negative feelings and conflicts with each other
- Communicate professionally and refrain from inappropriate language or behavior so you can respectfully negotiate all the necessary child-rearing decisions
What if None of this Works?
There are clearly some situations where the extreme level of conflict and hatred make it impossible for these strategies to be effective. The ability to co-parent requires a basic level of safety and trust. Without it, other options for parenting need to be explored.
When there is domestic violence or other forms of abuse, the primary goal needs to be protecting yourself and your children from any further physical or emotional harm. This might involve securing a court order that prevents your ex from having any contact with you or your children, involving the police, or finding a alternative safe place to live.
When it becomes clear that you unable to work together on your children’s behalf, other parenting models need to be explored. Parallel parenting allows both parents to remain actively involved in their children’s lives while having minimal contact with each other. Sole custody, legal or physical, places the childcare responsibilities on one parent with the other parent having only visitation rights. Supervised visitation allows the children to see an “impaired” parent only in the presence of another responsible adult who is tasked with maintaining their safety.
There are also a variety of professionals who can help facilitate communication and cooperation between contentious parents. These include therapists, parent coordinators, mediators, collaborative divorce facilitators, and family law attorneys. They can all be tremendous resources for high conflict parents struggling to effectively co-parent following a separation or divorce so do not hesitate to seek them out when necessary.
When you got married and decided to bring children into the world you clearly never imagined that you could get to this point…. hating the person you thought you wanted to spend the rest of your life with. But, unfortunately, here you are. Despite these negative feelings toward your ex, you both owe it to your children to do everything within your power to protect them from your conflicts and your animosity toward each other. You need to strive to rise above your emotions for the sake of your children and work tirelessly toward finding a way to effectively co-parent them. The strategies detailed above will help guide those efforts. Work hard to implement them and everyone in your newly configured family will reap the benefits!