Healthy Co-Parenting Boundaries
Now that you are no longer in a relationship with your former partner, you are about to head into uncharted territory, and perhaps into some stormy waters as well. Those precious children that you brought into the world together still need you, maybe now more than ever, and you are going to have to figure out how you and your ex are going to move forward as co-parents. Their mental health, as well as yours, rests on how successful you are in figuring that out.
While there is no doubt that your relationship with your ex is going to be one of the most complicated and challenging ones in your life, there are proven strategies for how to be an effective co-parent and to establish healthy co-parenting boundaries. The good news is that you don’t have to find those on your own. This guide is going to detail those essential strategies and provide you with the roadmap of how to establish those essential co-parenting rules and a successful co-parenting relationship.
What is Co-Parenting?
Before getting into how to establish co-parenting boundaries most effectively, it is important to start by defining what that term means. Co-parenting is defined as two parents who no longer live together working collaboratively to raise their children. It does not require that the parents were previously married, but in most cases this parenting relationship is the result of a separation or divorce. While it can take many forms, with many different parenting plans and parenting schedules, the goal is to create a relationship where both parents are playing an active role in all aspects of their children’s lives. It works best when decisions are made based upon the best interest of the children.
The ability to effectively co-parent and establish healthy co-parenting boundaries requires that neither parent poses a physical or emotional risk to their children. Such an arrangement becomes difficult, if not impossible, when one parent has been abusive or has a history of serious mental illness or significant substance abuse. In those situations, alternatives to co-parenting need to be utilized. One common example of this is when attempting to co-parent with a narcissist. Given the high conflict that typically occurs in these situations, co-parenting boundaries with a narcissist are somewhat unique. Utilizing the alternative of Parallel Parenting is often more appropriate and healthier for both the adults and the children involved. In these families, the co-parenting rules are aimed at minimizing communication and interaction between the parents to reduce the damaging conflict that attempting to co-parent can cause.
To be an effective co-parent and to have the ability to create healthy co-parenting boundaries, there are three key relationships that you need to focus on:
- Your relationship with yourself
- Your relationship with your former partner
- Your relationship with your children
If you only focus on the relationship with your former partner as you work to establish an effective co-parenting relationship, as so many other guides suggest that you do, you will be missing so much of what goes into being the best co-parents possible for your children. As you read on, you will understand why.
Your Relationship with Yourself
Let’s start with you because you are the foundation upon which everything else is built. If you crumble, the rest of your family members will collapse along with you. Given that, your ability to co-parent is going to rest upon you getting yourself to a positive, healthy place in your personal 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 co-parent with your former partner.
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. This shift in your thinking is going to allow you to focus on the things that are within your control to change, will lay the groundwork for a more productive co-parenting relationship with your former partner, and empower you to set the necessary co-parenting boundaries to protect yourself and your children from further emotional harm.
Key Takeaway #1: Empower yourself to make the changes that are necessary to protect yourself and your children
Once you have empowered yourself in this way, the next step is to work to get a handle on your divorce-related emotions. These painful feelings are an entirely normal part of any relationship ending. However, if not effectively dealt with, they have the potential to derail not only your co-parenting relationship and your ability to set healthy co-parenting rules but your children’s lives as well. You must take the necessary steps to work through these emotions and rise above them for the sake of your children.
There are many ways to accomplish this goal, some on your own and others with the help of a professional. If you choose to tackle this on your own, you will find my powerful 5 As system to be a useful guide. Strategically working your way through each of the five steps will help you start the process of moving past your painful feelings so that you will be emotionally ready and able to start working together with your ex on behalf of your children. The five steps are:
- Acknowledge the intense emotions you are feeling and the impact they are having on your life
- Assess the more painful emotions underlying the surface feelings, so you aren’t stuck feeling only anger
- Admit any role that you played in your marriage ending so that you aren’t blaming your ex for everything
- Accept the divorce and start the process of forgiveness, both of yourself and your ex, because that forgiveness has the potential to emotionally set you free
- Arise above those emotions for the sake of yourself and your children so that you can start to move forward in your life in a positive way
Sometimes this process is too overwhelming to manage on your own. This is not the time to be proud and stoic. Finding a good therapist who can help you work your way through the healing process is one of the most powerful steps you can take at this time, both for yourself and for your children.
Key Takeaway #2: Employ a strategic process to manage your emotions so they don’t derail your co-parenting relationship (and your parenting relationship) and emotionally damage your children
Your Relationship with Your Former Partner
Once you have spent some time working on your relationship with yourself, and you are in a better place emotionally, you will now be much better prepared to start working on your relationship with your former partner and to start building a healthy co-parenting relationship with healthy co-parenting boundaries with them.
Many parents struggle with what this relationship should look like. Let’s start with what it does NOT need to look like. You do not need to be best friends with your former partner to be the best co-parents for your children. A more realistic and useful goal is to strive to view your relationship with your ex as a business partnership where the joint venture is raising your children.
Try to think of it like this…. We have all had co-workers that we don’t get along with or don’t particularly like. But, despite this, we go into work each day, focus on the work at hand, and treat that person with an appropriate level of courtesy and respect. That is the framework that you need to embrace with your former spouse and that will give you the greatest chance of having a peaceful and effective co-parenting relationship with them.
It will be essential 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 conflicts with each other
- Communicate professionally and refrain from inappropriate language or behavior so you can respectfully negotiate all the necessary child-rearing decisions
One other piece of advice. Work hard to not always assume malicious intent on the part of your former spouse. Yes, there might be times that their intent is less than pure. But try to give them the benefit of the doubt, and don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that they are doing something hurtful or manipulative. This will go a long way toward reducing unnecessary conflict between the two of you.
Key Takeaway #3: Reinvent your relationship with your former partner into a business partnership
There is one other thing that has the potential to de-rail your co-parenting relationship, and that is the Court system. While there are clearly some divorces and post-divorce conflicts that require the assistance of the Court, there are many that end up there for the wrong reasons. These include “wanting to hurt them like they hurt you, wanting to take them for everything they are worth, wanting to make it so they never see their kids again”. These emotionally based motivations are often misguided and will inevitably take a huge toll on all of you.
Going to court costs more than you think, both financially and emotionally. It will not only drain your bank account but will essentially destroy any possibility of a healthy, cooperative co-parenting relationship with your ex. By resolving matters outside of the courtroom, (through Mediation, Collaborative Divorce, Co-Parenting Counseling), you will save tens of thousands of dollars, protect your co-parenting relationship, and save your children the pain of being dragged into the middle of your conflict.
Key Takeaway #4: Agree to resolve divorce-related issues outside of court whenever possible
Your Relationship with your Children
The final relationship that needs to be addressed as you attempt to effectively co-parent with your former partner is your relationship with your children. There are so many parenting mistakes that people make, without even knowing that they are making them, that have the potential to damage their children’s lives. Those mistakes also have the potential to damage the co-parenting relationship.
The key to being effective co-parents is for you and your ex to rise above your own issues with each other, on your children’s behalf, and to work together as a team to provide them with the love, guidance, and support that they will need from both of you. You must always remember that their needs are paramount, and this should guide every decision and action that you take pertaining to them. These include decisions about child custody, parenting time, and parenting strategies.
The Importance of Co-Parenting Rules
Children are in desperate of need of consistency, predictability, and structure following a divorce. They also need to be exposed to as little parental conflict as possible since the level of that conflict will be the greatest predictor of their future emotional functioning. Establishing and sticking to healthy co-parenting boundaries and rules will help to maintain a positive and harmonious co-parenting dynamic for years to come.
What follows are ground rules to follow as you venture into the role of co-parents and work to establish healthy co-parenting boundaries:
- Give children permission to love and have a relationship with both parents
- Keep children out of the middle of adult business
- Do not use children as messengers
- Minimize the amount of conflict that the children are exposed to
- Avoid asking the kids to keep secrets
- Never bad mouth the other parent
- Respect boundaries and privacy
- Communicate directly with the other parent and do not use children as messengers
- Create peaceful transitions between the two homes
- Minimize differences between the two homes to maximize consistency for the children
- Maintain consistent schedules for the children
- Do not introduce new romantic relationships until they are long term and committed
Key Takeaway #5: Learn new parenting skills that are specific to the co-parenting situation
In addition to these strategies, there are numerous valuable resources available to help you most effectively co-parent your children. These include co-parenting apps, classes, and counseling. Let’s talk a bit about each of them.
There are several excellent apps that offer help in the process of establishing healthy co-parenting boundaries. They include:
- Our Family Wizard: tools for sharing schedules, facilitating communication, and managing finances, widely accepted as a documentation tool by many court jurisdictions ($99/parent/year)
- Coparently: tools to help coordinate schedules, communicate clearly, and track expenses ($99/year/parent, 30-day free trial)
- Cozi: free online calendar program to help with co-parenting communication
- Talking Parents: documents a record of communication acceptable to many courts (PDF records are $9.99 or free with a Premium account for $19.99/month
- 2Houses: provides a co-parent calendar, expense manager, and custody journal ($12.50/month/family)
There are two reasons to take a parenting class. The first is because your state requires it for every parent going through a divorce and you just want to fulfill that mandate. The other is because you want to learn everything you can about how to be the best possible co-parent for your children and how to establish co-parenting boundaries both with a healthy co-parent as well as with a high conflict former partner such as a narcissist. There are many online classes to choose from, including those provided by Dr. Ellis and Two Healthy Homes, that will meet both needs, varying in length, cost, comprehensiveness, and level of expertise of the presenter.
The goal of co-parenting counseling is to help parents rise above their painful emotions and learn the skills necessary to work together to raise their children. There are times when this will be mandated by the courts and other times when the parents seek this out on their own. It can be provided by highly trained mental health professionals such as psychologists or social workers, or by people whose sole credential is being divorced or a co-parent themselves. Again, be careful how you choose because anyone can call themself a divorce coach or co-parenting counselor, regardless of their level of expertise or qualification. This process is far too important is to be put in the hands of someone not adequately trained so do your homework before putting your lives and the lives of your children in someone else’s hands. Two Healthy Homes is a trusted resource for expert-based support for healthy co-parenting.
The process of co-parenting can be done well, and it can be done poorly. Your future and your children’s future depend on which way it goes for you and your former spouse. Dr. Erica Ellis, a licensed psychologist, has over 30 years of experience helping divorcing couples transition into effective co-parents with healthy co-parenting boundaries. She created Two Healthy Homes to provide these parents with all the tools and resources necessary to become the best possible co-parents for their children.