Co-Parenting with an Abuser:
Co-Parenting with an Abuser
While being married to an abusive spouse is incredibly challenging, divorcing and then co-parenting with a toxic former spouse can be equally if not more challenging as well. This abuse can take many forms including emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or financial abuse. The behaviors that they exhibited during your marriage will unfortunately continue and might even get worse, especially as you are going through the volatile divorce process. It is essential that you develop strategies to protect yourself and your children from the abusive co-parent’s behavior, now and into the future. You have the power to make this happen. Let’s talk about four specific ways of accomplishing that goal, especially when you desire to keep both parents involved in your children’s lives.
Navigating Co-Parenting with an Abusive Ex Partner
There are four major issues that must be addressed in navigating the process of co-parenting with an abuser. They are Boundaries, Emotional disengagement, Self-protection, and Teaching your children about healthy parenting. Let’s discuss how to implement the BEST strategy as you learn how to co-parent with a toxic ex-partner.
One of the most important things that you can do to protect yourself and your kids when getting out of an abusive relationship is to create and maintain firm boundaries. This means setting limits and expectations and sticking to them regardless of the pushback that you get from them. These boundaries need to be set around a variety of different issues, with the two most important being communication and parenting schedules.
It is essential to establish one form of communication that does not involve face to face interaction. Typically, this will be through one of two communication methods; email or an on-line parenting app like Our Family Wizard, Coparently, or Cozi. This will serve the purpose of avoiding the type of in-person contact that has the potential to escalate in an unhealthy way.
It is also important to set boundaries regarding how often you respond to your former spouse’s communications. Clearly establish the limit that you will not be responding to every message but will only respond within a pre-determined period (such as every two days unless it is an emergency). You then need to set the limit for yourself to only check messages from them within that same established time frame, resisting the temptation to be constantly monitoring for their outreach. While your curiosity might motivate you to check more frequently, your sanity will be protected by avoiding that impulse.
Do not let yourself get sucked into communicating in ways other than what has been established. This will be the key to avoiding unnecessary contact and escalating conflict between the two of you in the future.
Creating a detailed parenting plan/custody schedule is essential when attempting to co-parent with an abuser. Everything must be spelled out as specifically as possible to leave no room for subjective interpretation or debate. This includes such things as the parenting arrangements, the specifics of how and when transitions will take place, the details of holiday/vacation/summer schedules, and the exact nature of each parent’s specific child-rearing responsibilities.
In many high conflict cases, this will involve the creation of a parallel parenting plan that will allow you and your abusive co-parent to remain active parents while having minimal contact with each other. In situations where there is a risk of harm to the children, the abusive parent may only be able to see the children under supervised visitation with another adult responsible for maintaining the children’s safety.
Regardless of the plan that you create, maintaining that plan on a consistent basis is essential. If you succumb to pressure to change the established agreement, even once, you will set yourself up for frequent future attempts to get you to do the same again. Consistency with these boundaries is the key to avoiding such future conflict as you attempt to co-parent with a toxic ex-partner.
Perpetrators of domestic violence, especially those with narcissistic traits, feed on your escalating emotions and are experts at fueling them. To break into this cycle, you must take away their power to elicit an emotional reaction from you. I know this is easier said than done but remaining calm in the face of their attempted escalation is the key to protecting yourself from further abusive manipulation.
It is essential that you have clear expectations about your former partner’s behavior and not set yourself up with the unrealistic hope that your next interaction with them might be better or that they might act in a kinder or more appropriate way. The sad reality is that they will probably continue to act in the same abusive manner that you have experienced in the past. What can prevent it from becoming yet another traumatic experience is you reacting to it in this different, more protective manner.
It is also important to establish a plan for emotionally preparing yourself for any unavoidable interaction. You need to have a strategy for empowering yourself and not getting manipulated into an emotionally harmful conversation. For example, post a note by your computer that reminds you to stay calm, not take the bait, fortify your defenses, and not escalate with them. You are no longer at the mercy of their hurtful words or actions, and you need to reinforce that message for yourself, frequently and with conviction.
Over the course of your relationship with your abusive partner, you have undoubtedly heard an endless litany of your faults, your failings, your inadequacies, and all the things for which you are to blame. As a result, your self-esteem has undoubtedly been significantly damaged, and you are probably struggling to hold onto any sense of positive self-worth.
Now that your marriage is over, and you are free from the constant abuse, it is time for you to start the process of healing and to begin re-building your damaged self-esteem. You need to embrace the fact that all the negative messages that you heard for so long were more about your ex than they were about you. They reflected a pathological desire to manipulate and control you rather than who you are as a person. Going forward, it is essential to both deny them the opportunity to continue this abuse (which is the purpose of establishing and maintaining boundaries) as well as no longer accept these abusive messages as the truth should they find an opportunity to express them. Creating a protective shield that no longer allows these hurtful words to negatively impact your feelings about yourself will be a huge step toward protecting yourself from further emotional harm.
There are also situations of domestic abuse that will require legal intervention to keep you and your children safe from an abusive co-parent. If they are threatening physical harm, you may need to obtain a court order for a restraining order which will legally prevent them from coming near you or your children.
Teach your children about healthy parenting
You are unfortunately not the only one who has been exposed to your former spouse’s inappropriate behavior and explosive moods. Your children have also witnessed or been the recipient of their abuse and it has undoubtedly taken a toll on them as well. While you can establish boundaries that will minimize the contact you have with your former spouse after the divorce, your children will probably continue to have a relationship with both of you. So, how do you protect them from further emotional damage and teach them about healthy relationships and appropriate parental behavior while co-parenting with a toxic ex-partner?
There are two natural tendencies that each have potential negative consequences. The first is to directly point out to your children the inappropriateness of their other parent’s emotional responses and behavior. While this temptation is perfectly understandable, it usually tends to back-fire and often results in the children becoming angry with you for “bad mouthing” their parent.
The second ineffective strategy is to lower yourself to your ex’s inappropriate behavior as a way of fighting back. The unfortunate consequences of this strategy are that your children now lack any parental model of healthy behavior and you have compromised your integrity and ideals for the person that you want to be.
A more effective strategy is to strive to be a role model for healthy parenting, managing emotions, and dealing with conflict. Rather than pointing out how their other parent is doing things the wrong way, your role is to teach and demonstrate the right way, both through your words as well as your actions. Your children need to see you as an empathic and supportive parent who can calmy resolve conflict, provide unconditional love, validate their feelings, and discipline them in non-abusive ways.
This may seem like an impossible task, especially given all the stress that you are trying to manage in your own life. Please remember that you will not be perfect, that you will make mistakes, and that you will occasionally act in a way toward your children that you regret. Hopefully you will react to these lapses with humility, an apology, and a commitment to do better, none of which they will ever receive from their narcissist parent. Even with your mistakes, you have an opportunity to model skills for your children to emulate.
Utilizing the four BEST ways to protect yourself and your children from an abusive co-parent following a separation or divorce will provide a layer of protection and a roadmap for how to co-parent with a toxic ex-partner. They unfortunately do not have the power to eliminate all the stress associated with dealing with an abusive co-parent. However, utilized on a consistent basis, they will go a long way toward shielding your family from further emotional or physical harm in an abusive co-parenting environment.
Dr. Erica Ellis is a licensed psychologist with over 30 years of experience helping families navigate these divorce-related co-parenting situations. She created Two Healthy Homes to provide parents with the knowledge and tools necessary to be the best co-parents possible for their children, regardless of the challenges that they face. The BEST strategy is an example of the types of valuable, clinically based resources you will find at Two Healthy Homes.