What Does Unhealthy Co-Parenting Look Like?

parents arguing in front of a child
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.

Your co-parenting relationship with your former partner will be one of the most complicated relationships you will ever experience. It will inevitably be fraught with challenges and stressors that are difficult to manage. Many co-parenting relationships become even more dysfunctional, to the point of being unhealthy. It is important to understand what these unhealthy relationships look like so that you can do everything within your power to prevent that from happening to yours. 

Unhealthy co-parenting during the divorce proceedings

The divorce process requires that many decisions be made pertaining to the child’s life beyond the actual separation. Once one partner has filed for legal separation or divorce, these decisions can either be made in family court or can be agreed upon through non-litigated processes such as mediation or collaborative divorce. Whichever process separated parents choose, they will need to decide on things such as child custody, child support, parenting time, and a specific parenting plan. In addition, they will need to determine what is joint vs separate property and make decisions regarding how to split those assets fairly.

Unhealthy co-parenting at this time is marked by decisions being made based upon emotions rather than what is in the best interest of the children. There are many ways that this can play out, but the main contributor to dysfunction is that parents are more motivated by the desire to hurt their former partner than they are by their desire to make decisions that will make life better for their children. This results in the children’s needs being ignored and decisions being made that will potentially result in long term negative consequences to their emotional well-being. It will also result in an escalation of conflict between the parents, further limiting their ability to work together on behalf of their children. 

Unhealthy co-parenting following separation

There are many things that parents can do to interfere with effective co-parenting. These bad co-parenting behaviors include:

  • not giving children permission to love and have a relationship with both parents
  • putting children in the middle of parental conflicts and asking them to take sides
  • exposing children to adult conflict
  • utilizing children as pawns in their conflict
  • asking children to keep secrets from their other parent
  • bad mouthing the other parent
  • not committing to and utilizing effective communication with your co-parent
  • not respecting boundaries and privacy in children’s relationship with their other parent
  • making transitions between homes more difficult than they already are
  • not consistently sticking to established schedules and plans
  • not working to make things as consistent as possible between the children’s two homes
  • exposing children to their new romantic relationships before they are stable and committed

All these parental behaviors will result in an unhealthy relationship that will take a toll both on the parents as well as on their innocent children. Divorcing parents owe it to their children to rise above their painful emotions and to work together to create a healthy co-parenting relationship that will set them up for a lifetime of happiness and thriving rather than one full of pain and turmoil. 

How to do it better: Establishing a business relationship

You do not need to be best friends with your former partner to be good co-parents for your children. A more realistic and useful goal is to strive to view your relationship as a business partnership where the joint venture is raising your children. 

It is essential to commit to the three components of this relationship that I refer to as the KFCs. They are:

  1. Keep your emotions in check so things don’t escalate
  2. Focus on your shared goal, which is successfully raising your children, so you don’t get distracted by your conflicts with each other
  3. Communicate professionally and refrain from inappropriate language or behavior so you can successfully negotiate all the necessary child-rearing decisions

The process of co-parenting can be done well, and it can be done poorly in an unhealthy way. Your future and your children’s future depend on which path you and your former partner choose to take. Following these suggestions will go a long way toward avoiding becoming unhealthy co-parents and will be an invaluable gift to your children for years to come.

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