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Co-Parenting for Dummies… and Smarties, too! A Guide to Co-Parent Communications

carrying child sm.jpgCo-Parenting for Dummies… and Smarties, too!      

by Betsy Ross, LICSW, CGP

While it isn’t rocket science, it can be surprisingly difficult to communicate with the person you used to be married to. Old habits die hard and if you and s/he had a hard time listening to, not criticizing, or understanding each other before, chances are good that after divorce communications will also be a challenge. Add to this the residual feelings you might have about your marriage and what went wrong, coupled with the intensity of dealing with child related issues through and after divorce, managing all of the scheduling back and forth….well, you get the point----it just isn’t easy!!

As a family and divorce mediator and collaborative divorce coach (and psychotherapist, too), I have been ‘in the trenches’ with hundreds of families, trying to sort this all out and help them with the transition from married spouses to co-parenting ‘business partners’ (in the enterprise of raising healthy children). Along the way, I have observed that communications-wise, there are some basic principles that seem to work well (and others that absolutely don’t) in building a productive and helpful co-parenting relationship. Here are five ‘Don’ts’ and five ‘Do’s’ to consider when it comes to co-parent communications:

Co-parenting “Don’ts”

1). Resist the urge to CRITICIZE. There may have been a significant amount of that in your marriage (either said out loud or just thought about privately) and framing issues in a critical tone will not serve either of you now. “Stop being so selfish” or “You never dress them right”, just won’t fly if you are trying to negotiate with or strengthen your co-parenting relationship. Keep the negative reactions to yourself.

2). Avoid COMMENTARY, please. We can all get stuck in telling an ex why we think they did what they did, but this is only destructive. “You are always late and it is so rude!” Or “You never do a good job of helping them with their homework” or, “Why are you such a bad parent” are tempting little nuggets to toss at your ex, but these come with a guarantee--- to make things worse! 

Think about how YOU would feel hearing these types of comments---would it make you want to cooperate and work together? Nope! If it won’t help to advance your co-parenting relationship, don’t say it.

3). Do not CATASTROPHIZE. Yes, it can be extremely annoying when your ex is late for pick up, sends the kids home without their favorite sweater, with yesterday’s lunch in their lunchbox, or worse. BUT, as irritating as this all is, it is not the end of the world, right? So, do not respond to these as if they are. Better to stay calm and focused and, when the moment is right, address these and any other issues in a mature conversation or clear email.

4). No jumping to CONCLUSIONS. By now you are probably highly skilled at coming up with negative reasons to explain your ex’s behavior, “You don’t give a hoot about the kids, just yourself, or else you would have kept your word” or “You are always taking the easy road, Deana, while trying to look like a good mom”. If you can hold off on creating a negative story about everything your ex does wrong and instead get curious as to what or why things happened this way, this time, you just might get somewhere. Think: “Tom, what happened today?” Instead of “For crying out loud, you didn’t bathe them after soccer practice…again?” Guess which approach might just get you an honest and open response?

5). The time for true CONFESSIONS has passed. Do not spend time romantically reminiscing with your ex, share with them your true and undying love despite all that has happened, or talk with them about other emotional aspects of your past relationship. The time for ‘deep and real’ discussions is officially over and although that ship has sailed, the present and future are about focusing on working together to raise healthy and happy children. If you are feeling nostalgic or melancholy for some of your best married moments or the more pleasant aspects of your ex, be sure to tell them to your best friend, your therapist, or your cat. Just leave your co-parenting partner out of it!

Co-parenting “Do’s”

1). Stick to the FACTS. The best communications are brief, factual, and focused. No meandering prose, please, just get to the point. “I need to change Wednesday’s pick up time to 5 instead of 6”.

2). Try your best to include the ‘WHY’ in your initial communication, not just the ‘WHAT’ and ‘WHERE’, as in,”….so that Emma can go to her volleyball clinic first”. When you leave out the ‘why’, you are actually creating the need for further, longer interaction---why do that??? Just add it in at the top and be done with it!

3). Be COURTEOUS and BUSINESS-LIKE. A great way to resist and avoid stepping into the old patterns of (dysfunctional?) interaction you and your ex engaged in, is to radically change your approach. Act like business partners (after all, you are both involved in the same great work project--- raising healthy and happy children) and communicate/respond as such, to maintain a more productive framework for interacting. Be patient, respectful, be fair and ask questions for clarification purposes….Try it and you just might be surprised by how effective it can be. (Note: even if your ex does not respond back in a business-like fashion, maintain your efforts and, in time, when they see that the old ways no longer work, they most likely will!)

4). SAY WHAT YOU MEAN and MEAN WHAT YOU SAY. Try your best to be forthright and honest, but in a productive manner. If your ex is continually slow to respond or late for pickups, and tosses a quick “Sorry” your way, don’t just say, “Oh, that’s ok”, if it isn’t. While tempting to say whatever we have to in order to avoid conflict or any further interaction, in truth, doing so never helps, it just reinforces and perpetuates the bad behavior. Speak up, but do so respectfully and mindfully. “I appreciate your apology and hope you understand that lateness really complicates getting the kids where they need to be on time.”

5). CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES wisely. Not only should you think before speaking and addressing difficulties, but you should work to make good choices about when, where, and how to do so. Not every infraction deserves a conversation, but the most important ones certainly do. Talking about issues at pick up or drop off is never a good idea, since little ears and eyes will most certainly be taking this all in. 

Ask to reserve a moment or two for a check in on how things are going. Pick a time and a place that will be comfortable and conducive to listening, talking and problem solving rather than just using any old spot to list out problems and issues. And, when checking in, remember to start with what is working well and what you are pleased about (just like you would do to be effective with an employee, customer, or a friend!). 

Like any good relationship, a healthy co-parenting partnership doesn’t just happen. It takes time, some effort, and a willingness to stretch a bit and to do things differently. Follow the above guidelines and you will be off to a very good start! More helpful hints to follow!

Wishing you great success in all of your relationships,

Betsy Ross


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