Take a look at this list. Does any of it sound familiar?
- Your co-parent is still controlling, harassing, or using manipulation with you
- Your co-parent is extra uncooperative, accusatory, confrontational, or trashing you
- A new partner is interrupting the communication between you and your co-parent or the rules suddenly have changed now that there’s a new partner in their lives
- Your kids are starting to come back from the other parent’s home unruly, grouchy, disrespectful, withdrawn, or just different, (like…that’s not my kid)
Stuck in The Co-Parenting Trap
I call this being “caught in the ‘Co-Parenting Trap’”. It’s a spinning cycle that is energy draining. There are continual accusations, combative debates, and unreasonable demands that go nowhere. And the worst thing is the kids are not being supported like they desperately need!
Good News, YOU HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE THIS. Yes, YOU. No one else needs to do anything! Here’s how:
Assess Objectively & Honestly your Couple Dynamic (when you were happily together).
Whether we are aware of this or not, there is a couple of dynamic dances that are created when we choose to make a life together. It happens slowly over time. Many times we are not able to actually see this dynamic clearly and objectively because it has become a part of us. When we have children together this dynamic is naturally reinforced and we build parenting beliefs together.
When we separate as a couple with children, many times we never break how we relate to each other or think about each other and we stay stuck in the ‘intimate partner relationship’ communication dance. The ‘other parent’ knows how to push our buttons and we know how to push theirs. What can feel worse, when our ex-partner does something that we know is not ‘their parenting belief’. We can’t understand ‘why’ and then we come up with scenarios for the reasons why they are acting this way.
To get out of this co-parenting trap, step 1 is to take a hard look at what your past ‘happy couple’ dynamic was. Here’s a quick exercise to help you do this:
Get a journal or piece of paper and ask yourself some of these questions:
- How were decisions made?
- Was one person more assertive in the decision making?
- Were you able to resolve your differences through compromise or was it all one-sided?
Write it all down on a piece of paper. Sometimes it is helpful to assess this dynamic as if you were your ex and ask yourself how would they describe your happy couple dynamic. Another trick would be to have someone that knew you as a couple give you objective information and describe to you how they observed your relationship.
Identify all the issues that are coming up NOW in your co-parenting communication
Look objectively at what’s going on currently. You may be feeling that no matter what you do to communicate your ‘ex’ is always arguing with you or picking a fight. Or you may be feeling that there is nothing you can do without your ‘ex’ looking over your shoulder. I know many co-parents struggle when it’s time to exchange the kids (one parent is late, the place is mixed up, always requesting to change the time or place with no notice) making you feel as though you have no control over your life.
These types of problems or issues start repeating themself and then the co-parenting dynamic becomes a mixture of our past intimate partner dynamic expectations and are new co-parenting communication and experiences.
Step 2 in getting out of the co-parenting trap is to look objectively at what’s going on now. Here’s a quick exercise to help you do this:
In your journal or a new piece of paper and ask yourself some of these questions:
- What are all the little things that have happened that have annoyed you or caused stress in your life? (just write short descriptions of this)
- Categorize the above into themes or issue categories?
Here’s an example: you receive an email that has very little information about the kids and really is only accusing you of things you’re not doing. You choose to respond to the email defending yourself against the attack, and then you get a response….and the disrupting email chain continues. This type of communication could be categorized into a bucket called: ‘Ex’ seeking to engage me
- Do any of the issues & categories that you listed have to do with how you are expecting your ‘ex’ to act based on your intimate partner relationship – If so, circle those.
- Do any of the issues & categories that you listed have to do with your expectations for your ‘Ex’ and how they should parent your kids – If so, put a rectangle around these.
- Do any of the issues & categories that you listed have to do with you starting a communication that really has nothing to do with the kids – If so, highlight these items.
Past and Present Dynamic – Side By Side
Now that you’ve taken the time to objectively ask yourself the above questions, I think you will start to notice that many of the issues that are coming up now in your co-parenting relationship have a lot to do with the intimate partner communication dance that you created many years ago. Guess what, to get out of the co-parenting trap you have to shift how you think about your ‘ex’. You’re not in the intimate partner communication dance anymore – you are Business Partners and the common interest in the business is: THE KIDS!
In this “business partnership”, you and the other parent are not the focus, the kids are! All communication should stay focused on a specific kid-related topic, and neither parent’s emotions are relevant. Sure, you may disagree about what activities your kids should be in and how often, however, in a business partnership, these are easy things to compromise on.
And for those of you that have an ‘ex’ that does not compromise, then it is time to figure out how to stop trying to compromise. Instead, look to do things that are within your control and let them do things that are within their control.
Step 3 in getting out of the co-parenting trap is to identify all the areas in the past and present that are based on the intimidate communication dance. Here’s a quick exercise to help you do this:
In your journal or a new piece of paper create a grid with 3 columns, labeled Past, Present, Issue
- Put the categories from the past & line them up with the items from the present that match
- Identify the issue for each of those items
What Do You Really Want For Your Kids?
For many, whether you can express this or not, when we divorce there is a sense of being a single parent and needing to be 100% responsible for the wellness of our children. This can be very very daunting. It’s like… “oh boy, what if I screw up? Will my kids be ruined forever? Or…. “how do I make sure my kids have everything they need now”.
This emotion can keep us from looking at the bigger picture, what do we want for our kids, what is in our control, and how we can support them to get there. Instead, we focus on what our ‘ex’ is doing or not doing with the kids through the lens of ‘now I have to do even more to raise my kids’ (example: because my ‘ex’ is teaching them values I do not agree with it is on my shoulders to teach them the correct values). NOW is the time to shift this thought process if you want to get out of this trap.
Step 4 in Getting out of the Co-Parenting Trap: Understand that you are just one guide in your child’s life and the biggest gift you can give them is to help them learn to be the best they can be. All of us have a life path and many people will influence this path throughout our lifetime. Think of yourself, are you who you are because OR in spite of your parents? It’s time to start thinking about how you want to guide your children. Here’s a quick exercise to help you do this:
In your journal or a new piece of paper write down all the thoughts that come to your head when you are answering these questions:
- What values are important to you?
- What is the relationship you want to have with your kids when they are adults?
- If you had your choice, What does your kids Adult Life Look Like to YOU?
- What relationship do you want with your kids now? Write it all down…the big and the little things
- What things can you do on a day-to-day basis to reinforce your ideas identified in the above questions?
Here’s an example, let’s say you want your kids to be proactive assertive adults. How might you help guide them now as kids? Maybe you might start teaching them how to be self-regulated and responsible by figuring out ways so that they take accountability for doing their homework and/or cleaning their room without having to get on them about these things.
What might be the small things you can do now, 1 year from now, 3 years from now to help them learn these skills?
Are You Getting In Your Own Way?
Whether we like it or not, we do get in our own way of helping our kids. Even in the most loving intact families parents are not able to be the best parent they can be each and every moment of the day. No one is perfect. It’s time to give yourself a break and not expect to be perfect. Our kids don’t want perfect, they want love. Also, it’s very hard to teach our kids that it’s okay to make mistakes and learn from mistakes if we are not role models ourselves!
Now that you have a clearer picture of what you really want your kid’s future life to be, it’s time to ask yourself, what are the things you are doing right now that are actually ‘getting in the way’ of attaining or role modeling those values?
Step 5 in Getting out of the Co-Parenting Trap is asking ourselves this question as it relates to how we are interacting and role modeling directly with our kids and then reflecting upon how we are interacting with our ‘ex’ and the things we may be doing when communicating with our ‘ex’ that are getting in our way!
Once you’ve become aware of our actions, it’s time to work on changing our ways. This may take practice so don’t give yourself a hard time. Find 1 thing and focus on that until you’ve mastered it and then move on to the next.
Here’s a quick exercise to help you assess this.
In your journal write down all the thoughts that come to your head when you are answering these questions:
- What are you doing that is getting in your own way with your kids?
- What are you doing to ‘stir the pot’ with the other parent so that the other parent starts doing something (some may call this self-sabotage)?
- What are you doing that has nothing to do with your kids, but “pushes the buttons” of the other parent?
- What’s the 1 thing that you start doing now?
Time to Let Go!
In order to have the peace you want you will have to let go of some things. It’s time to accept that you have no control over what happens when your children are with the other parent. Say it with me, “No control.”
- Is homework not getting done? Not your responsibility.
- Not keeping the same sleeping and eating schedule? Not your responsibility
- _____________? Not your responsibility
Even in an intact marriage, there are many things that your ‘ex’ was more passionate about than you (and maybe you were not aware of these things). Now that you have uncoupled and are in a business partnership relationship, you can use this framework to think about it. If you and your ‘ex’ were running a business together and you each were responsible for providing your own expenses and receipts to the bookkeeper, would you want your ‘ex’ to be asking to see all of your expenses and receipts before sending to the bookkeeper? No, you would not.
It’s the same way when you are parenting your kids. Your ‘ex’s’ way is not going to be your way, but for most of us, our kids will get their needs met. If you start looking at the issues and items you identified when you were journaling what was going on in your current ‘co-parenting’ dynamic, I am sure you will start to see the things that you wish would be different but are not in your control – it’s time to let go of these things.
Next, I’m sure you will also see things that are just ‘bugging you’ about your ‘ex’ or the way they are currently doing things. Maybe it’s the new partner that bugs you, maybe it’s the unfilled promises, maybe it’s the never picking the kids up on the agreed upon time, I’m sure there is a long list.
Step 6 in Getting out of the Co-Parenting Trap is being willing to let go of the things we can not control that our ‘ex’ is doing with our kids AND letting go of the things our ‘ex’ has in their life that are really bugging us so that we are able to have the peace and future life we want with our kids.
Here’s a quick exercise to help you identify these things.
Go back to your journal entry to the list of the issues in your current co-parenting dynamic and ask yourself these questions:
- What are the things that are on that list that are about you looking to have your choice and option be the rule for your ‘ex’s’ time with your kids?
- What are the things that are on that list that are ‘bugging you’ about your ‘ex’
Defining Your Internal Boundaries
Internal Boundaries are for you and ONLY you. Many of us struggle with knowing how to set our internal boundaries because we’re so used to a more give and take type of relationship in our life. It might be easier to understand an internal boundary if you think about it from a workplace perspective. Let’s say that you have a normal 9-5 pm job that you go to. Let’s say you have a boss or colleague at this job that tends to work after hours and or during the weekend and sends email communication to you during those hours.
Most of us would not have a hard time recognizing that we are not going to work outside of our hours and it will be handled when we go back to work. We also can see that it would be totally appropriate to communicate to that person if they asked us why we didn’t respond simply by saying, “The hours that I work are Monday-Friday from 9 am to 5 pm, I don’t look at my email outside of these hours. I will address and respond to all email communication during these working hours.”
Seems pretty reasonable right? Well this is an internal boundary that you have set for yourself, I am not working outside of the hours I am hired to work. So now it’s time to think about internal boundaries as it relates to you, your personal life, and your time with your kids. Start with the big question: What do you need in your life to have the peace and future you thought about above? Do you need a routine? Do you need more fun? What do you need? These are your internal boundaries.
Step 7 in Getting Out of the Co-Parenting Trap is understanding that you are going to let go of the issues controlling your life AND create internal boundaries to support your new life!
Specific example: The exchanges always take way longer than you’d like because the other parent is late or got the time/place confused. This is something that is on your issue list that your ‘ex’s’ behavior really annoys you because you feel disrespected and drive all over the place all of the time.
You are going to choose to let go of the feeling of being disrespected and annoyed and set an internal boundary for yourself around this that may look something like: I am willing to be at the exchange location with my child for 15 minutes and after 15 minutes, my child and I will go do our thing and the other parent will have to come to where we are.
Change How You Communicate
When you are in the co-parenting trap, how you communicate is very important. Here are some key points to think about for all of your communication:
- If the message you are writing or responding to is NOT ONLY about the kids, then don’t send it (or don’t respond).
- If the message you need to share is informative kid specific information, then make sure the message is written in a way that NO Response is required – In other words, don’t end it with a statement or a question (You will just be inviting a response).
- If the message is a decision that needs to be made, then state the problem, provide your options/choices, ask for a response in a certain timeline, and state if no choice is picked or responded the manner in which you will move forward (make sure to only send 1 message with all the information included).
(I highly recommend Bill Eddy’s book called BIFF, It’s a great reference book for improving Co-parenting Communication. BIFF stands for: Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm, and when you start using this framework in all of your communication you will start to see a difference.)
Knowing your internal boundaries first prior to communicating with your co-parent will help you navigate the communication without starting a war and is Step 8 for Getting Out of the Co-Parenting Trap. Using the above internal boundary example above, here’s how a BIFF email communication might be used:
Hi xxx, I believe that it is important for our children to have quality time with both you and I and that we both are the ‘best parent’ that we can be for our kids when we are spending time with them. I am finding that I am not as relaxed as I should be during our exchanges when the time and or location are changed at the last minute. I do understand that traffic and life get in the way sometimes.
Moving forward, I will be at xxx location and stay for 15 minutes with our kids, after that point, we will leave and will go home (or wherever). You may come and get them at xxxx anytime before 8 pm at night.
If you read this message again, you will see that the message is communicated about your beliefs only and not placing a belief system on the other parent, you will also see that the message is not seeking to control a situation or change the other parent’s behavior it is only setting an internal boundary for how you are choosing to act. You will also notice that the message is not leaving an opportunity for the other parent to respond.
The other parent can either come at the agreed upon location within a 15-minute time period and everything is fine or they can come to the location that you outlined by a reasonable hour to get your kids. If a response is received, there is no need for you to respond to the message as you have already described your intentions and no response is necessary.
These 8 Steps are your secret to getting out of the Co-Parenting Trap. When you begin incorporating these steps into your life you will start to feel the weight lift from your shoulders. Don’t be surprised when you do this, you find that many things change and you will have to go back and repeat these 8 steps again to learn more because just like peeling back an onion, the intimate partnership communication dance has many many layers to work through.
However, if you work through these 8 steps you will be showing up differently, feel the weightlifting, and notice that you are living the future life with your kids that you want. And like magic, you have