This article is from Syd Sharples, an Austin-based mental health professional who specializes in psychotherapy and collaborative facilitation, and past president for the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas.
I just spent the holidays with my daughter and her father. I think I would probably have preferred a month-long defensive driving class to the holidays with my ex when I first divorced him many years ago, , but from where I sit now, it was a warm and highly enjoyable family occasion. Relations with your ex – and by extension, co-parenting with him or her – occur along a continuum. When the pain and anguish of a divorce are fresh or when the recovery from the pain and anguish of a divorce is taking some time, relations with your ex are frequently strained, and co-parenting can be quite challenging.
As the emotional charge of the divorce begins to dissipate, you are likely to begin to ease towards the opposite end of the continuum. Typically, one ex-spouse experiences this shift before the other. The shifter can become impatient with the other ex, while the ex who’s still smarting can find the shifter’s new attitude to be yet another source of frustration, anger, or hurt.
To the shifter, I say, ‘Hang in there. Your ex may be behaving in the same less-than-ideal way, but by making even one small change in your behavior [and this is inevitable if you’re feeling less emotional] you are changing the dynamic; over the long run (and with great good fortune, immediately) this change will be for the better.’
My encouragement to the still-smarting ex is to keep on working with the pain, and look forward to the day that it feels more manageable, and even absent.
Below are ten ideas – call them New Year’s resolutions, if you like – for co-parenting. I’ve ordered them by difficulty, beginning with what I believe to be the easiest and progressing towards more challenging co-parenting ideas. If these sound completely unrealistic to you, give yourself a break and take stock of where you are on that continuum. Instead of tackling any of the below, challenge yourself to keep working with the healing; you’ll feel better, and the kids will win in the long run.
Here are my Ten Co-parenting Resolutions for 2016:
- Pick your battles. Really ask yourself if what you’re about to raise with your ex-spouse is something that will deliver significant benefit to your children. Be honest!
- Stop communicating with your ex in whatever medium has been least productive (text, email, phone, in person).
- Restrict any mention of the other parent to positive or neutral comments in front of the children.
- Greet your ex-spouse with a smile.
- Use “I” statements when you feel the need to talk with your ex about differences in your approaches to parenting. (Note: statements that begin with ‘I feel LIKE’ or ‘I feel THAT’ are not “I” statements, and frequently offer unfavorable commentary on the addressee!) And refer back to Bullet #1.
- Check in with your ex on a regular basis (weekly? monthly? quarterly?) about top-level kid issues. This might include a discussion of patterns of challenging behavior that you’re each experiencing in your home and how you’re handling them, how you’re each supporting the children’s friendships, how things are going with the new blended family, comparing notes on “at Mom’s/Dad’s house” statements that your angel child might be making, or school issues.
- Throw a joint birthday party for your child, or host a family birthday dinner.
- Carpool with your ex when going to distant kid performances, games, etc. Bonus points: carpooling with your ex and the new boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Be open to meeting your ex’s new boyfriend or girlfriend.
- When you’re having difficulties relating with your ex, repeat “This is my children’s other parent.”
If these sound intriguing, I urge you to pick one (or two or ten!) and see what happens. Remember: any change in your behavior creates a change in the dynamic.