I don’t think any couple going through a Collaborative Divorce ever imagined they would have to develop co-parenting guidelines for a Pandemic, and yet here you both are trying to make the most of this unusual parenting challenge.
You may be in the beginning of a Collaborative Divorce, or just about to complete the process, but there is no doubt that this complicates an already difficult and stressful situation, particularly if you are still living together in the same house.
However, it also offers an important opportunity for you and your spouse to model for your children what it looks like when people really collaborate together, and what the definition of a family really is, particularly in a time of crisis. Because this is a historically unprecedented and emotionally charged event, it is likely that most of your children will remember how your family weathered this storm together. This is an opportunity to offer a positive life lesson that stays with your children for years to come. Here are a few suggestions on how couples can handle forced togetherness and dependency during the quarantine. Even if you are living in different houses and just needing to coordinate together for childrearing and work, these tips can help you and your spouse get through this complicated parenting situation in a collaborative fashion.
- Make a conscious plan for how you will interact with each other (and co-parent your children) during this interim period of self-quarantine.
Fighting and forced togetherness can become a dangerous combo. Better to work on finding better ways to talk together. During this time keep your focus on what your partner does that you appreciate. Express your appreciation and at the same time, do zero criticism: make requests or proposals, not complaints or demands. Avoid trying to control your partner and tell them what to do. The combination of focusing on the good, while refraining from critical/controlling statements, will hopefully keep the peace during this time.
Avoid having any kind of on-going discussions and confrontations about contentious issues around your children. It can be hard to find a private time to talk but be cognizant of what your children may be hearing, and what your behavior is modeling for them. Even if it is challenging, wait until you are alone to discuss adult related topics. It is important children don’t feel the burden of worrying about their parents’ issues. They need their parents to help them feel safe and secure during this time of instability and uncertainty.
- Set up a cooperative schedule.
If you have kids then you are probably dealing with the stress of home-schooling in addition to working, cooking, cleaning, as well as balancing an assortment of other issues. In normal circumstances when a couple lives together during a divorce, (which is not uncommon due to finances) I advise them to work out a schedule for time-sharing with the kids that can possibly be transitioned into an access schedule when the separation eventually happens. Generally, this can involve dividing up weekend time and giving each other some space during the week to work. Start this discussion with your spouse now and come up with a schedule – even if it means dividing up space in the house – it may help alleviate some of the stress of quarantine. It may also result in both of you sharing the heavy load of home-school and childcare that is happening across the country right now. But remember NO parent can be effective if they do not have an opportunity for self-care. Be sure to plan for both of you to have some down time.
- Practice effective co-parenting NOW.
When you are finally able to complete the collaborative process, you will still have to navigate co-parenting together, so this is a good opportunity to practice! Stop focusing on you vs. me and start focusing on us vs. COVID-19.
If you are having trouble deciding how to handle a parenting situation with your spouse, rather than focusing on how you feel about your spouse, ask the question,” Am I responding in such a way that is in the best interest of my child?”
However, I do not recommend trying to negotiate your collaborative parenting plan for your future agreement during this time. Navigating issues around custody, visitation and vacation schedules is not optimal right now as it’s hard to take a break when things feel contentious. Instead work together to take care of yourselves, the kids, your work responsibilities, and the house.
- Manage your own anxiety and stress.
If you are feeling anxious or depressed get support so you don’t escalate fear or sadness for your children. Due to the divorce you and your partner may not be in a place where you can share your concerns and fears with each other, so you will consciously need to get support from other resources. Reach out to family and friends by phone, Zoom, texts, or other means to prevent yourself from feeling isolated. Utilize some telehealth services by mental health professionals if you are feeling overwhelmed.
- Create some daily structure.
It is important for kids to have a routine, and they like being able to anticipate what is happening next. Post your daily schedule and use colors and pictures for little ones. Be mindful of work demands for yourself and your partner as you plan the weekdays and consider having a different family structure for the weekends. But be prepared to PIVOT. You may need to revisit the plan as the situation changes each week so Be Flexible!
- Dedicate private space.
If possible, try to make it so that everyone has a special place in your home that is just his/hers. It can be a fort in the corner of the living room, or even an outdoor space, but privacy is important. All family will experience some conflicts during this time, and it helps to have place to go and unwind if tension gets high. If you have small children, you may even want to have a dedicated time in the afternoon when everyone has some down time.
- Have family meetings.
A weekly forum (or more frequent if necessary) to check in with each other will help manage the stress of all this together time. Find out if someone needs the schedule adjusted, or if new strategies need to be implemented to avoid future conflict.
- Get Extra Support if Necessary, for unresolved issues with your spouse.
If You and your spouse feel stuck and unable to find a solution get some support through a professional consultation. Check in with your Collaborative team MHP, or other therapists, for online support around on-going unresolved issues.
Model for your children what a collaborative process really is, and that even when families have problems, they can still offer support and understanding to each other.