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Divorce and Co-Parenting in a World of "He Says, She Says"

What gets in the way for parents after divorce? Ego? Fear? All of the above.

One of the things our kids often said about my husband and me was that, when it came to being parents, we were always—sometimes to their dismay—on the same page. About curfews, homework, chores, for example, and about bigger issues as well. One couldn't be wrangled to go against the other. They didn't always like it, but it made the intense work of being a parent easier.

Co-parenting is the term Deesha Phillyaw and Mike Thomas use to describe what divorced parents who parent as a team do when it comes to raising their children. Deesha and Mike's commitment to parenting their children, one of whom they adopted, together after growing apart grew into Co-Parenting 101.org. Their website says: "After our marriage ended, we became the poster-children for divorce amongst our circle of friends and colleagues. We wished we could have been the poster children for successful marriage, but it didn't work out that way...

They add: "In the wake of our divorce and despite the problems that ended our marriage, we have managed to establish a successful, congenial co-parenting relationship which allows our children to thrive and which causes those who know us to ask, "How in the world do you do it?"

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How do couples who divorce parent as a team? What prevents them (or married couples, for that matter!) from parenting on the same page? A book is in the works, but in the meantime I asked Mike and Deesha to address these important concenrs.

Meredith: What gets in the way of parents being able to co-parent? Ego? Fear? Other?

MIKE: Probably all of the above. There are so many reasons we see that people have problems making this work, but the primary root cause seems to be hurt. When a relationship breaks down, the pain, sense of loss, possibly betrayal that is felt makes it difficult to work with the person perceived to be responsible for those negative feelings. Imagine starting a business with a hated rival. Often the dynamics of co-parenting are the same: working positively and frequently (if not daily) with someone that you may feel betrayed by, may not like very much, may want nothing to do with or, most importantly, may not trust. Good co-parenting requires levels of communication that are much greater than many people think in order to plan transitions, school and other life events, deliver information or consistently and clearly handle discipline. That is very hard to do when your communication and interactions are shaped by fear, ego, anger or even deep sadness. All of those things take the focus off of the children and place it on the individual alone.

DEESHA: In my observation of co-parenting families, I've found that there are usually two factors at play when co-parents aren't able to cooperate with each other or be civil towards each other (or where one is willing but the other isn't): insecurity and immaturity. One or both of these are typically present when you hear about one parent bad-mouthing the other, or a parent trying to undermine a child's relationship with the other parent or with a stepparent.

Divorce often finds us at our worse: It's stressful. It exacerbates whatever fears or uncertainties we already had about our stability, finances, desirability, and ability to trust. We question ourselves, and sometimes don't like what we see. Divorce takes our soft spots and magnifies them. And precisely when we are at our weakest, we're called upon to--as I like to say--pull up our big girl panties and big boy boxers and keep afloat, reinvent ourselves, heal, start over. To say this is hard is an understatement. So too often, instead of looking inward and doing that healing work, people act out, lash out at the person they see as the cause of their misery. It's much easier to blame than it is to take responsibility for oneself. And if we're miserable, we want that other person to be miserable to (immaturity).

Even if we've been wronged, ultimately, we're responsible for putting the pieces of ourselves back together. Certainly we get by with the help from friends, relatives, and therapists, but a big part of divorce healing is releasing that former partner from being emotionally obligated to us. And yet...because of our kids, we have to still deal with this person. It requires a lot of personal fortitude to swallow down pride, anger, blame, and revenge-seeking--to let that person go, and just see them through the eyes of your child. Some people believe that to be civil towards their ex is to "let them off the hook", and their pain and/or pride won't allow it. The more we're invested in our own pain and martyr, blaming, punishing, and lashing out (immaturity), the harder it is to put our kids' needs first. And what our kids need is for the grown ups to act like grown ups and cooperate in their parenting efforts.

Meredith: I see you have Co-Parenting Commandments. What is your favorite?

DEESHA: First let me clarify that we did not author these.* That said, it's tough to choose just one! But I'll choose: "Treat the other parent with respect" because so many of the other commandments flow from that. Respectful parents want to keep each other informed of their child's well-being and endeavors; they recognize the other parent's right to be involved. Respectful parents will strive to resolve conflict in healthy ways and model that for their kids. They will respect each other enough to deal directly with each other instead of doing passive-aggressive, and ultimately damaging, things like using a child as message or intermediary.

MIKE: "Demonstrate positive conflict resolution." I pick this for two reasons. First, it kills two birds with one stone because while demonstrating, you are also doing. The focus is on the child, as it should be. But by having the child in mind and acting on this commandment, you are improving the co-parenting relationship as well. Second, it is a model for co-parenting generally. I get a mental image of a parent, hands on top of their child's hands, helping them to swing a bat, or stitch some thread. It is nothing for us, as parents, to teach our kids these types of skills and life lessons. Why not apply this to co-parenting as well? What do our children need to see and know about conflict resolution, dealing with loss, handling disappointment, grace and forgiveness in order to be successful adults? We should be demonstrating all of this in how we handle the devastating tragedy of divorce.

Meredith: What is the greatest misconception divorced parents have about co-parenting?

DEESHA: That mom's right to have unhindered physical and emotional access to the kids is subject to dad's emotional whims (or vice versa). That children are pawns. Especially when one parent feels wronged in the wake of the divorce, they often fail to separate their feelings of betrayal, disappointment and anger towards the ex-spouse, from their children's feelings: This is still someone they [the children] love very much and with whom they desire to continue to have a relationship.

MIKE: That co-parenting only works in a select few cases. It is true that there are a few cases when it doesn't work (particularly when there is abuse of any concerned party). However, you don't have to live in the same house with your ex or go on joint vacations in order to be an effective co-parent. For some it may mean, having a birthday party with both parents present. For others it may mean coming to the door when dropping off instead of staying in the car. Trust that every gesture of kindness or cordiality toward your fellow co-parent, every choice to take the high road, every show of respect benefits your child (who likely shares half that persons DNA and still loves them even if you don't!). It will take time and you may never get to your goal, but it will get better and your child is better for it.

Meredith: Who has the most trouble with co-parenting? (Which type of person, that is?)

DEESHA: Someone who puts their hatred for their ex above their love for their kids. They are in service to that hatred, and such behavior is the antithesis of the kind of peaceful and civil conduct that loving parents struggle mightily to achieve after a break up. None of this is easy, but kids are certainly worth the effort. The person who has trouble co-parenting mistakenly believes that their antagonistic behavior is appropriate; some even believe that they are protecting their children by behaving this way, because the other parent, in their eyes, is so awful. (continues next page)

MIKE: People that see the world in very black and white terms. When you co-parent, you place the needs of your child(-ren) ahead of your need to be right, good, the winner, etc.

You need to be able to see that this person, with whom you may have legitimate grievances, may still be a positive in the lives of your children. That is difficult to do when you see someone as 100% good or bad, right or wrong. Co-parenting is holding in tension the good and bad, the positive and negative in order to separate your relationship with your co-parent from your kids relationship with your co-parent.

*Co-Parenting Commandments were created by Lynn Nelson, Public Education Director, Institute on Race and Poverty, University of Minnesota; Minnesota Parent, May 1995.

Deesha and Mike's live, weekly, show on BlogTalkRadio, "Co-Parenting Matters" returns from hiatus this month.

Meredith Resnick, L.C.S.W., is a health writer and licensed social worker. She is also the mother of two adopted daughters.

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