Divorce

Coparenting With an Ex: Battleground vs. Common Ground

How to navigate the complexities of coparenting during a divorce or breakup

Posted Dec 19, 2020

Divorce is bad for kids – right? At least, this is the general assumption that comes from a simplified view of the research. But like many topics in the social sciences, the answer is more complex: sometimes. For example, given that children respond poorly to parent-parent conflict [4,5], it's unsurprising that in cases of high-conflict marriage, divorce may actually benefit the child(ren) [3]. So while no major life decision should be taken lightly, it's an oversimplification to say that divorce always hurts the child(ren).

Coparenting cooperatively for the sake of the kids

While breakups and divorces are relatively common and frequently do not come with significantly damaging psychological effects, one potentially difficult-to-manage aspect is the ongoing necessity for a workable coparenting relationship with one's ex-spouse. In a previous post, I discussed how positive coparenting within the context of a committed parent-parent romantic relationship can support children's mental health.

Just as strong coparenting skills are an important part of raising mentally strong kiddos in a traditional romantically committed parent-parent family unit [9], so is cooperation and support even when the romantic relationship dissolves. Undermining one's ex-partner and current coparent may increase a child's likelihood of experiencing internalizing symptoms (think depression, anxiety, etc.), and conflict with one's ex-partner may increase a child's likelihood of externalizing symptoms (think acting out/behavior problems) [7]. If divorced parents can maintain their child(ren)'s wellbeing, they have already taken the first step towards identifying common ground, which will lend itself towards more workable coparenting behaviors moving forward.

It's not just for the kids! Cooperative coparenting helps divorcing parents adjust and adapt.

Parents may be surprised to learn that they could benefit their own wellbeing by improving their coparenting relationship with their ex-spouse. For example, supportive coparenting is correlated with postdivorce well-being and adjustment, although that effect likely goes in both directions [2]. In general, it may be more important to avoid toxic postdivorce coparenting than it is to ensure perfect supportive postdivorce coparenting (although accomplishing both would be ideal) [10]. So, don't get down on yourself if your coparental relationship with your ex-partner isn't perfect – work towards manageable and low-conflict. After all, in terms of overall life satisfaction, negative affect, inconsistent parenting strategies, and overall family functioning, cooperative coparents do significantly better than high-conflict coparents [7].

Two tactics to make an ex-spousal battleground into a coparenting common ground

There's no getting around it: partner-partner and parent-parent dynamics are intrinsically linked. Behavior patterns and attitudes in the romantic relationship that led to the divorce in the first place likely won't (at least immediately) be withheld from the coparenting relationship. In fact, the leakage of problematic romantic dynamics into the coparenting relationship may explain some of the undesirable child wellbeing outcomes typically associated with divorce [8].

For ex-partners who struggle to coparent effectively together, there are two possible solutions. First, they can silo their parenting interactions to a specific context (e.g., an email chain, voicemails, or a weekly phone call) that is explicitly, solely devoted to managing parenting concerns. This solution may be an effective first step for exes who are experiencing a highly conflictual and/or painful split.

Second, parents should work to transition their approach to coparenting from a battleground to common ground by working either apart or together across three domains: Affective (A), meaning emotional; Behavioral (B); and Cognitive (C), or thought-related [6]. Parents must regulate their emotional responses towards their ex in order to minimize the effects of "conflict triggers" – this is especially important in the case of an uncooperative ex-partner. Behavior-wise, parents must make functional modifications in their communication approach to adapt to their new coparenting arrangement (e.g., use a low-conflict, low-emotionality mode of communication like email). Parents must also actively work to shift the focus of their thoughts and strategies towards the wellbeing of their children. Progress in these three areas will help ex-spouses (even those with uncooperative partners) to improve their coparenting relationship, especially when approached under the consultation of a family therapist.  

Summary

Divorce (or dissolution) is painful, but you are resilient and will make it through – your child(ren) will not be broken either. Whatever your feelings towards your ex, you care deeply about your kid(s) and would do anything for them. Research tells us that cooperating and supporting your ex in their parenting is helpful not only for a child’s peace of mind, but also their behaviors, like academic achievement. While conflict in front of your kid is the most harmful type of maladaptive coparenting, even undermining your ex behind their back can be harmful to a child. To avoid this, try your best to separate (silo) the relational conflict from parental decision-making/behaviors. Find common ground (your child’s wellbeing) with your ex and avoid integrating battleground (old relationship wounds) topics into coparenting conversations.

In order to really make the best environment for your child(ren), support your ex in their parenting. This may be hard to do at first, but don’t get down on yourself – research shows it gets easier with time [1]. Work on your communication skills, compromise without ulterior motives, and consult a therapist if necessary.

Resources for parents

Visit Psychology Today's therapist directory to find a mental health professional near you.

References

Ahrons, C. R., & Wallisch, L. S. (1987). The relationship between former spouses. In D. Perlman & S. Duck (Eds.), Intimate relationships: Development, dynamics, and deterioration (pp. 269–296). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Amato, P. R. (2000). The consequences of divorce for adults and children. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 1269–1288.

Booth, A., & Amato, P. R. (2001). Parental predivorce relations and offspring postdivorce well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(1), 197-212. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00197.x

Camara, K. A., & Resnick, G. (1989). Styles of conflict resolution and cooperation between divorced parents: Effects on child behavior and adjustment. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 59, 560–575.

Hetherington, E. M., & Clingempeel, W. G. (1992). Coping with marital transitions: A family systems perspective. Monographs of the Society for Research on Child Development, 57(2/3), 1–242.

Jamison, T. B., Coleman, M., Ganong, L. H., & Feistman, R. E. (2014). Transitioning to postdivorce family life: A grounded theory investigation of resilience in coparenting. Family Relations, 63(3), 411-423. doi:10.1111/fare.12074

Lamela, D., Figueiredo, B., Bastos, A., & Feinberg, M. (2015;2016;). Typologies of post-divorce coparenting and parental well-being, parenting quality and Children’s psychological adjustment. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 47(5), 716-728. doi:10.1007/s10578-015-0604-5

Mahoney, A., Jouriles, E. N., & Scavone, J. (1997). Marital adjustment, marital discord over childrearing, and child behavior problems: Moderating effects of child age. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 26(4), 415.

Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., Mangelsdorf, S. C., Frosch, C. A., & McHale, J. L. (2004). Associations between coparenting and marital behavior from infancy to the preschool years. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(1), 194-207. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.18.1.194

Whiteside, M. F. (1998). The parental alliance following divorce: An overview. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 24, 3–24.