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7 Ways to Co-Parent Peacefully After a High-Conflict Divorce

Reducing old marital hostilities to support new parenting responsibilities

Jenn Richardson/
Source: Jenn Richardson/

If you rolled your eyes upon seeing the title, you’re not alone. Pairing two volatile topics like co-parenting and high-conflict divorce with peaceful behavior is atypical, at best, but with intentional focus, it can be done.

And since the emotional well-being of one or more vulnerable humans is at stake, it can’t hurt to try, right?

Caveat: High-conflict is a term used to describe a contentious couple. The assumption that both parents are equally responsible for maintaining conflict is not always accurate. Recent email case-in-point: “I married a narcissist who sustains conflict by making unilateral decisions, and violating the court order. These are my choices—cede to the unreasonable demands, or respond!”

And this person is right—talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Regardless of how high on the high-conflict spectrum your divorce was, or how manipulative, contrary, or narcissistic your ex may be, one undeniable truth exists: You have two options every day—practice peace or practice stress.

I’m guessing you’ve had more than your share of the latter, so let’s focus on what you can do differently right now. At the end of the stressed-out, single-parent day, your reaction is your responsibility. And you have more control than you think.

The following steps can help you experience peace of mind and consistent parenting skills going forward:

1. Practice mindfulness. Rewiring an overactive central nervous system following the circus-like atmosphere of family court is imperative. While reacting to past arguments and anticipating worst-case scenarios may be a habitual communication pattern, being able to think in the present will hasten your recovery.

Mindfulness helps improve your ability to be self-aware so you can control what you pay attention to. When your mind is focused on the here-and-now, you can better manage your emotions and actions.

When you react in the heat of the moment, your emotions are not in balance with logic. Instead, the focus is on satisfying immediate emotional urges, while disregarding consequences.

How to heal: Recognize when you are operating from your emotional mind. Click here to learn about the power of mindfulness.

2. Don't judge. Judging is easy, and society supports it wholeheartedly, especially regarding contentious couples. But no matter how abominable your ex’s behavior has been up to this point, you cannot force him or her to change. While it makes sense that you want your co-parent to do something differently, when you judge you are, in effect, saying “this is wrong and it needs to stop.” If I were to ask your ex if they think their behavior is wrong, what do you think they would say?

For better or worse, the ultimate house of judgement is the family court system. If allegations of child abuse, domestic violence, or substance abuse were not substantiated, you may as well move on. You don’t have to forgive your ex’s bad behavior or sacrifice self-respect, but understand that most people tune out when the he said, she said fur flies. Drama is draining.

How to heal: Describe your situation. Description can disarm the judgement cycle when you give your account of what happened, how it made you feel, and how you reacted: “The school nurse called to tell me my daughter’s asthma medication was running low. I felt frustrated that my ex did not take care of this on his time, but I renewed the prescription, anyway.”

3. Deal with anger. File this one under: Tall Order. At its core, the definition of high-conflict behavior is highly aroused, negative emotion, also known as, dysregulated emotion. Emotional arousal interferes with the ability to think clearly and to act appropriately. Anger is not the problem, however, as anger is a normal and healthy emotion that motives us to stand up for ourselves, and avoid dangerous situations. But chronic anger leads to negative emotional arousal, which leads to judgments, which causes overblown emotional expressions and actions, which then increases conflict.

How to heal: Start with noticing your own experiences. Choose an easy experience that doesn't involve your ex. For example, focus on deep-breathing, and notice the air entering through your nose, what happens in your diaphragm, how your lungs expand and contract, and how the air feels as you exhale. Just notice the sensation, describe it, and experience it. With time, focus on unpleasant situations and emotions, and then gradually introduce an angry event that happened with your ex. Notice how your arousal decreases when you describe the situation. Just the facts, ma’am.

4. Expect impulsivity. During a verbal assault with your ex, your reaction may feel overwhelming, hopeless and unpredictable. In reality, the two of you have had that argument a lot. Couples develop predictable communication patterns. You both know one another’s triggers, and you use them to retaliate. Your ex’s inflammatory language and deeds do not cause your reaction, but the toxic cycle is now automatic.

How to heal: Identify your ex’s typical trigger statements and anticipate that s/he will use them again. Now think of a healthy alternative statement to use for the next time. Envision yourself responding in a calm, measured and self-respectful manner. Make a list of self-soothing strategies that you can use to deescalate. Remember, calm is an inside job. This popular article offers 22 quick ways to help you find your zen place.

5. Commit to efficiency. If the family court process does not embody all that is egregious, cost-prohibitive, prolonged, and toxic, I can’t think of a more inefficient system.

“Family court is an adversarial process which pits parents against each other, encourages polarized thinking about each others deficiencies and discourages parental communication, cooperation, and more mature thinking about children’s needs at a critical time of change and upheaval.” (Joan B. Kelly, 2002)

As I often say to contentious co-parents, “Returning to court is always an option. Or you could learn to communicate and make decisions about your lives, and the lives of your kids.”

How to heal: Commit to practicing alternative reactions so when emotions run high, you have rehearsed what you will do differently. Think short sentences, firm boundaries, and a monotone manner of speaking. When you’re calm your rational mind is in charge. Best of all, you’re no longer repeating the same reactions to the same arguments, while expecting a different result. Commitment and practice are king and queen here.

6. Weather the storm. Not seeing your kids as much as you’d like, commuting for custodial exchanges, and having your life dictated by a court order is bad enough. Thinking of your future as one never-ending battle after another is worse. The good news is it takes one co-parent to change their behavior, thereby changing the course of conflict.

How to heal: Visualize the negative consequences of ongoing contentious communication, or visualize the positive aspects of weathering the storm. A negative consequence would be looking at the $75,000 you’ve spent on attorney fees thus far. A positive consequence could be avoiding additional court costs so you can save for your kid’s college tuition, or a family vacation. One more tip: Ask yourself this question before saying anything to your co-parent: “Is what I’m doing helping our situation or making it worse?”

7. Work your personal-care plan. The feeding frenzy of endless court proceedings, bickering attorneys, police reports, and allegations of child abuse, etc., takes a toll on your physical and psychological health. Nourish your mind, body and spirit with practices that promote healing. You deserve it. Along those lines, focus on what you’re doing right. No matter how bad it is, you're always doing something well.


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  • Copyright 2017, Linda Esposito, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author.
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