Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Co-Parenting Without Chaos: 3 Boundaries to Have and to Hold

How to protect your sanity when your ex unexpectedly acts up.

Amy Shamblen/unsplash
Source: Amy Shamblen/unsplash

You don’t think of your ex as a full-blown narcissist, yet you still experience stress and strife on your co-parenting journey. And your child is growing up and starting to date. Or, maybe you’re worried about the relationship template she’s been exposed to since your split.

Your ultimate goal is to raise your kid to be well-adjusted, emotionally healthy, and as unscathed by divorce as possible.

And while you may breathe a sigh of relief now that family court is a distant memory, it’s not exactly time to sit back and relax. You still recall the interrogation-style lighting of the courtroom, and your stomach tied in knots while walking the corridor to meet with your attorney. But rather than retreat into yourself, it’s time to reassess your co-parenting plan. Let’s say your ex has taken to bombarding your in-box of late, made possible by your tendency to keep the peace. What’s needed is striking that balance between not letting your guard down and recognizing that you have more agency than you think.

Why Post-Family Court Is Prime Time to Practice Healthy Boundaries

One benefit of the tumult and trauma of family court is that rational adults are motivated to avoid continued government intervention. As a psychotherapist, I routinely assess prospective co-parents for their willingness to compromise before I agree to see them as clients.

How to Maintain a Healthy Distance

1. Ask, "Why now?" when your ex suddenly acts up and accuses you of non-emergency offenses. Sometimes a new romantic partner will wield influence regarding child support or visitation. Getting curious rather than reactive primes you to regard those behaviors as a temporary annoyance and not a permanent problem.

For example, if s/he accuses you of excessive drinking around the kids, remember: alcohol consumption is legal; how would they know if you had a shot or half a bottle of Jose Cuervo anyway?; and how likely is it that s/he files a motion in court for your consuming liquor in your own home, or coloring your child's hair blue, or not supervising their homework?

2. Have faith that your kid is smart, capable, and paying attention. An emotionally mature parent provides reassurance that adults will handle adult situations. They also convey the message that kids are not UPS, Citibank, or detectives. A change in one co-parent’s behaviors can set off alarm bells. Parents often react with guilt and fear that exposure to contrary behavior will rub off on or scar their child. But kids are remarkably resilient; studies show that they can thrive emotionally with the presence of one stable, loving adult. Many adult clients of divorce express gratitude and relief when recounting the actions of their non-addled parent.

3. Keep a tight schedule for communication. Follow the court order, but unless specified, choose a day (or days) of the week, and a time frame for answering correspondence. I cannot emphasize this enough, as difficult co-parents have no compunction about crafting lengthy, irrelevant, emotionally-laden emails. Maybe things were okay in the past, but having firm limits around communication expectations is never a bad idea. For example, “From this point on, barring emergencies, I will read and respond to your communication on Wednesdays from 8-8:30 pm.”

Along those lines, eliminate flowery and excessive language. I get that anything you put in writing could end up before the court, but salutations, reminders that you’re working together to co-parent, or complying with unnecessary requests for documentation consume precious emotional energy. When in doubt, think brief, boundaried, businesslike, and bulleted.

Take Care of You

The range of relationship issues and co-parenting conundrums post-divorce varies greatly. Just because you didn’t spend $250,000 and four years in court like your college roommate doesn't mean your central nervous system is safe and sound. Keep working your calm plan, relaxation routine, and mindfulness-based practices every day. Focus on what’s going well in your life, and have an identity outside of co-parent.

For more information on co-parenting without chaos, click here.

Copyright 2019 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.

More from Linda Esposito LCSW
More from Psychology Today