The Challenges of Co-Parenting With Your Ex During Covid-19
New stressors catapult divorced couples back to painful marriage dynamics.
Posted Jun 24, 2020
Until Covid-19, divorced parents, within the confines of custody orders, were generally free to live independent of their exes, making decisions about personal routines without encroachment. With the arrival of new health concerns and child care responsibilities, divorced co-parents suddenly need to communicate more to keep everyone safe and engaged in new routines, and rely more heavily on one another’s collaboration and judgment. This heightened level of contact and negotiation, while necessary, can catapult divorced couples back to the difficult dynamics and emotions they sought to escape in their marriage, such as hurt, anger, disappointment, and distrust.
Heightened Communication Is Critical but Can Feel Intrusive
Divorced parents are confronting an increased level of intrusiveness and criticism from their exes as they are pushed to share and be held accountable for hygienic choices, how they shop, and most meddling, whose company they keep. “We’re passing back and forth a potential infection machine,” said Kathy,* a divorced mom. “I know I’m not his wife, but I need to know where Jon (her ex) is going, who he’s seeing, and who his girlfriend is seeing because it’s now a health issue for our daughter and me.”
At first, Jon, like many divorced parents, resented and ignored Kathy’s new demands for communication. "Kathy always had to be in my business, second-guessing and undermining my decisions,” Jon said. After realizing that they were in novel territory ripe for conflict reminiscent of their marriage, Jon overrode his girlfriend, who deemed Kathy “neurotic” and “crazy” and agreed to have several meetings with Kathy to establish new routines. These meetings proved critical for maintaining stability for both families. While angry and accusatory at first, Jon and Kathy established social distancing protocol, agreed to shift their visitation order to reduce handoffs, and brainstormed home-based activities for their daughter.
Recognizing When Fears and Anger From the Marriage Resurface
Gaining the ability to trust or feel respected by your ex in the middle of a pandemic, particularly after a marriage where trust and respect were shattered, can be painful and complicated. It’s one thing to trust your ex to take your child to school and put them to bed, and quite another to trust that he will effectively serve as school teacher, camp counselor, and, most importantly, virus shield. Jennifer had worked hard to move on from the feelings of distrust she felt in her marriage but with the new stress of the pandemic she suddenly found herself awake nights worrying that her ex-husband, Mike, would not safely execute the social distancing plans they agreed upon. Mike, in turn, felt resentful recalling how he could never live up to Jennifer’s expectations during their marriage, and here he was feeling inadequate again.
During therapy, Jennifer decided that she had to develop some degree of trust in her ex’s choices or she would make herself crazy. She learned to distinguish between the betrayal of an affair and the betrayal of breaking a promise not to socialize during Covid-19. “I tell myself that Mike may have been selfish and hurtful during our marriage, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to jeopardize my health, particularly when it would endanger his and my daughter’s as well.” Mike, in turn, realized that if he saw all of Jennifer’s requests as an echo of her undermining behavior during their marriage, he would miss the legitimacy inherent in much of what she suggested.
Using a “Child’s Best Interest” as a Guide, Not a Pretext for Getting What You Want
Divorcing parents are familiar with the term “Best Interests of the Children,” as it is used as a guidepost for decision-making in custody orders. When tensions escalate, however, divorced parents can use the term as pretext for achieving their desired goal. During the stress of lockdown, Theodore and Alisa, a divorced couple with two sons in New York City, reverted to the constant fighting that was integral to their marriage. After endless arguments, Alisa, contra to their visitation order, impulsively took their sons to live with her parents in North Carolina to escape the virus hotspot. When Theodore argued that Alisa needed to bring their sons back to New York so he could work and spend time with them, Alisa refused, contending that it was not in their “best interest” as the city remained unsafe. Desperate to resume contact, Theodore threatened to get a court order requiring Alisa to bring their sons back home.
During therapy, we noticed how ,when fearful of losing contact with their kids, Alisa and Theodore used this “best interest” phrase as a sword or a shield to manipulate the other. They acknowledged that underneath their icy, polarized positions lay a deep mutual care about their sons and a fear that they were becoming unintended casualties in their crossfire. By appreciating their shared wish to do what was genuinely best for their sons, they were able to deescalate, consider each other’s perspectives, and jointly brainstorm creative strategies for enabling their sons to see both parents while also avoiding unnecessary exposure to risk
Negotiating Risk Tolerance
Sometimes, the best course of action is deference. Ron, a necessary social service director for a vulnerable population in New York City, wanted to continue to see his kids while working during the pandemic. His ex, Cynthia, couldn’t fathom exposing their sons to unnecessary risk, and refused to follow prior visitation arrangements or let Ron have his sons at his home.
At first, Ron debated the scientific basis for his ex-wife’s concerns, particularly given the precautions he was taking at work (wearing a mask and gloves) and at home (removing his clothes and showering before engaging with anyone). He also objected to the kids not having time with him because their kids expressed different parts of their personality, depending on which parent they were with, tending to be more adventurous when with their Dad. Ron realized that the fight they were having was historical. “I’ve always been a risk-taker and Cynthia, most certainly, is not. It’s one of the reasons we used to fight so much when we were married.” He decided that this time, it wasn’t worth the arguing. “In a crisis, you need to go with the person who’s most afraid and cautious. I can live with seeing my sons outdoors while six feet apart,.” When I asked Ron if he felt resentful about the decision, he said, “No, I would have felt awful if something did happen; it overrode my desire that my kids be with me. And I think my willingness to distance created some goodwill between us.”
Renewed Friendship Through Mutual Support and Shared Vulnerability
Ron was correct. His pacifying gesture, together with the vulnerability and desire for connection each experienced under the Covid-19, fostered a renewal of the friendship that had bonded them years ago. Ron did contract Covid-19, and Cynthia checked on him regularly and brought him medicine. Soon after, Ron comforted Cynthia when her mom fell ill and she anxiously awaited her recovery.
Without question, the issues that divorced couples have faced in their marriage or divorce are resurfacing under the stress of Covid-19. Whether and how they choose to understand and manage these issues greatly impacts the tension levels in each household, and their and their children’s mental health. It is critical to develop mutually acceptable routines, identify and address the fear and pain from both the present and past that drives conflict, and constantly consider the children’s best interest in decision-making. Like Ron and Cynthia, some couples will find themselves growing closer as a result of supporting one another.
* The individuals depicted in this post have been disguised to protect their privacy.