- It is common for divorced or divorcing parents to have at least one parent's hostility interfere with effective co-parenting.
- Tools specifically designed for co-parenting with a hostile parent facilitate increased cooperation.
- Co-parents should be strategic to refocus conversation on the children's needs without letting hurt feelings cloud their judgment.
Divorce is painful. When children are involved, it is very painful. When those children are minors, it is the most painful.
It is human nature to push away perceived sources of pain. We generally do this by expressing anger towards the perceived cause and they are compelled to go away. Co-parenting under these circumstances requires specialized skills.
When children experience the transition from a one- to a two-household family, they need their parents to show unity towards them while they separate from one another. This is sought out by children whose parents are separating as a source of safety and security. It is the remnant of a broken family that was up until now, their base, their grounding, their world.
Unfortunately, particularly in high conflict divorces, this early transition period is when parents are most polarized from one another. Very often, they are hurt and angry at each other. The expression of this anger often interferes with the cooperation necessary for co-parenting. Sometimes, the conflict is so strong that it prevents communication. Sometimes, the children are used as pawns to manipulate or hurt the other parent.
A very common example of this is withholding the children from visitation when one parent is angry at the other. Parental alienation can occur under this circumstance which can damage the relationship the child has with one or both parents at a time when the child needs this the most.
Children whose parents are unable to co-parent cooperatively are vulnerable to anxiety and other mental health disorders. They, sometimes traumatically, lose their family, and hence their security and their world. They are overexposed to conflict and uncertainty. The children pay the price every time.
These strategies can help parents protect their child's interests and navigate the challenges of co-parenting with a hostile person.
1. Stop the Bleeding
You cannot co-parent with someone who is hurting you. When people hurt you, you push them away. Co-parenting won’t work under this circumstance. You do not depend on them to stop hurting you. You stop it by setting up boundaries that prevent your being hurt. This is done by keeping conversations limited to parenting topics. Problems that were not resolvable during the marriage will not be resolved now. Drop it.
You will also need to use the “form before content” rule that I have described elsewhere. Form refers to how you are being spoken to—in contrast to content, which is what the conversation is about. Form should be at least civil, ideally respectful, or you don’t discuss content. You don’t discuss dinner plans with someone who is calling you names or otherwise abusive.
2. Don’t Take it Personally
Your marriage is over. Your communication with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse should be only for pragmatic purposes. Do not discuss your emotions or theirs. The only reason to communicate with them at all is to advocate for your child.
3. Be Strategic
Go into negotiations with a specific goal in mind. Examples include: adapting the child’s schedule to new events, coordinating medical or dental care, selecting a summer camp or activity, etc. Do not get distracted by the other parent’s expression of hostility.
In the following example, Connie is trying to have a conversation with her husband Sal about their two children having been invited to a birthday party during Sal’s time with the children. Sal is very angry with Connie because he believes that the reason for their separation and divorce is that she is seeing another man.
Connie: Sal, can you take the twins to Alvin’s house for his birthday party on Thursday?
Sal: We already have plans.
Connie: The children really want to go to the party. Can you change your plans so that the kids can attend?
Sal: Don’t make plans for the children on my time. You were always controlling.
Connie: I am not controlling. You are controlling.
Sal: If I could control you, I would have kept you from cheating on me.
Connie: I told you, Sal, I never cheated.
Sal: You're a lying cheat.
The above conversation demonstrates how quickly a conversation about the children attending a birthday party can deteriorate to the point that Sal becomes abusive, and Connie loses her goal of negotiating on the children’s behalf so that they can go to their friend’s party.
Using the three tools offered above, Connie can return the conversation towards her goal of advocating for her kids. It might sound something like this:
Connie: Sal, I'm not trying to discuss with you why we are getting a divorce. That decision has already been made. I am having this conversation because our children have an important social opportunity and they will suffer if you and I don’t make it happen for them.
Sal: There you go being controlling again!
Connie: Why don’t you take control, then? Use your time with the children to take them to do what is good for them and what they want to do. They will appreciate you for it.
Connie was able to refocus the conversation towards her goal of negotiating on the children’s behalf to go to their friend’s birthday party. In doing so, she also “stopped the bleeding” in that she stopped him from making hurtful statements and accusations about her. She did this by rejecting the form of his harassing her about why the marriage ended.
Many individuals are hurt very badly in marriages that end up in divorce. The pain is often expressed as anger and undermines co-parenting, resulting in pain to the children. The three tools offered here will, if used consistently, maximize the opportunity for constructive co-parenting, which will benefit your children immensely while they go through what is probably the most stressful time of their life thus far.