Parents Are All Co-parents, Before and After Divorce

Even after parents split, co-parenting can stay possible and peaceful.

Posted Jun 28, 2018

If it hasn’t happened to you, it already has happened to someone close to you. Families change shape a lot, and they always have. Children know by the time they are in school that there are lots of different ways to grow up, and a common one is with two separated or divorced parents. They also know it isn’t always a disaster, and they would be right. In our decades of working with and studying divorcing families and their children, my wife Marsha and I have seen most parents figure out ways to keep their children’s needs front and center in their lives despite the difficult and complex emotions, logistics and economic challenges that accompany such changes. The stability that comes from that cooperation is known to buffer the potentially negative effects of the separation on the children. Sometimes we hear, “As hard as it was, we are doing better as parents after the divorce than before.” The difficult stories, which remain in the minority, tend to get a lot of play in our communities because bad news travels faster and farther than less bad news. For the quieter majority, co-parenting eventually runs more like a business relationship than an emotional one, and that makes sense to children. Parents keep the focus on the product at hand, which is getting on with their children’s lives. They take on the problems one at a time, keep emotions at bay, listen carefully for misunderstandings fixing them early and focus more on the here and now rather than on the past. Following are some hallmarks of peaceful co-parenting:

  • Behave and communicate with your ex respectfully, especially in front of your children. Doing this takes practice and some lip biting at first, but your children’s love and respect for both of you is worth the discomfort in the long run;
  • Adhere to the agreements that you have consented to live with, but be prepared to be flexible;
    • Life happens to everyone;
    • What goes around, comes around;
    • The kids are watching how you both handle these issues like hawks.
  • Work together to maintain your children’s social networks with peers, family and communities. It’s the lonely children who have the harder time bouncing back;
  • Get support through counseling when you get stuck and can’t find a way out of a co-parenting melt-down, which everyone has from time to time. The stakes are higher for your children than they are for you, and they will appreciate and learn from your taking the problem seriously and then trying to fix it;
  • Avoid the temptation to turn your children into a bridge between the two of you or to fall in with their desire to do so. There are reasons most couples divorce, so don’t discuss any emotional, legal or financial issues related to the divorce with your children even when they are curious and ask. The same goes for responding to your children’s testing you with their reports of negative things the other parent has said or done so that they can get a rise out of you to see whose side you’re on. You are both on their side. 

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