From Spouses to Co-Parents: Tasks and Tools for this Difficult Divorce Transition

by Lisa Gabardi, Ph.D.

Of the many transitions associated with divorce, going from spouse to “ex” or former spouse is an obvious and central one.  Perhaps not so obvious, if you and your former spouse have children together, is the transition in your parenting relationship. The transition from spouses to co-parents can be confusing, awkward, and rife with conflict.  How do you end a marriage relationship and maintain a parenting relationship?  Consider these suggestions for making a thoughtful transition so that your ongoing parenting relationship is respectful and effective.

Task #1: Deal with your feelings about the end of your marriage and your former spouse. This task is critical.  Your unresolved issues and feelings will contribute to suffering; within yourself, in your interactions with your former spouse, and for your children who will absorb your negativity and make it their own in unhealthy and unspoken ways.  Think of your children as the battlefield upon which a civil war is being waged when you maintain conflict with your children’s other parent.  There’s no better reason to manage your feelings than to protect your children from this. Make personal time to process your feelings, the loss of your marriage, and your issues with your former spouse. When you manage these feelings, you reduce the negative impact they can have on your children, interactions with your co-parent, and on parenting decisions. Without significant effort on this task, the other tasks will be more difficult.

Tools: Take good emotional and physical care of yourself. Make sure that you have regular healthy practices for managing stress. Get support from trusted and fair-minded friends and family.  Friends and family that fan the flames of conflict between you and your co-parent may be well-meaning, but are not helping you move forward in this process.  Consider counseling or coaching for added support and to learn skills to manage strong feelings and communicate more effectively.

Task #2: Establish a new co-parenting relationship.  You are no longer married, intimate partners; which means your new relationship involves less intimacy and therefore less personal sharing.  Think of this new relationship as more like a business partnership than a close relationship.  Business partners need to be able to share information, work together, and make good decisions to maintain a successful business.  They will be most effective if they are able to agree upon common goals for the business and interact respectfully.  As co-parents, your business is raising your children well.  Think about how you interact when you conduct business with someone.  You are probably polite, respectful, calm, and prepared to conduct the business at hand. Behaving in this way with your former spouse is a difficult task! It’s awkward to know someone so intimately and have such strong feelings about them to suddenly be so careful and contained about what you say and how you say it.  It feels formal, fake, and forced.  That’s ok!  Better to begin with stiff and unnatural yet polite and calm than to revert to comfortably familiar but disrespectful and hostile.  You really don’t want to continue to interact in ways that act out the pain and struggles of your former marriage and divorce.  Start practicing something new, different, and better for your children and your well-being.

Tools: Create new relationship boundaries.  You will not be sharing information about your personal life or re-hashing marital or divorce issues.  Your interactions are now only about the children and parenting.  Create routines for when you share information and structure the topics of discussion. You will be discussing health, school, social, and behavior aspects of your children’s lives.  These guidelines can help parents contain their emotions and be ready to conduct “business.” Hopefully, you will share positive stories about your children as well as difficulties. Keep these interactions short, to the point, and as polite and cooperative as possible.

Task #3: Learn effective communication skills.  Co-parenting well requires that you learn ways to communicate that are different and probably improved from how you communicated when you were married. Practice communication that is focused, calm, respectful, and facilitates sharing information, understanding points of view, and making decisions. Effective communication begins with task #1; managing your emotions before and during interactions with your co-parent.  Be honest with yourself about how feelings and unresolved issues may be affecting your interaction.  It also involves task #2; sticking to the topic of your children and conducting yourself in a polite, business-like manner.

Tools: Prepare yourself before a conversation with your co-parent. Be clear about your agenda and remind yourself of your high-road parenting goals. Your common purpose as “business partners” is to raise well-adjusted, capable children into adulthood. Your top priority is your children and your business with your co-parent is your children; nothing more, nothing less.  Monitor your tone of voice and nonverbal signals. Make use of polite phrases such as “please”, “thank you”, and “I’m sorry” often.  Practice humility and the golden rule. No parent is perfect; how will you want to be treated when your co-parent isn’t pleased with your decision or behavior? Avoid blame.  Realize that your perspective regarding the children is not the only nor is it the “right” point of view. Ask your co-parent their opinion.  Practice listening. Be willing to consider your co-parent’s point of view and explore creative solutions that work for everyone.

Being thoughtful about these tasks and use of these tools will help you transition from spouses to co-parents that can successfully negotiate the business of parenting. You can’t afford for the “business” of raising your children to fail. Imagine a time in the future when your children are capable, well-adjusted young adults.  You feel proud of them and proud of how you raised them.  The pain of divorce has passed and you didn’t let it distract you from loving and parenting your children well.  You didn’t let it get in your children’s way of loving both of their parents and fully living their own lives. Your relationships with each other are unburdened by friction and tension.  All of your efforts to co-parent will have been well worth it.

Lisa Gabardi, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist with over twenty years of experience helping people with their relationships, marriages, and divorces.  Dr. Gabardi maintains a private practice in Beaverton, Oregon providing psychotherapy, mediation, and divorce consultation. She is also author of The Quick Guide to Co-Parenting After Divorce: Three Steps to Your Children’s Healthy Adjustment. Dr. Gabardi summarizes research, professional, and personal experience in this quick guide for the parent overwhelmed by the divorce, but still wanting to help their children adjust to this major family change. Short on time? This book will help you manage feelings, communicate well, and establish a business-like co-parenting relationship.

The Quick Guide to Co-Parenting After Divorce