I talked with Somerset County, NJ divorce attorney Katherine Wagner to find out what behavior she has observed in her clients that got in the way of moving on from the divorce and creating a new relationship as co-parents of their children.
After a couple divorces, if one or both of them still feel hurt or bitter that will make it difficult for them to successfully parent their children as a unified team – which is exactly what the children need, considering the extreme change in the family dynamic.
But What in the World is Co-Parenting?
Co-parenting is defined as both parents working to parent their children as a team. These days, co-parenting is required of any couple who has children, as well as divorced couples with children – unless of course there a problem with substance abuse, or there is a history of domestic violence.
Co-parenting requires that a divorced couple place their children’s needs above their own and work through their discomfort or anger over the dissolution of the marriage to form a new relationship with their ex – that of co-parent.
Co-parenting is required if the parents share joint physical and legal custody. A co-parenting arrangement can also occur if one parent has physical custody but the parents share legal custody – meaning, they both have the power to make major decisions for the children. A co-parenting arrangement can even occur when one parent has sole custody and the other parent has visitation, also called parenting time – if the parties agree to collaborate on parenting.
Children of Divorced Parents Need Their Parents To Co-Parent
In a co-parenting situation, children can have close relationships with both parents, consistent expectations and rules, a stable, predictable schedule, and a good model of collaboration despite deep differences. If a couple can practice co-parenting, they send a clear message to their children that they are more important to them than the conflicts that resulted in the divorce. When parents are unsuccessful at co-parenting, their children are the ones who suffer.
AVOID THIS – Harboring Ill Will Toward Your Ex
Some people just cannot put their negative feelings about their ex aside. They indulge in saying negative things about their ex or about the divorce in front of the children, which compromises the children’s relationship with both parents. This is never healthy for the children of the dissolved marriage, who feel put in the middle or that they have to choose sides.
No one expects a divorced couple to remain friends, but to co-parent they must keep their feelings to themselves (or seek therapy!) and have the self-control refrain from bad-mouthing each other. The children have the right to have a relationship with both parents, the quality of which they should be allowed to decide without interference from either parent.
But What If My Child Already Dislikes My Ex?
I would discuss it with the child and find out the reason they don’t like them. It may be something easy to solve – for example, parenting time is scheduled on a night that the child’s favorite program is on. Or it could be something thornier… but you will not know until you ask.
AVOID THIS – Refusing or Being Reluctant to Communicate With Your Ex
Many divorced parents cannot be civil with one another, much less collaborate on parenting. It seems as if divorced couples forget whatever dignity and grace they formerly possessed, and behave in ways that sabotage every interaction they have with one another. Rehashing the disagreements and issues that led to the divorce is common. But what good does that do anyone?
Successful co-parents take the high road. They stay calm and speak civilly with one another, even if they disagree. Some email or text one another just to keep emotion out of the equation. The children are the focus of each and every conversation they have with one another. That’s how to keep conversations with your ex calm and productive.
Successful co-parents also:
- Have the custody arrangement clearly spelled out
- Listen to one another
- Don’t push each other’s buttons, or, don’t respond angrily if their ex attempts to push their buttons
- Communicate frequently and keep each other in the loop
- Collaborate to create uniform household rules and expectations
- Collaborate on major decisions involving the children
- Stay flexible
AVOID THIS – Creating Drama During Children’s Transitions from One Household to the Other
What is more awkward than picking up the children from your ex, and they are upset because you are taking them away from him or her? Or when the children balk at packing up and going to visit your ex because they were surprised and didn’t know that was happening? Or when your ex calls you angrily because a child forgot to pack some favorite toy or outfit, or all of their toiletries?
Transitions from one household to the other can be managed. First, successful co-parents deliver their children to the other household – much less upsetting for everyone. Successful co-parents remind their children when they are going to their other parent’s house well in advance, and help them pack well before.
Successful co-parents also make sure their children have everything they need at both households – you’d be surprised how upsetting the little things are for children in these circumstances. Things like the wrong kind of toothpaste or cereal can turn a visit into a nightmare for all involved.
The children of divorced parents are going through a difficult time too – and through no fault of their own. If a divorced couple can put their children ahead of their anger or resentment over the divorce, they can co-parent their children in a way that minimizes the impact of the divorce on them.
Veronica Baxter is a legal assistant and blogger in the Philadelphia area.