Are you wondering what the biggest challenge of co-parenting with an ex is? Well, it’s all of it. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a big old liar (or has never done it themselves and is therefore completely unqualified to have an opinion). Co-parenting with an ex can be exhausting and messy and make you want to rip your hair out on a regular basis. And while finding a co-parenting sweet spot is possible, it can take years.
I speak from experience; my ex-husband and I separated over five years ago, and I’d say that the first three years were consummately hideous. He would agree, and I can say that now, because we’re friends again and we can talk about this stuff. (We’re not quite at the stage where we’re actually laughing about the abusive emails of 2014, but we’re getting there.)
However, that doesn’t mean we don’t still have issues. We certainly have issues. And difficult, frustrating conversations — and niggling, pointless fallouts. It’s just that these days, we’re more likely to curse at each other under our breath, sulk for a bit and then get over it — rather than having screaming matches in public or firing off lengthy emails of bitterness and bile at each other.
So, having come out stronger on the other side, I feel qualified to share some harsh truths about the process of co-parenting with an ex. But you don’t have to take my word for it; I also spoke to renowned psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe for a professional perspective.
1. You actually might not know what is best for your kids
In the U.S. and many other countries, nearly all family courts make decisions about child custody based on what is in the best interest of the child. A court looks at various factors when determining what those best interests are — including consistency, age, safety and evidence of parenting ability. The state may also consider whether one parent is more willing to foster a healthy relationship with the other parent.
Whether you end up in court arguing about custody or not, this is the standard you should have in mind throughout your kids’ childhood. Is it in your child’s best interest to shout abuse at the other parent during the hand-over? Is it in their best interest for you to raise them to believe the other parent left because they didn’t care? Or to stop them from seeing the other parent because they have a new partner? If you’re doing any of this stuff, you’re not doing what’s best for your kids. You’re failing them big-time.
2. What happened during your relationship has no relevance now
It might be hard to let go of old controversies and betrayals, but if you keep gnawing at those bones of contention long after your relationship has ended, you’ll only end up consumed by anger and frustration — which can have an effect on your kids, not to mention any future romantic relationships of your own. If your ex treated you badly during the relationship, you have every right to feel what you feel about it — but it’s in nobody’s interest to dwell on that. And even if your ex cheated on you 17 times while you were together, that has nothing to do with their right to see their kids. Sorry, but it’s true; even philanderers are allowed to be caring parents. If you’re still struggling with issues from the relationship, get therapy. You need to do whatever it takes to move on and live a happier, healthier life for you. Co-parenting can be infinitely easier if parents do their own work at healing themselves, explains Lapointe.
3. Your own feelings about your ex don’t matter
Not when it comes to your kids, at least. Save those feelings and opinions for your therapy sessions or talking to your friends. If your kids hear you bad-mouthing your ex, they will take that on in some form — and it’s unlikely to end well. As parents, we are our children’s first teachers, and they learn bad stuff from us as well as good.
“Children will always express what is between the parents, even when — and perhaps especially when — the parents have separated or divorced,” says Lapointe. “So if animosity and conflict exist between the parents, this will be absorbed by the child, and they will need to express it.” According to Lapointe, this may manifest as anger, anxiety, self-blame, defiance, depression or any number of ways — none of them positive. (Obviously, if you actually think your ex is a wonderful parent and a great person, those are the kinds of feelings you can share with your kids. There’s not enough love in co-parenting arrangements, so if you feel it, spread it.)
4. It is very hard when your ex moves on
Whether you get along with your ex or not, it’s hard when they meet someone else. That applies even if you’re already with a new partner yourself. Because your ex’s new partner is likely to become a significant presence in your kids’ lives — someone they grow to love and trust and depend on for care, support and advice. That’s tough to take, and nobody expects you not to struggle with it; you’re not a robot.
It will get easier with time if you accept that this is the new setup and focus on moving on yourself. If it upsets you to see what your ex is up to with their new partner, unfollow them on social media, suggests Lapointe. Remember, nobody will ever replace you as Mom or Dad to your kids. You’ll always be their No. 1. (Write this down and pin it to your wall if you have to.)
5. If you sabotage your ex’s relationship with your kids, it’ll come back to bite you in the ass
And this doesn’t just mean stopping your kids from seeing the other parent. It comes in many forms, from telling the kids the other parent doesn’t care about them or making the kids feel guilty about enjoying their time with the other parent. In fact, as their parent, it’s your job to actively encourage a healthy relationship with the other parent, regardless of how you feel about that person. Lapointe offers the following tips:
- Never speak poorly of the other parent or their actions/choices.
- Always validate your child’s feelings and emotions, and when these have to do with the other parent, be particularly vigilant about validating the feeling without throwing the other parent under the bus.
- Don’t ask questions about what is happening at the other parent’s house. You don’t want your kids to have the sense you are prodding them for details.
- Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements wrote, “Be impeccable with your word,” and this is a time to really strive for that. Referring to your former spouse as the “mother/father of my children” rather than your “ex” is one example of how you can infuse your words with the pursuit of a more harmonious family existence.
- Do facilitate daily contact between your children and their other parent while the child is resident in your home. Be in charge of this for your children so they can lean into you as the conduit to the other parent.
- Do be in charge of your child’s things in terms of what goes back and forth between homes. After all, they didn’t ask for this. The responsibility of keeping the situation simple for them is on you.
- Do attempt to have an open flow of communication between yourself and your children’s other parent. Have their other parent find out about important information and developments from you rather than from your children.
When it comes to tough life stuff, separation and divorce are up there with the worst of it. But separation and divorce themselves do not hurt children, says Lapointe. What does hurt children is conflict. “The biggest thing that parents can focus on in these situations is to find a way to heal their relationship and their family so that these new forms of existing as a family can unfold without the toxicity of conflict,” she adds. I couldn’t agree more.
Disclaimer: None of the above applies to you if you are co-parenting with someone who is abusive to you or your kids or if you have genuine concerns about the safety or well-being of your kids when they are in that parent’s care. If you need immediate assistance, call 911 or your local emergency service. For more help and advice, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).