I divorced sixteen years ago. Being a child of divorce myself, I knew the depths of pain that divorce can bring. I never expected to divorce myself, much less see my children go through it. Nonetheless my journey has been one of growth. While everyone’s experience is different, there is something universal about how we grieve and heal from divorce. While everyone’s experience of parenting is different, there is something universal about how we parent. Co-parenting is, the process by which unmarried parents resolve to parent as a team in relative agreement with each other regarding the business of raising children.
No one is born with these skills. We have to learn them. As a clinical sociologist, I facilitate co-parenting education groups with David Saavedra, a clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist. We share the following steps with group participants.
1) Begin a new relationship with your Ex
Co-parenting requires setting the old relationship aside and dealing with the grief of that old relationship outside of co-parenting. The new relationship of co-parenting is about the business of raising children. It is not about resolving old issues in the marriage that can no longer be resolved. It is about the nuts and bolts of raising children. It is about doctor appointments, transportation to ball games, homework and who will attend the parent teacher conference. Some ex-spouses can eventually be friends. The key to that friendship is the death of the old relationship.
2) Establish boundaries
For me, it has been easier to keep boundaries clear. In the beginning of the co-parenting relationship, I used several guidelines to avoid conflicts when communicating with my co-parent face to face, by text or by email.
• I only talk about our daughters.
• I keep my language and tone respectful.
• I keep communication short.
(Hint: When an issue is heated, I email or text to keep the opportunity for disrespecting one another to a minimum.)
3) Resolve conflict
Conflicts are part of life. Therefore, conflict is part of co-parenting. If I keep my communication short, respectful and focused on the business of raising children, conflicts are fewer and farther between. When there are disagreements, I remind my daughters (and myself) that moms and dads are different and we don’t always do things the same way. I say something like this. “When you are with Dad you need to do what he says. When you are with me, you need to follow my rules.” I am careful to share with them, “One thing dad and I have in common is that we love our girls.” It is absolutely imperative that I never speak ill of their father. Half of their DNA comes from their father. To criticize him in their presence is to criticize my daughters.
4) Make a parenting agreement
Agreements prevent disagreements. Some co-parents find that written co-parenting agreements are helpful. Co-parenting agreements have more details than a visitation agreement inside a divorce decree. It can be developed by a lawyer, mediator or counselor/ therapist. To involve a professional however, requires a fee. Faith based divorce recovery groups or non-profit services for co-parenting may be able to assist co-parents in writing parenting agreements without charging. If there is some level of cooperation between the co-parents, you may be able to write your own parenting agreement. Sample agreements can be found in many co-parenting books or co-parenting online resources. Co-parenting is a learned set of skills that benefit everyone, especially our children.
Laura Lyles Reagan is a child advocate, sociologist and free lance writer. She is a mother of two daughters. She can be reached for co-parenting sessions through her website at www.heart2heartparents.com.