THE UNCOOPERATIVE CO-PARENT

By Donna Ferber

When going through a divorce, keeping your children’s well-being in the forefront of your mind is critical. Whether the children ultimately have an experience that is traumatic or manageable is a direct result of how well their parents’ behave. Some parents even stay together “for the sake of their children” but their behavior is so appalling that the kids beg their parents to split up. Whether you stay together or not, your children learn from and emulate your behavior. You are role models for healthy relationships.

Your commitment to protect your children from divorce acrimony is tested when you find yourself in the throes of splitting property and assets. You are exhausted, stressed, worried, and patience is at a premium. The ends of your conviction begin to fray as hostility escalates. If you are embroiled in bitter exchanges over issues of child support, visitation, parent styles and custody, these “hot buttons” often explode into gut wrenching arguments and negotiations seem become impossible. At this point co-parenting becomes the lightening rod for all unsettled issues.

There are basically three major situations that impair cooperative co-parenting- First, when the co-parent is truly not fit*, second, when there is parental alienation*, and third when a co-parent is simply uncooperative (in most cases this manifests as unreliable or controlling).

All of these are crazy making and huge topics. For the sake of this article, let’s assume we are dealing with an uncooperative parent- that is someone who is basically a good parent but with whom you have a horrific interpersonal post spousal relationship.

Left over marital issues such as bitterness, resentment, betrayal, hurt and disappointment can linger long after the legal dust has settled. Parenting then becomes the venue for the continuing unresolved battle. For example, consider the parent who brings the child back 30 minutes late from visitation. That thirty minutes isn’t hurtful to the child, but drives the other parent crazy. The frustration and screaming that ensues is what damages the child. The parent who is repeatedly late is sending a message-you can’t control me and I don’t respect you. The parent who screams back says your technique is working!

Even if only one parent can distinguish between left over spousal power struggles and truly child centered issues, this awareness can foster significant changes in the co-parenting dynamic. While it is easy to focus on the deficits of the other parent, never lose sight of your own part in the interaction. Everyone knows the vulneralbe spots in their ex-spouse. Steer clear of them in your co-parenting interaction.

When negotiating with your co-parent keep in mind that good parenting exists on a continuum. There are the relaxed, easy going parents and on the other end of the spectrum is the more organized, structured type. There is a lot of room for variance on that continuum. Of course, a super relaxed style becomes neglectful and the super organized style can be abusive. Remember, no two people parent exactly the same way, but that doesn’t make them bad parents. Keep your perspective.

Sometimes it seems that even good parents can’t co-parent no matter how hard one or both of you may try. Perhaps these acrimonious relationships serve a purpose-that is, they reassure the couple that they did the right thing in splitting up. Sometimes it seems people need to hang on to the anger to justify their choice. Other times, spouses feel that if they let go of their anger, they are in some ways sending a message that they have accepted the others transgressions. Perhaps, they are locked in a power struggle because they felt powerless in the marriage. Lastly, some people are just incompatible and bring out the worse in each other. Regardless of the reason for the continued acrimony, you have a responsibility to your children to put their needs first and take the high road. Your children will thank you for it.

The following can help you remain steady and focused on child centered issues when dealing with your uncooperative co-parent.
  1. Recognize you can’t change another person. Stop trying to change your co-parent and he/she will (eventually) stop trying to control you.
  2. Keep your marital relationship issues separate. Divorce may be about “winning”, co parenting is not. The good co-parent relationship is about being able to decide together what is best for your children.
  3. Give up the need to get his/her approval, to prove you are right, to get an apology.
  4. Stick to the topic as hand. Keep it simple.
  5. Avoid words like “always” and “never”. They diminish your conflict resolution skills by globalizing the issue.
  6. Keep the conversations in the present. Do not bring up the past.
  7. Leave sarcasm at the door. Pissing someone off never got them to agree with you.
  8. Don’t get defensive or side tracked. If your co-parent is a dirty fighter- bringing up the past, calling you names, blaming, don’t get sucked into the fray.
  9. Focus on your kids needs not your own.
  10. Don’t play games. Be as accountable, responsible and reliable as you want your co-parent to be.
  11. NEVER fight in front of your children, or involve them in any way in the conflict. This includes bad mouthing, sarcasm and even eye rolling.
  12. Stay calm. Don’t raise your voice, even if your co-parent is screaming. Remember you do not have to emulate another person’s behavior. Raising your voice will escalate the acrimony.
  13. It really does take two to fight. If your co-parent tries to bait you, ignore it and go back to #4.
*If you feel your children are really at risk because your co-parent is reckless, involved in drinking, drugs, is emotionally or physically abusive to your kids, take immediate action and get legal help. Don’t try to handle it yourself. Remember your children have rights and one of those is to grow up protected and safe.
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