I’m a professional counselor (…substitute “therapist,” “shrink,” “talk doc”), and many of my clients are shocked to find out that I’ve been married, divorced and remarried. My coparent and I manage to attend events together with our children’s step-parents, share birthday and holiday gifts with each of our newest sibling additions from second marriages, text everyday about the kids’ school issues and extracurricular activities. A week ago, my kids’ dad and their stepdad took them to see Star Wars together. The men didn’t kill each other. We intentionally attend the same church, so that the kids can be in the same place for their spiritual lives, not split between two church families as well as two households.
I would also say that my children’s father, and I are not exactly friends. We’ve had our fair share of nasty when it comes to learning to lovingly share our children in separate households and each respect our relationships with the kids. And we can have it both ways.
My husband (kids’ stepdad) grew up in a divorced home, so he has first-hand kid-perspective, and so together, we have compiled a list of the simplest and most important starter tips for uncoupled parents:
- The children’s possessions are their possessions, not Mom’s or Dad’s. Disallowing a child to take their own toys, clothing, books, electronics back and forth from house to house can unintentionally make a child feel that they actually have little to nothing of their own. Remember that their possessions are not yours to keep. If you are worried about how items will be used/treated or whether they’ll come back, address this directly with your coparent and not with the children.
- To discipline means to teach. If you and your coparent cannot settle on similar discipline strategies in your divided homes, consult with a professional counselor for coparenting help to coordinate your household behavior management strategies. If you are vastly different, you will likely see a rash of maladaptive behaviors develop in your children because they are confused about how to manage themselves and their relationships.
- No matter what, get along in front of your children. This is different from two loving spouses who sometimes disagree in front of the kids and show them how to work through a problem and repair a relationship. The nature of your relationship with your coparent (i.e. Your EX) is that you did not repair the relationship, thus it is best to remain disengaged from conflict and disagreements in front of the kids because you will have a much harder time reaching repair.
- Move away from intimacy – even negative intimacy. Negative intimacy is when you stay in conflict with someone, even when it feels horrible, because you still feel the hurt and anger from your unresolved past together. Isabella Ricci, PhD, author of Mom’s House Dad’s House (and Mom’s House Dad’s House for Kids) gives these little pointers… Refer to your coparent as “the children’s father/mother,” rather than “my ex.” Watch out for the way your language reflects your family: never refer to yourselves as a “broken home,” for example. Think of your relationship as a respectful business relationship with structured communication. Respect the other parent’s privacy (dating, sex life, finances, friendships) and have boundaries around yours, as long as the kids are not involved in either. Your coparent is never a babysitter, s/he is a parent. Show common courtesy and respect, like you would to a co-worker or polite stranger – no sarcasm, rudeness, threats. Act like a guest in the other parent’s home because you are one. Don’t expect appreciation or praise from your coparent. Be explicit about times, locations, contact information.
- While social circles may see divorce as a crime or a contest, to your children it is not. Your children love you both. In fact, their healthy neurological development depends on how connected and positive they feel about their relationships with their parents. Don’t worry about what the other parents at your children’s school think – one day they might be coming to you for advice about their own families if they see you are able to navigate this with grace. If you operate out of fear that others’ perceptions of you are negative because you are not romantically partnered to your coparent, your behavior will be defensive. Your children will not get the best of you because you are in fight or flight mode, rather than parenting with your whole heart.
The younger your children are, the more communicating and negotiating you have to do with someone you are no longer romantically involved with – and sometimes with someone who deeply wounded you because of an infidelity, an addiction, abuse, or a painfully disconnected relationship. Coparenting is hard. While the intensity of it is temporary for the years your child is <18 years old, it is a lifelong relationship.