Two Sides of the Coin is a series of articles written by Ian Steinberg, a matrimonial and family law attorney, in conjunction with an array of other professionals from different industries. The series provides insights into issues from the perspective of each party to a divorce. Each article provides readers with practice tips that are helpful when navigating through the divorce process.
Tips for Successful Co-Parenting After Divorce
By Ian Steinberg and Meredith Shirey
When a couple gets divorced, each of their lives changes significantly. The former spouses will work to untangle their previously connected lives, starting with living in different residences and separating their finances. However, when a divorcing couple has children together, they will never truly be able to separate.
Despite a well-thought-out and negotiated parenting plan created by the parties during the divorce process, the guidelines, boundaries, and expectations that exist between co-parents are always changing and evolving. Both the custodial parent (i.e., the parent the children live with the majority of the time) and the non-custodial parent will have to figure out how to handle the tall task of dealing with the day-to-day responsibilities of child-rearing without his or her former spouse. New issues will arise, like a child becoming upset because he or she is without that favorite book or toy because it was left at the other parent’s house.
In order to ensure a successful co-parenting relationship, parents will have to work together in ways that preserve the delicate balance of their children’s well-being, personal needs, healthy boundaries, and respectful communication with the other parent.
Below are some tips to assist with successful co-parenting after divorce:
- Be Flexible
Whether actively parenting young children or maintaining relationships with adult children, your parenting relationship will last in some form as long as you live. Coparenting is difficult even under ideal circumstances, making flexibility even more important.
While parenting agreements will set out the times and places in which each parent has access to the children, these do not have to be set in stone. There is no “parenting police” that will knock on your door if you and your co-parent agreed that the children would spend an extra night with you. The agreement is ideally just a fallback in the event of a disagreement.
Take a situation in which the non-custodial parent asks to drop the children off later than the agreed-upon time at the end of his or her weekend because the children want to stop for ice cream. If the custodial parent is flexible, this will serve to strengthen the relationship between the non-custodial parent and the children. Further, this will inevitably improve the relationship between the co-parents. On the other hand, flexibility may lead to an increase in parenting time for the non-custodial parent if he or she is available when the custodial parent needs someone in a pinch. A healthy co-parenting relationship has a foundation of respect, openness to change, and a willingness to rewrite the “rules” when needed.
- Pick Your Battles
Even when two co-parents have a good working relationship, it is natural that there will be disagreement. Oftentimes, a parent may feel the urge to voice a complaint about the actions taken by his or her co-parent. However, it is important to consider the benefit to the overall co-parenting relationship of just accepting that co-parents have different parenting styles, as well as the damage that may be done if the complaint is voiced. This is often referred to as the necessary “cost of admission” for maintaining what is an overall satisfying relationship.
The factors that determine each parent’s “cost of admission” will vary drastically from person to person. What may be too high of a cost for one person might be easily absorbed by another. On the other hand, some things will always reflect a cost that is too high and must be addressed with the other parent regardless of how otherwise healthy the relationship may be.
For example, a mother who is the custodial parent may not be thrilled when she finds out what the children’s father served them for dinner during his access time. Is it worth it for the mother to voice this complaint to her co-parent, or is it better for their relationship (and for the children) to allow him to parent in the manner he sees fit?
On the other hand, if the custodial parent is not facilitating FaceTime calls between the children and the non-custodial parent, the “cost of admission” may be worth it for the non-custodial parent to ensure that he or she has consistent communication with the children. Further, concerns about a child’s safety are almost always worth the “cost of admission.”
it is important for each parent to reflect on their values and needs to understand where they must draw the line. The idea of acceptance is allowing for the small, insignificant disagreements to pass by without a need for conflict because this allows for more space to have less conflict when something larger arises.
- Manage Your Emotions in the Coparenting Relationship
Co-parenting partners are just that, partners in raising the children they share. Often times a co-parent can bring out an array of emotional sentiments in the other, many of which may not be positive. That is why it is vital, especially in the beginning stages of co-parenting, to keep interactions business-like (though amicable) and limited to only discussing the children may be helpful to feel emotionally protected and avoid escalating conflicts.
Escalating conflicts between parents who have become emotionally flooded are easily responsible for the damage that lasts long after divorce papers are signed. It is important for co-parents to discuss boundaries about how and when to have conversations, inviting them into a conversation versus making demands tends to yield more harmonious relationships in the long term. For example, instead of demanding a discussion about a child’s doctor appointment, saying something like, “I would like to discuss managing our daughter’s healthcare decisions, when are you free to talk about this?” may prove to be more effective.
It is important to ensure that the emotions a co-parent feels, whether about the other parent or otherwise, are not projected onto the children. If one spouse did not want to get divorced or was cheated on, he or she may have a difficult time processing the loss of the relationship. However, that parent must be cognizant of where and how to appropriately express these emotions to avoid a negative impact on the co-parenting relationship and therefore the children. If children need a space to process their feelings, they often will utilize parents as an outlet, but children should not be used as an outlet for a parent to express his or her own feelings. On the flip side, the other spouse may feel excited to be moving on to a new journey. However, the children will most likely not share in the excitement, and it is important to remain aware of how these positive emotions are expressed.
- Keep The Best Interests of the Children In Mind
In New York, the courts follow what is called the “best interests of the child” standard in making decisions related to children. It is important for co-parents to use this same standard when making decisions related to the children. This often requires a parent to look past what might be in his or her best interest.
The custodial parent is often the one that has historically spent more time taking care of the children. Whether this is because the other parent was working or just the way parenting was handled during the marriage, that parent will need to take a step back and realize that it is in the best interest of the children to have an independent relationship with the other parent. While relinquishing control of the children for a period of time may be difficult, doing so will benefit the co-parenting relationship and more importantly the children. This will require the other parent to play a role he or she was not accustomed to during the marriage. However, the children will often take notice and benefit from having two well-rounded parents.
It is important to remember that part of being a parent is putting the needs of the children ahead of your own. This can certainly be difficult when emotions are running high but keeping this standard in mind will allow for the best outcome for your children, and ultimately lead to a better co-parenting relationship.
- Let Go of the Need for Perfection
There is no such thing as a “perfect” parent, let alone a perfect co-parent. To forge a strong foundation of healthy co-parenting, both partners must accept that there will be instances of disagreements, feelings of hurt and anger, misunderstandings, and confusion. These are inevitable, and giving yourself and the other parent the grace of understanding and accepting that mistakes and misunderstandings will occur helps to mitigate the shame and resentment that can accompany perfectionistic expectations.
When a “whoops” moment happens, allow it to be just that - a moment. It is important to make the other parent aware of what has caused displeasure, though the timing and wording is of paramount importance. Effective communication can make all the difference in whether or not the other parent will be able to hear and internalize what you need.
Make your grievances specific and behavioral, not about who the parent is as a person or generalized to their whole being. For example, a healthy way to address a parent being late might sound like this: “When you were late dropping our son off last week, it made me late for a very important meeting. Next time if you’re going to be late can you please let me know ahead of time so that I can adjust my schedule accordingly?” Versus, “You have no respect for my time. I missed an important meeting because you can’t be on time when dropping off our son.”
Keep in mind that even the best efforts to maintain good communication and healthy boundaries do not guarantee a safeguard against future disputes. It is important for parents to understand and accept that each will have a different perspective, and that agreement about perspectives or outcomes does not have to be the end goal. Think of individual perspectives as parallel lines, they can both exist and do not need to cross at any point. You can hear your partner without agreeing with what they say or needing to give up your own perspective in order to make space to understand theirs.
There is no right or wrong way to co-parent after divorce. However, by following the suggestions above, you will give yourself the best chance to have a healthy co-parenting relationship with your former spouse. In doing so, you will provide your children with the best chance for success.
Ian Steinberg is a matrimonial and family law attorney with Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (212) 466-6015.
Meredith Shirey is the Founder and Practice Director of Marriage & Family Therapy, PLLC. She is licensed in New York and Tennessee as a Marriage and Family Therapist and specializes in emotionally focused couples therapy and insight-oriented individual treatment her approach includes a combination of attachment-based theories. Meredith can be reached by email at Meredith@relationshipcounselingnyc.com or by phone at (646) 951-3692.