Parenting is challenging. Co-parenting after divorce is even more so, with different households with different rules and different schedules, not to mention frequent issues with finances and communication problems. But co-parenting after high-conflict divorce can be much more difficult. It can feel like being ordered to do a flawless ballroom dance routine with someone who only wants to stomp on your toes. Every day. Until your youngest child graduates from high school.
“High-conflict divorce” may be hard to define, but it is easy to recognize when you are in one. Typically, a high-conflict divorce involves ongoing, sustained hostility between the couple, and may involve allegations of abuse by one or both partners against the other, custody battles, or frequent court appearances. High-conflict divorce is draining, and if you have to continue to work together afterward, it may feel like an impossible task.
Sometimes both parties have an equal hand in sustaining the conflict. Sometimes one party consistently violates agreements or court orders, forcing the other to either allow the infractions to stand, letting the violator get away with it, or drag them back into court to try to correct the behavior. That negative, intimate “dance of anger” is a death spiral, and nobody wins. Sometimes learning how to disengage from the fight is the only sane solution.
No matter your role in the conflict, you still need to deal with your ex-spouse if you are sharing responsibility for your children. Here is some guidance, both practical and personal, to help you co-parent successfully after high-conflict divorce.
Protect Your Kids From the Conflict.
You may struggle to interact peacefully with your ex, but as much as possible, insulate your kids from the conflict. That means: don’t argue in front of the kids; don’t let them hear that tone in your voice. Don’t vent your feelings about your ex to your kids. And don’t deny your ex parenting time unless they are an active danger to the kids (if that’s the case, contact your lawyer immediately).
The conflict between you and your ex is not something your children are responsible for, and it is not something they can solve, so it shouldn’t be their problem. Your kids want and need to love both their parents; let them. If you are limiting your child’s contact with their other parent to punish your ex, consider that you are probably raising your child’s anxiety and hurting them even more.
Having a front-row seat to their parents’ high-conflict divorce and the aftermath can teach children maladaptive ways of dealing with conflict themselves. Wanting to please both parents, they may learn to lie, so that they can tell each parent what they want to hear. They may withdraw into themselves, having learned that relationships are fraught with danger. Or they may begin acting out, doing poorly in school, or using drugs to bring your attention back to them and their needs. Conversely, they may do great in school, as that is the only part of their lives that is under their control, and their lives at home is spinning chaos.
Limit Opportunities for Conflict.
As far as possible, avoid the situations that give rise to conflict. If you and your ex struggle to communicate, consider the use of a co-parenting app to document communications, calendars, and expenses. Using an app will enable you to communicate more effectively with your ex without having to be face-to-face or speak to each other on the phone. In addition, many apps time-stamp communications and don’t allow them to be deleted or changed, encouraging everyone to be more civil (or risk having their angry words presented to the judge). Co-parenting apps also eliminate the “he-said, she-said” of co-parenting; everyone can see that yes, you really did give your ex the kids’ orthodontist bill, and when.
Start thinking of co-parenting as being in the business of raising happy, healthy kids. In this business model approach, remember that business is neutral. The business-like concept shifts thinking from emotional to rational, reframes the parents’ interaction, and turns negative intimacy into business-like interaction. When parents can operate under a business-like model, they can interact better and behave better.
Chances are your conflicts with your ex aren’t all your fault. But in most conflicts between former spouses, both exes play at least some part in perpetuating the conflict, or worsening its effect on the kids. Ask yourself if you are sending your children the message that they are hurting or disappointing you when they show love for their other parent, or don’t favor you over their other parent.
It may be true that your ex has the lion’s share of blame for the difficulties you have communicating with each other. The problem is that you have zero control over their actions. Fortunately, you have total control over your own. Focus on the reasonable changes you can implement to make things easier for your kids.
That doesn’t mean that changing your own attitudes or behavior is easy, or that you have to be a pushover and avoid conflict altogether. You may want to consider working with a counselor or therapist. Doing so doesn’t mean that you are broken or at fault. It just means you need a productive place to vent and process your emotions. It also means you’re mature enough to recognize the benefit of working with a professional to find new ways of coping with a difficult relationship.
Focus on building a calm home environment for your own peace of mind and that of your kids. If the conflict with your ex continues to be unbearable, you may need to take further legal action. Document your ex’s actions and words and discuss them with your family law attorney.
High-conflict divorce is stressful for everyone, but you don’t have to navigate it, or the aftermath, alone. If you have more questions about co-parenting after high-conflict divorce, we invite you to contact our family law office to schedule a consultation.
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