To say that coparenting with a former spouse is easy would be a lie. Regardless of whether you are on good terms with your ex or not, you are going to face challenges at some point. How you collectively handle those challenges can have huge impacts on your children. I’m going to share some of my thoughts and then some links to articles by people who know a lot more than me. If you’re succeeding at effectively coparenting, I would love to hear your practical advice for how you have made it work.
Discipline / Behavior Expectations / House Rules
What do you do when you discipline differently than your former spouse? Are you the stricter household, or are you more lenient? Are the rules different at mom’s house vs. dad’s house?First, I don’t think there’s one right way to discipline. We don’t discipline all of our children the same because they all respond differently. Being a good parent means you figure out what works best for the individual child and you tailor your discipline methods to be most effective for them. It also means that your way isn’t the only way to discipline. Just because you don’t agree with how the other parent is disciplining your child doesn’t make them wrong (nor does it make it abuse). (Note: If you truly believe your child is being abused, you have a responsibility to report it to the appropriate authorities.)
I do believe it’s easiest for the children when the expectations for behavior are similar between the two households. For example, if mom always picks up after the kids at her house, but dad expects the children to pick up after themselves at his house, they are bound to forget at dad’s, especially if they spend less time at dad’s house. If dad tolerates the children muttering under their breath, but mom doesn’t, they are bound to forget at mom’s. These are just examples, but you can see how having different expectations for the kids in the two houses could be confusing for the children.
Before DJ and I got married, we had all of the kids sit down at our dining room table and we discussed what would become our “family rules.” They aren’t all negative, and most of them were made by the children themselves. We talked about how we wanted to be treated as individuals, the behaviors that are expected in our household, and even talked some about appropriate discipline if someone were to break one (or more) of the rules.
We try to point back to these rules when we are faced with undesirable behaviors. These rules don’t just apply to the kids – they apply to us parents as well, and we do our best to model personal responsibility by acknowledging when we have acted against our family rules and we do our best to make it right with the affected person. We are not perfect parents, but we hope we are showing our children how to be accountable and to take responsibility when they do something wrong.
As it relates to the other household and their rules, I will just encourage you to remember this: “Mom’s house, Mom’s rules. Dad’s house, Dad’s rules.” Trust that the other parent is doing what he/she believes is best for your children. You can’t control your children’s environments all of the time, nor do I personally think that we should attempt to do so. Much like there are rules at school, which you don’t control, you can’t control what happens at the other house and you will drive yourself (and likely your kids and former spouse) crazy if you try to do so. If the other household has a rule that you vehemently disagree with for whatever reason, try to talk with them to understand why the rule exists. It’s not right to tell the children they don’t need to follow the rules at the other household simply because you don’t agree with it. Both parents should enforce the expectation for the children to follow the house rules at whatever house they are at, whether that is you home, the other parent’s home, or even their friend’s home!
Medical / Educational Decisions
Oh, this can be a touchy subject. How do you handle differences of opinion as it relates to medical or educational decisions (which are arguably some of the most important decisions affecting your children)? If you are the primary custodian, you likely have final decision making authority on these types of decisions. In my opinion, that should not give you the authority to just make decisions without considering the input from the other parent. Listen to the concerns and opinions of the other parent. Really consider them. If you disagree, clearly explain why you disagree so that they feel that you’ve heard their opinion and actually listened to it. Always keep the kids best interests in mind. Again, trust that the other parent is also communicating what they think is best for the kids and not offering a contrary opinion just to be difficult. Don’t disagree just for the sake of disagreeing. State your opinions clearly. Listen to the doctors and/or teachers and weigh all opinions carefully. Be willing to see the other points of view. If the non-custodial parent brings a concern to you, don’t dismiss it without giving it some consideration. They likely already know that it’s going to be a difficult conversation, especially if you have a history of disagreeing. Ensure that they have as much notice regarding medical and educational appointments as possible so that they can make arrangements to be there, if possible. This allows them the ability to express their concerns to the professionals as well, and can directly hear feedback from those professionals. This is especially important if there is distrust between the parents.
Mutual Respect and Trust
Every divorce happens for a reason. Some of those reasons continue to affect your ability to co-parent post-divorce. Whatever your reasons for divorcing, neither of you divorced the children. You will always be their parents. Even if you can’t respect your former spouse for anything else, I encourage you to respect them as the father/mother of your children. (Certainly, there are exceptions for abuse or neglect, but barring these types of behavior, mutual respect goes a long way towards being able to co-parent.)
Likewise with trust. You might not trust them because they hurt you in some way. Maybe the divorce wasn’t your idea. Maybe they cheated on you. Regardless, unless they have given you clear reasons for the contrary, do yourself a favor and trust that they are doing their best to be a good parent to your children. This means not questioning everything they do (including discipline). This means not interrogating the children each time they return from the other parent’s home, just to see if you can find fault with something they did. This means giving the kids time and space to enjoy their time with the other parent without feeling guilty about not being with you. Always leave the kids with encouraging words, “have a great time and I’ll see you when you come home.” This will give you the freedom to enjoy things that perhaps you can’t do when the kids are with you. Learn to let go of the reins a bit and relax while the kids are away. I know it’s difficult, but I believe it will allow you to enjoy your kids more and will allow you to take care of you too! We have to take care of ourselves to be the best parent that we can be. It took me a while to realize that, as a single mom. But when I realized that it was ok to do things for me and not always put the kids’ desires first, I became a happier and better mom.
If you have a contentious relationship with your ex-spouse, keep communication short and stick to the facts. Attempt to work together to come to decisions that you can both agree on. This will mean that at some point, you will need to concede to the other parent. Resolving conflict is a two way street – you can’t always be right. None of us are perfect. Admitting when you’ve done something wrong will go a long way towards establishing that trust and respect that I talked about earlier.
Keep threatening language and statements out of your vocabulary. It does nothing to help, and only puts the other parent on the defensive. Choose your battles, but know that the courts are not always going to fix things. As a friend of mine tells me, “The courts and laws were not made for honest people.”
The experts weigh in:
If you are finding it difficult to co-parent with your spouse and can’t remove conflict, here are some links you may find helpful.
Parallel parenting – for those that can’t co-parent. I hadn’t heard this term before, but if you really can’t agree with your ex about anything, this might be the best solution (though it would require you to accept that your ex is doing their best).
Overcoming conflict and making compromises can be very challenging for some blended families. You are not alone in your struggles. Reach out to others who have managed to make things work and see what they do. Try something new, even if it means changing some of your own thinking. Be open to seeing your former spouse as an equal. Keep trying! Let us know what you’ve found that helped you better co-parent with your former spouse! Until then, keep looking for the good in your ex-spouse. 🙂
“If you search for good, you will find favor; but if you search for evil, it will find you!”
Proverbs 11:27 NLT