Co-parenting after divorce | How to make it work

Posted on May 27th, 2016

‘Amicable’ and ‘divorce’ aren’t often used in the same sentence. Karien Slabbert investigates how to make co-parenting after divorce work.

Co-parenting after divorce

Anyone who has gone through a divorce will agree that it’s extremely traumatic. Even more so when you have children. When there are kids involved, you often have to set your own emotions aside and focus on what’s best for them.

It’s up to you and your ex-spouse (or soon-to-be ex-spouse) to devise new child-centered rules of engagement. One where both of you can play a meaningful and loving role in your children’s lives. Yes, you weren’t compatible as marriage partners but that doesn’t mean you can’t be good partners when it comes to raising your children.

A new normal

Co-parenting amicably with your ex-spouse can give your children the stability they need, as well as ensure that they have a close relationships with both parents. But it’s easier said than done. Both parties need to make a concerted effort to set their own emotions, resentment, pain and anger aside. Off course, this can be very stressful – especially when you’re still in the throes of a divorce, or when you’ve just signed your divorce papers.

Divorce coach, Ferdi Appelgryn from Optimum Coaching, says that when adults decide to divorce, their relationship has been dysfunctional for a while. “This dysfunction is often caused by misaligned priorities, poorly constructed communication strategies, pent-up resentment and other similar negative emotions,” he explains.

This ‘dysfunctional’ history poses a challenge when trying to reinvent your relationship. So, how do you go about creating a new healthy dynamic?

“The obvious answer would be to have a mature attitude and focus on creating good, open communication. But the folly of that idea becomes apparent because of the context. In cases of severe emotional upheaval, it would make sense to start out communication with an independent mediator that could help navigate some of the ‘difficult’ emotions,” explains Appelgryn. He adds that a good mediator will allow you to take more direct responsibility for your relationship until you’re able to communicate independently with your ex-spouse.

Rules of engagement

It’s always better to talk face-to-face – if you can be constructive. “If not, communicate in writing – preferably on email. Avoid criticising your ex-spouse and always bear your outcome in mind – your children’s wellbeing and happiness,” says Applegryn. “It’s often simpler to create rules of engagement by employing the help of a person that has experience in dealing with these matters, such as a social worker, specialist psychologist or a lawyer,” he adds.

He reiterates that focusing on core issues like medical care, education, physical needs and contact, will create a good foundation for a child-focused relationship.

Dealing with disagreements

“You have to accept that there are going to be differences in opinion in terms of joint custody and the issues that lie outside the black and white of a parenting plan. A ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ attitude is probably the most useful,” advises Appelgryn.

Top tips

  • All agreements should be in writing and contractual. There should be a definite agreement, not just consent.
  • Make sure that you have a solid time-bound procedure for dispute resolution in place to deal with deviations.
  • Agree to use the legal process only as a last resort – no one benefits from this except attorneys.

Create a framework

Divorced or busy getting divorced? Appelgryn gives a handy roadmap to devise a better relationship:

  • Get help to deal with your own emotions and to understand in which way you contributed to the divorce.
  • Set a clear outcome of what the new relationship entails
  • Firstly, what is your role in your children’s emotional health? Remember, the other parent is responsible for their relationship with their child, and you are responsible for yours.
  • Treat your ex-spouse in the way that you would like to be treated – despite how he/she may be treating you.

Create a clear plan around:

  • Medical
  • Educational
  • Physical
  • Contact needs.

Negotiate in the most open-minded, understanding way. Try to focus on agreement – not enforcement. Once there’s agreement, create a formal, binding contract, such as a Family Advocate-approved family plan, and stick to it.

Making a plan

A family or parenting plan can help avoid a lot of stress. Experts agree that this reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings and conflict between the parents. Parenting plans must comply with the best interests of the child.

Duvenhage says that a family plan serves as a good reference. “Often, when I’m not sure about something, I just refer to our plan. It also encourages parents to sort out disagreements themselves or follow the mediation route, before approaching the court. In a way, this forces one to rethink your position on things.

A child-focused relationship

The success of a child-focused relationship depends on positive and negative positioning – not only what you’ll include, but also what you won’t discuss, says Appelgryn. A good point of departure, he notes, is to decide that interaction will be businesslike and to the point. “Stick to the facts. Remember, the sole purpose of your relationship is taking care of your children. This objective is superior to any difference that you and your ex might have,” says Appelgryn.

It’s important to acknowledge and respect the other parent’s point of view in good faith despite what your own opinion may be, advises Appelgryn. He says that you should see the other parent as someone who positively contributes to your children’s lives. And remember: your divorce is not your children’s divorce.

Avoid the following emotionally charged subjects:

  • Any discussions about your past relationship with your ex.
  • Conflict triggers – accusations, past, events, blame and mud-slinging.
  • Any subject that doesn’t relate directly to your children’s wellbeing.

Using your child as a weapon

Abusing your power as a parent is something that is quite tempting when you’re bitter. “Rather ask yourself whether it’s your right to rob your child of the right to a relationship with his/her other parent based on your interpretation of the other parent’s behaviour,” says Appelgryn.

It’s important to know where to draw the line. “You have no right to mediate or control the relationship between your child and the other parent. It only creates poor relationship skills, insecurity and a shallow relationship between you and your child,” he points out.

8 common pitfalls to avoid

  • Focusing on revenge rather than problem-solving.
  • Divorcing or staying married ‘for the children’s sake. Both can harm your children’s emotional wellbeing.
  • Focusing on your children’s wellbeing as a way to distract you from your own healing. Your children wil suffer emotionally if you don’t deal with your own emotions.
  • Letting your emotions instead of reason rule.
  • Using the children as a way to communicate with your ex-spouse.
  • Berating the other parent in front of your kids.
  • Confusing your children’s wellbeing with having the upper hand.
  • Becoming too flexible on the agreements made. These issues become a problem much later and are very difficult to resolve.

Resolving your own hurt and anger

“The most common mistake people make when they encounter strong emotions is to try to avoid them,” says Appelgryn. This is often because they don’t know how they’ll get out of the emotional pain. “They ether try to distract themselves with work, mood-changing activities such as alcohol and recreational drugs, and other high-risk activities,” he adds.

It’s a lot more painful in the longer term to run away from the pain than what it is to embrace it. “The human body has a very definite natural way of dealing with heavy emotions. It will most often just stop the emotional pain when it has had enough. The average person seems to disengage from a heavy emotional experience after about 20 minutes. There’s therefore no reason to fear that you’ll remain stuck forever,” explains Appelgryn.

He adds that people tend to get ‘stuck’ when they don’t process negative emotions. There’s a lot of research that suggests that denial is the start of many nasty things, he concludes.

Click here for tips on how to help your child cope with divorce.

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About Xanet Scheepers

Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day.