Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels

Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels

Co-Parenting—What does that mean?
How can I co-parent with someone who has betrayed me?
How do you co-parent after a divorce when we couldn’t parent well while we were married?
I don’t even want to parent with him/her anymore!

You’re getting divorced and your biggest worry is about your children. Chances are this is the one thing you and your spouse agree on.
Here is what we know from years of research:

The conflict between you and your spouse is the most damaging thing for your kids.

Having two involved parents is the healthiest thing for your kids (with some exceptions, like physical abuse or active, untreated addictions).

So how do you achieve both goals? Minimizing conflict and keeping both parents involved in parenting? This may sound next to impossible, especially if communication was a problem during your marriage.
The answer is to find your spot on the spectrum or continuum of co-parenting.

Imagine a line across the page. At one end of the line, or continuum is “co-parenting” 100% of the time, and at the other end of the spectrum is “parallel parenting” 100% of the time.

Co-parenting 100% means that you and your ex work together for the benefit of the children. You make decisions together, coordinate your parenting, perhaps even have some family events together. You agree on most everything related to the children, and you do so with frequent communication, creative problem-solving, mutual respect, and flexibility. If you can do this all the time, without battles, you would be at the far end of the co-parenting continuum. Chances are that your divorce was not caused by parenting disagreements. Parenting may be the best strength that you can save from your relationship.
Parallel parenting is the complete opposite. There’s a firewall between you and your ex. You each “stay in your own lane.” You rarely communicate, and your kids live in two parallel and separate households. Parents do this when they feel that one is too controlling or intrusive, or when they want complete independence from the other parent for emotional or other reasons. If a parent is triggered at the mention of the other parent, they probably will want to do parallel parenting. If this is what you need to do to minimize or end the conflict between you, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It protects your kids from the damaging effects of your continuing conflict. There may be many reasons for the divorce, and parenting differences may be one of them.

However, it isn’t black and white. Most people fall somewhere in between those two extremes, and your task is to find your place on that continuum.

Ask yourself, “How much contact do I want with my ex?”
“How much communication can I tolerate with my ex without getting upset?”
“How important is it to work together with my ex in parenting our children?”
“What will it take to reduce or eliminate our arguments so that our children can live peacefully while we nest or live in two peaceful homes?”

It’s important to be realistic in answering these questions. Wishful thinking won’t help your children. You and your ex need to be clear about your desires and capacities when it comes to how you’ll parent your children.

My experience in working with parents is that one parent often leans more toward the co-parenting end of the continuum, while the other leans more toward the parallel parenting end. If they aren’t too far apart on the continuum, some parents will be able to compromise, to shift a bit closer toward each other. However, parents may be very far apart when they have very different parenting styles, values, or goals. A parent that needs a complete break from contact with the other parent is rarely going to be able to compromise, at least not while the divorce is fresh. A parent that doesn’t respect the other’s parenting, or wants to control the other parent, or “doesn’t stay in their lane” will also find it very challenging to compromise.
If you are the parallel end of the continuum, and that ends the conflict, you may find that you move up toward the co-parenting end of the continuum. This trend is helped by the healing, adjustment, and acceptance of your new situation.

One of the best ways to help your children adjust to the new restructuring in your family is to create a detailed, documented Parenting Plan or parenting agreement. This spells out your agreements regarding how you’ll share time with your children, how you’ll spend holidays and school breaks, how medical or educational decisions will be made, and many other issues. There are many templates or worksheets for parenting plans on the internet but working with a professional will almost always lead to better decisions and a robust agreement you can live with.
The parenting plan should be tailored to the needs and ages of your children, so no two parenting plans are the same. Look for professionals who know child development, the impact of divorce on children, and the research about parenting after divorce. Such a professional can help you understand the parenting issues you’ll face post-divorce so that you can make the best decisions for yourself and your family. Later, if your parenting plan needs revision, you can consult again with that professional.

Minimizing conflict between you and your soon-to-be-ex (STBX) is the most important thing for your children’s recovery and future well-being. The goal of post-divorce parenting is to keep you both actively involved in parenting your children, and with minimal or no conflict.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2021
A previous version of this article appeared in Psychology Today.