Co-Parenting: Eight Lessons Learned

The Big “D”

Imagine sitting in a courtroom, staring across the table at someone who despises your every word, feeling like you are the biggest chump.  In front of you, there is a woman sitting behind a big desk with a gavel parsing your words more finely than Bill Clinton was fixated on the particular definition of the word “is.”  Another person is typing away all of the utterances proceeding from your mouth.  You wonder if they are accurate.  Then again, you don’t remember every word you said, as you feel like you are a disembodied spirit standing there.  It’s like those people who “die” for a few minutes saying they can see their body there as their spirit watches from a distance.  And when things finish up, aside from the dividing of property, financial matters, and who gets your child, you hear one word coming from the judges’ mouth: “Co-parent.”

Just Co-Parent

Co-parent.  It’s a word that has been created to deal with the likes of people who decide that they cannot handle being in each other’s company, despite the fact that they have brought another living being or beings into the world.  Co-parent.  It’s the word which means you are supposed to agree on what happens with your child when you can’t even agree whether the sky is blue or Greenland is cold.   Co-parent.  It’s a word which tells you that you must negotiate with your former significant other (subject yourself to torture) so that you can work out schedules, arrange times, and deal with financial issues. People try to make it sound like such a happy word but husbands are either involved or not.  But what is it really?  And how does it work out in practice?

What Does It Mean?

On the one hand, I can sit here and rail against the concept of co-parenting.  Much of me feels like Ellis “Red” Redding, in The Shawshank Redemptionas he is standing before the parole board asking if he has been rehabilitated.  I feel like co-parenting is a made-up word so that politicians and court systems can make themselves feel better as they watch broken families disintegrate before their eyes.  These politicians who are supposed to see the sundering of a family do not want to take responsibility for whatever poor decisions they make in court.  They would rather live in ignorance because our court systems have become politicized fearing that making the wrong decision will land them on the outs with some interest group and not allow them to move onwards and upwards politically speaking.

So courts don’t dig into the facts unless your significant other has a major meltdown in court.  While it would be nice if your ex would cooperate that way, they usually do not.  Hence, truth is never revealed.  They can’t possibly know that the woman before them is a drug abusing borderline personality disordered mind, who cuts herself on the side and gaslights her ex for the fun of it.  The court was not there for the long nights of screaming at you and threats to hurt you.  They get to ignore the knives and axes that they wield behind closed doors, as well as the threats that were made to smash things and run out of state with your child.

Likewise, they don’t want to know that the supposedly upstanding man with the well-paying job has really been a manipulating controlling jerk.  There may not have been any handcuffs in the relationship for real, but the woman has felt locked up the whole entire time.  There may not be any physical bruises but the woman’s soul has been bruised over and over again by the person who was supposed to love them.

How Realistic Can It Be?

And then this couple who is breaking up their marriage because of the difficulties they have with one another are supposed to be coming together and doing things for the sake of their children?!?!?  And what are they supposed to be doing?  Co-parenting.  Why?  Because, according to their statistics, children do much better when parents are able to do this.  Leaving aside what one thinks about statistical manipulation, let’s examine the realities of what the court is asking.  The court appeals to the parents to behave in a manner that benefits the child.  And how are they to behave?  They are to behave like they are married parents, except that they live in two different households.  Completely realistic don’t you think?

Who Is The Responsible One?

But by saying this one nice little word, they throw the onus and responsibility for whatever happens to the child in the parents’ lap.  It’s not the fact that the court never investigated the mental stability of one of the parties.  It’s because Bob couldn’t agree with June that she should take Susie to her dance recital, despite the fact that June has had Susie for most of the last two weeks with the exception of the two hours Bob gets on Wednesday evenings.

Or it’s not the fact that the court didn’t bother to discover that there emotional and verbal abuse occurring.  It’s because June had a meltdown that Bob took Susie to a baseball game on a Sunday evening that ran later than expected.   She then proceeded to scream on the phone at Bob for two hours while Susie was still awake and could overhear the conversation.  Bob tried to keep Susie distracted, but he could only do so much.

Telling two people to co-parent in these situations does not fix things.  There are a million little decisions that parents make for their children every single day.  They become so second nature that often we can forget that we are making them moment by moment.  In a good home, these decisions are made seamlessly and in conjunction with both parents.  In dysfunctional families, one parent ends up with a much larger majority of the decisions for their kids.  Children recognize this and start playing games with the parents to manipulate and control their parents because of their insecurity.  The end game makes no one happy.  Divorce is the most extreme case of family dysfunction.  And in this case of extreme dysfunction, the parents are supposed to pretend like they are in a good home?

I Still Believe

Despite all of my skepticism, I want to believe co-parenting is possible.  Thinking about this makes me remember the moment I left my daughter’s first therapist after my ex and I separated.  I knew the situation I was volatile at best.  I tried to explain to the therapist all of the craziness I had lived through for years.  She went on to explain that she had fixed similar broken situations before.  And had made two happy families with shared children and shared love.  I wanted that.  I wanted to believe that.

She quit two weeks later.  My ex-wife blames me.  I know the truth.  I know it was because she was being given two different stories and she didn’t know who to believe.  She quit like the court did.  She quit because she didn’t want the responsibility for making a bad decision about which parent told her the truth.  And she told me that we needed to learn to co-parent.

There was the magic word once again.  And I have thought and pondered that word for an awfully long time.  Not only because I think it’s a word to shirk responsibility.  I think about it because I believe that word anyway.  I think about it because I want co-parenting to be real in my life.  But after much thought and a lot of turmoil trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, I made eight different discoveries about co-parenting in the process of trying to be a co-parent with my child and former partner.  And now I am going to share them all with you.  In my in-depth research, I discovered the following (Or it beat me over the head. I am never sure which.):

8 Things I Discovered About Co-Parenting But Was Never Told

1) You have to respect the other parent in order to be a co-parent.

This goes to so many different things that you cannot realize.  But ultimately it comes down to the fact that you are accepting the decision-making skills of the other parent while you are away from your child.  As I stated previously, every parent makes hundreds of decisions about their children throughout the day. Even leaving them in their room for an extended period of time is a decision.  Your “co-parent” needs to trust that your children will be safe and secure all that time with you.  Dads tend to encourage risk.  Moms tend to helicopter.  Mom’s and Dad’s work to be understanding of each other and how both skill sets are importance in the middle of happy relationships.  Good relationships still take work.

But this relationship has already gone south because of a lack of trust.  And as trust goes out the door, so does respect.  How do you expect the other parent to keep calm about the decisions you make when they don’t trust or respect you.  And what’s worse, this lack of trust breeds fear in the child.

2) Co-Parenting means a lot of fake feelings being displayed.

As I sit here and write this, I know that some of you will be reading this in shock and horror thinking that you would never lie to your child.  And the rest of you are looking at this and saying, of course, you need to fake things so that your child feels secure.  For those who stare in abject horror, that is the crux of the issue.  In order for your child to grow up well adjusted they need to feel secure in both places.  You should never question the other parent in front of the child.  And you should never put down the other parent in front of the child.  Because the child knows they come from both of you.  Putting down the other parent puts down the child.

So in order to feel successful, you need to put into practice the sociological practice of praxis.  Praxis says do actions and feelings will follow.  This means fake it until the feelings come.  We often think feelings precede actions.  But praxis says the reverse is possible.  Being that there have been so many days of bitter feelings, and so many days of fighting, expressing your real feelings would damage your child.  All you have left is the hope that acting nice will change your feelings about the other person.  Co-parenting means you live by praxis.

3) Co-parenting is not a one-way street.

To examine this statement you must think about all of life.  You cannot co-parent unless the other parent is equally cooperative.  If they aren’t living by the rules of co-parenting then you really aren’t doing it.  You can be doing the right things in regards to your child, and everything can blow up in your face because the other parent is manipulating and conspiring against you.  You don’t want to get down into the gutter with your ex, and so you can pretend that you are co-parenting.  But I tell you that ends with your child thinking you abandoned them because the other parent keeps manipulating and pulling strings until your court scheduled visitation turns into swiss cheese.  You may think that the path of least resistance is helping your child.  But really you are just killing your relationship with your child.

I wouldn’t say that it’s now ok to badmouth your child’s parent now because they are badmouthing you.  Keep the high road, but fight for everything else and show how you want to be there for your child.  Because if you don’t, you won’t be co-parenting.  You won’t even be single-parenting.  Your ex-spouse will convince a judge that skype parenting would be ok.  That is not the case.  You know that. Your kids know that.  And anyone who pretends skype parenting is real parenting needs a padded cell.

4) Abdication of decision making is not co-parenting.

You may have let your spouse run all over you while you were married.  They may have been the ones with the primary decision-making responsibilities for a whole host of things.  And if you are a male, you may have especially allowed your spouse to make decisions about your children.  If you are the primary breadwinner, you frequently allow the other parent to make all kinds of decisions about the family.  But now you are split.

Just remember that things have changed.  This is not like a wedding where your fiancee keeps pressuring you to be involved in decision making about various different aspects.  Once divorced, they will want to make all the decisions for the child on their own. Or even if they don’t “want” to make all the decisions, they will find it easier to make all of those decisions anyway.  If you are giving up on being part of that process, you are not co-parenting.

You can’t be there when little Billy skins his knee on the pavement and cleans up the wounds and puts bandages.  You will have to accept that your child’s other parent can handle that.  But you also can’t accept that she switches doctors without knowing why.  Or you can’t accept that Jane should be taking Ballet classes after school without knowing whether or not it could be interfering with her ability to do well in school.  She may be overloaded.  Co-parenting may mean ultimately putting up a united front, but it doesn’t have to start that way.  And abdication of decision making will reflect on your feelings about what your child does, and your child will notice.  You want to care.  And your kids want you to care.  Don’t stop caring.

5) Co-parenting does not mean agreeing.

This reiterates what I said in the last segment.  In order for you to not abdicate decision making and be a real co-parent, you need to care about what your kids are doing.  No two people agree on every little decision that is made.  And if you do, then I would argue you do not really care about the other person or the decisions being made.  As you will not always agree, you need to stand up and disagree where you think it is important to defend the interests of your child. Co-parenting means involvement.  Involvement means disagreement.   Just remember, when you disagree it is essential that you do it outside the presence of your child.  Then, you come to a consensus and present that to your child.

6) Co-parenting means compromise, on both sides.

As parents, you need to be able to negotiate with your former partner about what you should do moving forward.  As you reach areas of impasse, and they will occur, you need to be able to split the difference in as many ways as you possibly can.  This means understanding your former partners’ limitations as well as your own.  So if you want some time with your child for a particular event switching may be a good thing.  But if the other person has a difficult time switching as they have time constraints, you might need to be more flexible in order to get what you want.  Also, you will have to know what is important to them and be willing to give that to them if something is important to you.  Co-parenting means creating win-win situations, not “I win, you lose” ones.

7) Co-parenting requires empathy.

I’m just going to say it right now.  If your partner is a sociopath then I think you can quit reading here and read some comics, or maybe take a Xanax . . . you might need it.  In order to be a co-parent properly, you have to be able to empathize with what the other parent is going through.  You may not have worked out your marriage but you need to be able to work out things for the interests of your children.  As such you need to be able to figure out what your child may feel by your actions, and what their parent may feel by your actions.  Without empathy, you damage your ability to relate and be a successful co-parent as well as damage your child by insensitive words you say and actions you take.

8) Successful co-parenting takes time.

I am not high and mighty.  I am not a successful co-parent . . . yet.  Maybe, I will never be one.  I think there are some things that would make that difficult.  The lack of empathy and compassion, as well as the ability to compromise, may be sorely lacking.  And being bruised and beaten up so often it’s like I am suffering battered spouse syndrome every time my daughter’s mother tried to get me to agree with her about something.  I am always looking for some angle.  The truth is, I need to stop.  And she needs to stop.    And we both need to give ourselves the grace to understand that in our hurt, not everything is fixed immediately.

This means if I want to be successful I have to give myself the room to fail.  And the grace to succeed.  There will be times where my feelings are being hurt.  There will be times where hers are as well.  If I am going to exist in a world where I believe I can co-parent successfully, I need to know that things won’t happen overnight. And  I need to hope that things can change, even where I fear that it might not be possible.

Continue The Conversation

I would love to hear from you about this topic.  Not just from those who are divorced or separated, although if you are I want to know your thoughts.  But even from married people, how do you make decisions about your children? What kinds of agreements do you have with your spouse?  Are you the primary decision maker?  And if you are, why?  And if not?  Why not?  How does it work for you?  And even as married people, do you think the notion of co-parenting is better there as well?

I look forward to hearing from you all about this.  Check out some links about co-parenting and mental health issues down below.  And if you loved my blog, and would love to read more, please follow me, and check out some of my other posts.  New subscribers by email get access to my Dad Rules section of the blog.

Until next time, this is me signing off.

David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life

Other information available on the web

Co-Parenting Tips For Divorced Parents – @

The Do’s and Don’ts of Co-parenting Well – @ Psychology Today

Borderline Personality Disorder Definition – @ NIMH

How to Spot a Sociopath – @ Psychology Today

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