Anyone who thinks co-parenting is easy has probably never tried it themselves! Even if you and your ex did your best to “consciously uncouple,” you are still likely to push each other’s buttons from time to time after your divorce.
On the other hand, if your divorce was more like World War III than a civilized split, your co-parenting afterward is going to be even more challenging.
Building a Solid Co-Parenting Relationship
In order to be able to co-parent your kids effectively you’ll need to establish parenting processes in five main areas:
- Communication (How do you talk with each other about the kids);
- Scheduling (When your kids’ schedule needs to change – especially on short notice – what do you do?);
- Expenses (Who pays what, and how do the expenses get paid, tracked and reimbursed);
- Decision-Making (What decisions can each parent make on their own? What decisions need both parents to discuss first? How do you have those discussions?)
- Parenting Issues (What rules will your kids have in each house?).
How you tackle each of these areas depends on who your ex is.
If your ex is a reasonable person and s/he was a decent parent before your divorce, then all you’ll probably need to do is have conversations with him/her about how you’re going to handle these five areas.
Of course, not all of those conversations will be perfect. You’re likely to disagree on some things. Working through those disagreements can be stickier now than when you were married. But as long as you’re both reasonable, and you put the kids first, you’ll get through those conversations.
If your ex is NOT reasonable, or if your divorce left the two of you unable to talk to each other, then you’ve got a more challenging situation to deal with.
Co-Parenting with a Difficult Ex
If your ex is narcissistic, high-conflict, or unreasonable, then establishing the boundaries of your co-parenting relationship can be problematic. At the same time, your ability to co-parent effectively depends on setting up and maintaining those boundaries and your parenting processes even more.
Entire volumes have been written on how to co-parent with a narcissist. If you suspect your ex is a narcissist, or if you are in a high-conflict situation of any sort, then you don’t just need to establish parenting processes. You need to make rules.
The rules you make MUST be in writing. Oral agreements aren’t worth the paper they’re (not) written on!
If you can’t talk to your ex, then work with a mediator, a family therapist, or a parenting coordinator. All of those professionals can help you establish a set of rules around your co-parenting.
Regardless of what kind of co-parenting relationship you have with your ex, knowing how to handle difficult situations in advance can be helpful.
Here are 10 tips to help you and your ex smooth out the bumps in your co-parenting relationship.
1. Discuss how you will handle important parenting issues BEFORE you divorce.
Many people make the mistake of not talking about hot button parenting issues until after they are divorced. While avoiding difficult conversations might make your divorce smoother initially, it can make your life after divorce total hell.
It is far better to deal with the issues you know are there while you are still going through your divorce than it is to go back to court and fight about them afterward.
If you’re already divorced and you DIDN’T have these discussions, then you need to take the bull by the horns and tackle them now. If you and your ex can’t do that on your own, you can use a mediator or a parenting coordinator to help you set your ground rules.
As a last resort you can use lawyers. But since getting lawyers involved tends to escalate the conflict in your relationship, you probably won’t want to call your lawyer until you’ve got issues you just can’t deal with in any way OTHER than by going to court.
2. Create a dispute resolution process in your divorce judgment.
No matter how much you try to resolve your parenting issues before you divorce, inevitably things will come up after your divorce that you never thought about. For that reason, your divorce judgment needs to lay out a dispute resolution process.
For example, you might say that if you and your ex disagree on an important issue, you will try to talk about it in person first. If you can’t agree, then you’ll have to go to a mediator and try to work things out. If you still can’t agree after you’ve done all that, then you can go to court.
Going to court should ALWAYS be your last resort. It’s time-consuming, painful and expensive. Even if your divorce judgment DIDN’T set out an alternative way for you and your to resolve your disputes, that still doesn’t mean you and your ex should go to court first.
If you can get your ex to agree to go to mediation, you can always try to work out your disagreements there first, no matter what your divorce judgment says.
3. Learn to communicate in a way that doesn’t make you crazy!
If talking to your ex grates on your very last nerve, then find a way to communicate that doesn’t require face-to-face (or even phone) conversation. Use texting and email rather than phone calls to talk.
If even limiting your communication to text and email doesn’t work, there are lots of co-parenting apps you can use to communicate. Some, like Our Family Wizard, even have a “tone-o-meter” that will help you and your ex keep things civil.
Another way to put technology to work for you is to use a shared online calendar for scheduling and a shared online spreadsheet to track expenses for your kids. Something as basic as a shared Google calendar can keep everyone on the same page with your kids’ activities. You can use a Google Sheet to track shared expenses.
If you’re looking for something more secure than a simple Google Calendar or Google Sheet, many of the co-parenting apps can help with that as well. Most of them have shared calendar capabilities as well as expense tracking.
4. Presume Good Intent.
When your marriage dissolves, so does the trust that you once had with your ex. While rebuilding trust takes time (and sometimes never happens at all!) your interactions with your ex will improve dramatically if you can at least assume that your ex is at least trying to do his/her best.
(Again, if you’re dealing with a high-conflict ex or a narcissist, this might never be possible. But if you’re not, then presuming that your ex means well even if s/he did something bone-headed, will help you start dialing down the drama between you.)
For example, if your ex brings the kids home late, before you jump down his/her throat, try asking why s/he was late. Then LISTEN to his/her answer. If the lateness really inconvenienced you or the kids, trying having a conversation about that rather than an argument.
If your ex makes a questionable parenting choice, before you just roll your eyes and assume your ex is irresponsible, disrespectful, and purposely annoying, ASK your ex what’s up. You may have different parenting styles. Your ex may see things differently than you do. There may be a legitimate reason for your ex’s behavior.
The bottom line is that if you make it a rule to START by assuming the best about your ex, rather than the worst, you will be amazed at how your relationship with your ex (and your stress level) change.
5. Minimize the Opportunity for Conflict.
If you don’t manage information sharing with your ex well, it can quickly become a constant source of conflict and friction between you.
If you are the parent who gets the kids’ report cards, school notices, medical records, and activity schedules, and YOU have to provide copies of everything to your ex, after a while you’re going to start to resent being “the secretary.” You’ll really resent being yelled at by your ex if you don’t provide him/her with the information s/he thinks you should provide WHEN s/he thinks you should provide it.
On the other hand, if you’re the parent who is waiting to get information about your kids from your ex, you will eventually start resenting your ex for forgetting to give you all the information you want when you want it. (Everyone forgets something eventually.) You will feel like your ex is trying to keep information from you just to be spiteful.
No matter which end of the equation you’re on you can save yourself a lot of grief if you list both you and your ex as parents on all official documents. Ask your kids' school, sports teams, doctors etc. to send both of you duplicate notices about what is happening with your child. That way, one parent is not responsible for keeping the other in the loop.
6. Resist the Urge to Bad-Mouth Your Ex.
Your child is entitled to have a good relationship with both of his/her parents. Your kids are also children of BOTH you and your ex. When you badmouth your ex in front of your kids, it hurts your kids at a level you may not realize.
What’s more, ALL bad-mouthing hurts your kids. It doesn’t matter if your kids are mad at your ex and THEY are badmouthing him/her! You still need to take the high road and bite your tongue.
It doesn’t matter that you think that what you said “wasn’t that bad” or “you didn’t really mean it.” ALL of it counts.
Even landing an occasional dig at your ex matters! Children, even young children, pick up on way more than you think.
Don’t sabotage your kids’ relationship with your ex by talking badly about your ex in front of them! (And, YES, you need to do that even if your ex has no problem talking badly about you!)
7. Stay Focused on the Kids.
Navigating a co-parenting relationship with someone you’ve been married to will always be a little tricky and awkward – especially at first. If your ex falls into the “difficult” category, then working with him/her as a co-parent will likely be even more challenging for an even longer period of time.
To avoid conflict, keep your interactions with your ex to a minimum. Only talk about your kids. Resist the urge to ask about your ex’s life, health, business or extended family. You may think you’re being polite by asking about what’s happening in your ex’s world. Meanwhile your ex may think you’re being intrusive.
Don’t waste your energy trying to analyze or criticize your ex. What s/he is doing is none of your business anymore.
(By the way, your ex’s love life is also none of your business! Unless your ex is dating a drug addict, a serial killer or a child molester, digging into who your ex is dating has no legitimate purpose. It will only cause pain for you, and problems for your kids.
In short, talk to your ex about the kids, and only about your kids.
8. Stop Trying to Control Your Ex.
Most parents know they shouldn’t use their kids to spy on their ex. Most parents know they shouldn’t use their kids to try to control their ex. Unfortunately, many parents end up doing both of those things without even realizing they’re doing it.
For example, do you find yourself giving your ex a hard time about taking the kids on vacation with his/her new squeeze? Do you insist that your ex let you talk to the kids every day at a time that purposely messes up their activities with your ex? Do you “casually” ask your kids 1000 questions about what your ex is doing or how s/he is living when they come back after seeing your ex?
Or, maybe you’ve decided to hold back on child support, or make your payments late because you don’t like the way your ex is spending that money? Or maybe you’re not paying your share of the kids’ expenses because you don’t agree that they needed to incur those expenses?
(HINT: You may have a point if your ex just enrolled your kids in traveling hockey without your consent. But if you’re squabbling about braces, medical care, or paying other expenses that every kid on the planet incurs, are you really trying to reign in your ex’s crazy spending? Or are you just being difficult, controlling, or trying to get back at your ex?)
The bottom line is that, without even realizing it, you may be doing things that are making your life (and your kids’ lives!) harder. When you change YOUR behavior, you may be surprised at how much easier co-parenting with your ex becomes.
9. Use the 10 Second Rule.
Most people know the “10 Second Rule” for dropping food on the floor. (If you don’t know it, the rule is that if you drop food on the floor, but pick it up within 10 seconds, it’s okay. You can still eat it. I can’t say whether doing that is a good idea or not. But that’s what the “rule” says!)
Applying the same rule when it comes to your ex’s behavior can make your relationship a lot less tense. (… and it doesn’t even require you to eat food that’s probably covered in dirt and germs!)
Applied to co-parenting, the “10 Second Rule” is this. When your ex does something that you consider to be completely insane (especially in front of the kids) you delay your reaction for at least ten seconds. In other words, you take a deep breath. You count to ten. And THEN you react.
By delaying your reaction, you give yourself time to think. You give yourself time to control yourself and start managing your emotions. Even though ten seconds isn’t a lot of time, it’s enough to allow you to use your head before you open your mouth.
When you do that, you have a much better chance of keeping your cool and reacting with reason. That helps you avoid exploding, which in turn causes your ex to explode. That keeps your kids from having to endure another emotional hurricane. Meanwhile you can figure out how to deal with the issue at hand in a more logical and productive way.
10. Manage Your Expectations.
Parenting is the hardest job on the planet. Co-parenting takes that job and increases the difficulty level by 10x.
If you go into co-parenting expecting your ex is going to parent your kids the same way that you do, you are probably going to be fighting with your ex until your kids turn 18. Your ex is NOT always going to agree with you, or let you have your way. That’s probably part of the reason why you’re divorced – because you and your ex didn’t or couldn’t get along.
The reality is – you can’t control your ex. And human behavior is consistent. If your ex was horrible to the kids while you were married, don’t expect him/her to turn into parent-of-the-year after your divorce. Sure, some people can turn on the charm during their divorce in order to get what they want in the divorce process. But if your ex is fundamentally a jerk, s/he is not going to be able to sustain looking like the nicest person in the world forever. Sooner or later his/her true colors will show through.
What that means for you as a co-parent is you need to deal with the ex you have. Instead of thinking everything will be wonderful (or horrible!) after your divorce, try to see things as they are.
If you adjust your expectations so that they are realistic, instead of idealistic or fatalistic, you will be a lot less stressed out, your kids will be happier, and co-parenting will be much, much easier. Plus, dealing with reality as it is will allow you to use co-parenting strategies that might actually work given the situation that you’re in, with the ex that you’ve got.
Co-Parenting Like a Boss
Co-parenting after divorce can be challenging in the best of situations. But whether your coparenting relationship with your ex is good, bad, or something in between, you can co-parent more effectively if you focus on the five main areas you need to manage in order to raise your children in peace.
By using the tips in this article, and being realistic about your situation and about your ex, you can start creating a co-parenting relationship that works better. Will it be perfect? Of course not. Nothing is.
But better is better. And the more you work to be the best co-parent you can be, the better off your kids will be, regardless of what your ex does or doesn’t do.
This post was originally published in February, 2016, and updated on March 21, 2022.
Looking for pro bono help after divorce trial. Final order and PP don’t match up. My ex lawyer said he had to put down what judge said, not what I wanted, but he asked me what judge said. My ex admitted to watching porn on his cell and son seeing it, that he hasn’t filed taxes (personal or business), he is self employed and testified he doesn’t remember last time he filed. His mother where he lives, is treating me like scum off the streets while she took my son, ex-wife #2, my son’s 1/2 sister out of state while I had to be in Court over eviction from marital home.
PP has loop holes, wrong times and on and on. I need help!!
I’m sorry, but I can’t give legal advice online or outside the state of Illinois. You’re going to have to find a good family lawyer in your area. Your local Legal Aid Office might be a good place to start.