Coping with the challenges of a relationship break-up can be made all the more difficult when co-parenting comes into play. We share advice on how to ease the way when it comes to bringing up your children harmoniously.
In today’s world, relationships come and go. It might be argued that it’s also easier to avoid the “difficult” moments thanks to our modern lives: who hasn’t heard of the text to end a relationship, the defriending on Facebook, or a partner’s “change in relationship” status. Presumably these avoidance tactics are intended to protect both parties – the one ending the relationship from having to make the declaration personally and deal with the consequences, and the one being left from the pain of rejection up-close.
But sometimes whatever the heartbreak, there are times when it is not possible to avoid contact with your ex. Whether that is because you work together, live close by, or, as is common, have children together, skilfulness is required in negotiating new territory.
“That’s the big difference – when you’ve got children, you have to catch up,” says Jill Darcey, a life coach, counsellor, author of Parenting with the Ex Factor and founder of the Complex Family Foundation.
One way of understanding where the complexities arise is looking at the different starting points that face those dealing with the reality of co-parenting after their relationship has ended.
Darcey has developed a simple, non-judgemental way of explaining these positions. She divides former relationship partners into the “Leaver” (the one who has ended the relationship) and the “Leavee” (the one who is left). “These positions make a huge difference to how you view the world going forward,” she explains, also pointing out that people don’t always fall neatly into such extreme positions.
According to Darcey, the Leaver has a reason to move on and they often have a plan. They typically have done a lot of questioning and wondering about the relationship prior to raising the issue with their partner. They have worked through a lot of emotion before the monumental moment of calling an end to it. They have hope for the future and recognise that while they might be leaving the relationship, they are not leaving the role of parent.
The Leavee can be shattered and humiliated by the Leaver’s decision. They wonder what they could have or should have done differently. Their hope for the future is gone. Their grieving begins in a very public arena, in that they often find out their relationship has ended roughly the same time as their family and friends. They can be riddled with resentment. They often believe that when the Leaver walks away from the marriage, they are leaving the family: “You walked out on us, so now you can see the kids when it suits me,” is often the attitude of the Leavee.
In our culture, we are quick to assign blame. “We are raised on villain-and-victim fairy stories – in a divorce the Leaver naturally becomes the villain. The Leavee is the victim,” says Darcey. While it’s understandable that people want to make sense of others’ relationships, this categorisation minimises the complexity of break-ups. Ultimately, it’s more helpful to recognise that neither the role of villain nor victim tends to help anyone involved accept and adapt to the new situation.
According to Darcey, the villain/victim way of thinking is echoed by lawyers. “The legal route is very adversarial; it’s short-term thinking.” In her experience it’s often about the money (who gets what in terms of the relationship property) and the children’s routine (who has the kids when), but doesn’t recognise that the routine changes all the time. Darcey has seen tens of thousands of dollars spent attempting to resolve these two issues through the court system.
Contrast this with the longer-term view of keeping a civil relationship with your ex. This person will always be in your life by virtue of the fact they are your child’s other parent. How can you ease the co-parenting relationship through your behaviour? Will your ex welcome you the next time it’s parent-teacher interview time? What about important celebrations in your child’s life? Navigating this territory is about identifying your highest objective (usually to ensure the children have a good relationship with both parents and are not harmed by the process of separation) and working out how you need to behave for this to happen.
It’s not fair
Darcey believes there is nothing fair about the post-divorce situation. If people get caught up in fairness, they’ve lost the objective: “It’s about doing what works. You have to be prepared to swallow [your preferences].” She urges us to take a long-term view of the situation.
“Unfortunately most people don’t give their children a good start because they’re hurt. Hurt people often hurt other people. You might not like your ex or what they’ve done, but that is no excuse for the children not to be given the opportunity to love their other parent. Find a way to support the other parent because it is the children’s right.” (Of course there is the important caveat that if there has been abuse or neglect, extreme care must be taken.)
Strong emotions (hurt, rage, grief) will show up and could get in the way of who you want to be. This is where being able to regulate your emotions becomes important, as does knowing the values you want your child to see in your parenting. You have to become the person you want your child to emulate.
One of Darcey’s key messages is to never say anything bad about the other parent. Her view echoes research published in the Journal of Family Therapy in 2012, which found creating a distinction between the couple’s dispute and their responsibilities as parents was helpful to those involved. “You have to be completely protective of your own feelings towards your ex – work through your feelings outside of the kids’ zone.” Parents may want to engage in individual therapy to develop parenting abilities that play to their strengths and meet the child’s needs and desires. Others may find writing their process in a diary helpful. Getting emotional support from friends can be similarly beneficial. In Darcey’s experience, children are smart enough to eventually work out that the parent who is always angry, bitter and blaming others is not easy to be around. This clearly reduces that parent’s relationship with their children and gets the child wondering about each party’s contribution to the relationship breakdown.
As well as being raised on the concept of villains and victims, we often carry romantic notions about key decisions in life. In her lectures to students, Darcey confronts these head-on.
“You will be told that the biggest decision in your life is the person you are going to marry. I’m here to tell you the biggest decision you will make in your life is the person you are going to have a baby with.”
Jill Darcey’s top tips
• Be willing to make co-parenting work. Don’t get stuck on “why things are the way they are”, instead talk about “how we will make it work”.
• You can’t impose what you want on your ex, because you are separated/divorced. Instead of telling them what to do, refocus on how to teach your child to cope with whatever is going on. Replace the “right” and “wrong” way of doing things with the idea “it’s just different”. Keep in mind that if you are going to control what happens in their house, they can do the same for you.
• Text/email are notorious for miscommunication due to people not being able to pick up on the tone. If possible, sit down in a public place with agenda items and discuss.
• Work through your difficulties in your own time. Never use children as your confidante. Research is clear this harms kids’ emotional development no matter what age they are.
• Signal to others. Friends, family and your kids all want signposts from you about what to do. “You frame the window your child looks at divorce through,” says Darcey. “The younger the child, the easier it is to frame the situation.” Use language wisely as part of this e.g., “It is a complex situation”, and avoid using antiquated terms like “broken home”.