So, you’ve made The Decision. Or, you are still considering divorce, but some serious doubts about co-parenting (and the separation’s potential impact on your kids) are creeping in. Valid, logical, and not at all an isolated incident — in fact, the likelihood of shared custody after divorce more than doubled in the United States from before 1985 until 2010–2014, from 13% to 34%. So, around a third of parents are working through these same issues every day. On a good day, they might even be working through them with some sort of collaborative spirit. For other couples and at different points in post-divorce life, not so much.
Co-parenting might seem like a secondary concern if you are navigating divorce, but it’s actually one of the most important aspects if you have kids and their mental health is top of mind. In one study, co-parents who thought poorly of the other parent disrupted effective co-parenting dynamics. “Children fared worse,” they report, in social-emotional adjustment, and researchers concluded that your perception of your former partner plays a role in how smoothly co-parenting goes.
What Parents Worry About
Experts list worrying about your kids as a top reason people avoid divorce, especially when they aren’t sure how the other parent will help them work through it… or not.
Aurisha Smolarski is a California-based therapist whose book Cooperative Co-Parenting for Secure Kids will be released in January. She points to the following fears as the main concerns she has seen clients worry about fears of:
- The kids getting hurt in the divorce
- Missing out on important milestones for the kids
- Being replaced
- Never finding another partner
- Being alone
- Coparenting finances
- Losing the kids
“These are the top fears because they represent the old attachment wounds many people carry with them, such as fear of abandonment, shame, and negative beliefs about oneself,” Smolarski says.
“These tend to be long-standing issues, dating back to early childhood experiences of not having one’s needs met or not feeling loveable or worthy. Co-parents considering divorce often have these kinds of core issues that can be traced back to their early attachment relationships.” She recommends a deep dive into healing work with a therapist, coach, or another mentor to help process the past and move into successful co-parenting.
Here’s what experts say about identifying, navigating, and overcoming fears around co-parenting for your kids’ sake and your own.
Channeling Dislike — and Even Hate — to Spare the Kids
By the time you get to making co-parenting decisions, you may strongly dislike your partner. You might even despise them. And the idea that you have to hide all of that for the sake of the kids might seem daunting and unfair.
“Some divorces are extremely acrimonious. The party’s hatred for one another is palpable. This is particularly true in the case of (but is not exclusively limited to) infidelity,” says Sarah Intelligator, divorce attorney at the Law Offices of Sarah A. Intelligator in Studio City, Calf., and author of Live, Laugh, Find True Love, adding that the spouse who didn’t cheat sometimes uses the children to “punish” the spouse who did.
“The victim of infidelity may also attempt to alienate the children from the cheating spouse. When one parent is so focused on harming the other, their relationship grows all the more contentious, rendering it virtually impossible for the parties to communicate and co-parent.”
Smolarski says that setting up some clear boundaries on this topic for yourself and your ex, if they will cooperate, might include:
- No conflict within earshot of the kids
- No negative talking about the co-parents in earshot of the kids
- No delivering messages through the child to the other parents
- No asking your child for their “take” on an adult’s perspective
- Acting cordially and respectfully to the co-parent, even if you are absolutely faking it
Wishing to Escape the Ex
Many people who are considering divorce wonder how they will heal if their Sunday nights still consist of scheduled meetings with them, coordinating carpools and practices and school events. Parents worry about still having to interact with their ex post-divorce, and having to get their ex’s permission on various child-related topics, how to share holidays with the kids,…” says Jolee Vacchi, divorce lawyer and founder of Foundations Family Law in Whitinsville, Mass.
“These tend to be top-of-mind anxieties for divorcing couples because the marriage is ending for a reason, and many people just want to escape the conflict by not having to deal with their ex ever again.”
Part of co-parenting is dealing with the self re-education that divorce with kids doesn’t mean you never have to deal with your ex again. Instead, it means changing how it’s done. Vacchi says community is integral to getting support for that. “It can be so beneficial to learn from the wisdom of others who have already navigated this path and who can help you heal.”
Easing Logistical Annoyances
No kid wants to live out of a suitcase, if possible. Instead, try to opt for a set of everything they need at each house; just the basics, Vacchi says, including clothes, pajamas, weather-appropriate outerwear and footwear, toiletries, school supplies, etc. This way, you can focus on diligence about only what really needs to be exchanged, she adds, such as sports equipment or laptops for school.
“Communication and flexibility are key here: Make sure your agreement has clear terms for when and how you will communicate, how issues will be resolved, and how flexible each of you will be in the event scheduling conflicts come up in the future,” says Kara Francis, divorce coach and mediator. “It’s better to over-plan in your legal document so you have a fail-safe, as opposed to having an unclear document that causes disputes.
There’s an App for That
If you and your ex didn’t do so well organizing soccer practices and PTA meetings when you were together, chances are you are dreading it even more now. Luckily, Vacchi says, there’s an app for that.
“Utilizing a co-parenting app can be extremely helpful for co-parents to streamline and organize communications and to maintain a joint calendar for the kids so that everyone has access to important appointment and event information for school, doctors, and activities,” she says.
And if it’s still not working, there are people whose actual job is to help you communicate and coordinate. “Parties can agree to use a parent coordinator, mediator, or other third-party neutral to resolve disagreements prior to filing an action in court.
In addition, she says some parties even grant decision-making authority to a neutral or designate that one parent has final decision-making authority in the event of a conflict so that decisions can be made without having to litigate.
And When You’re Just Worried You’ll Miss Your Kids…
Francis uses this helpful formula with co-parenting and divorcing partners worried about this and other concerns, called “Accept, Reality-Test, and Plan.” Here’s how it’s done, she says.
“Acknowledge and accept that the fear exists. Sometimes, we are so scared of being scared that we do everything we can to try to outrun or escape the fear. But that’s just not possible. You need to give fear a seat at the proverbial table; otherwise, it will always hang over your head.”
“The next step is to reality-test — is this fear grounded in reality based on the facts of the situation? Or is this fear unlikely to ever occur?”
“Last step is contingency planning: If the fear were to materialize, what would you do? How can you plan ahead for it?”
Unfortunately, when it comes to missing your kids, you totally will. The experts say that’s normal. And it sucks, for lack of a prettier phrase. But by adopting some of these strategies, hopefully it — and co-parenting in general — will suck a little less.