Your family is a microculture, a unique fingerprint of you, your partner, and your children. Divorce is the dissolution of this culture, but also, just as significant, the restructuring of it.
Statistics say that somewhere between 40-50% of adults will navigate divorce at some point in their lives. This means that roughly one in two children will see their parent’s marriage dissolve. This affects the entire family ethos, but we now know that it doesn’t have to be a negative experience.
The question that haunts our minds is Will this ruin my kids?
In a word, no. It’s rarely the divorce itself but rather our reactions to it that have the deepest influence on our children’s coping mechanisms and overall well-being.
When a relationship severs - especially if there are underlying wounds of anger, hurt, and resentment - there’s actually a physiological shift that happens in our bodies. The person our nervous system once sought for connection now recognizes as an opponent, which signals bodily stress responses and hormones when in close proximity, and sometimes, just at the mere mention of them.
This affects each person’s ability to think, communicate and listen, and can be a major roadblock when it buds up with co-rearing children. While you may be apart, you are raising your children together.
Despite differences, there is still a familial pulse when co-parenting. Your neurology remains interconnected, at least to a degree. Co-partners who choose their battles and cooperate when there are parenting differences are more likely to override their reactive impulses and make healthy decisions for their children. In return, children are more likely to transition smoothly.
According to Dr. John Gottman, author of “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, “In families where the parents aren’t living with each other or are not going to stay married, the parents can best help their children by minimizing their children’s exposure to destructive conflict. High levels of parental conflict create emotional distress in children and decrease effective parenting skills.”
But how do we co-parent with our ex?
Well, the first step may be to reframe how you view the other parent. Calling them your “ex” will likely resurface historical arguments and highlight the reasons you chose to end the marriage in the first place. Referring to them as your “co-parent” shifts the focus from you to your kids, which is where we want to find our middle ground.
Co-parenting children is really like a business. You don’t have to like who you work with in order to get the job done. You do need to respect them, or at the very least tolerate them in order to communicate, manage schedules, and delegate tasks. Your children are your mutual gain. They are the raise, and the bonus, and everything in between, and they are worth working together for.
FINDING MIDDLE GROUND IN CO-PARENTING
Finding common ground on your parenting philosophies and practices can be tricky, especially when there are unresolved unpleasant emotions by either co-parent. Find time to work through your hurts and feelings, knowing they are valid and sacred and that they are separate from rearing your children.
“And” statements can be a lifeline when communicating with someone you disagree with. Try a few of these or create your own to help your mind and heart cultivate space for the conversations ahead.
- I have my thoughts, feelings, and realities and they have theirs too.
- I don’t have to agree and I can listen.
- I will set boundaries and I am willing to compromise to find middle ground for the sake of our children.
When both co-partners are ready, come together to talk using these 6 tools:
1. Create emotional and physical safety
Research shows that our brains have a greater sensitivity to negative input; a built-in protection mechanism intended to keep us safe from harm.
Creating a shift of energy that promotes a safe environment allows both co-partners to feel heard and validated, providing an opening for compromise.
With clear minds and hearts, the sharing of ideas can occur. Ask open-ended questions and then pause to hear what your co-partner has to say.
According to the Gottman Institute, completing and talking about the following statements as a parenting partnership can help evoke safety and connection, a great first step to co-parenting:
- I feel that you are a good parent because ____.
- I feel that my role as a parent is to ___.
- It’s most important to me for our child to be ___.
- My goal in raising our child is ___.
Although it can be challenging, it helps to commit to actively listening - to really hear one another, even when you disagree with what the other person is saying.
This tip can help you shift your goal from convincing your co-partner to see things your way to actually listening to what they have to share without feeling that your differing views are under attack. Instead, validate their emotions, which isn’t always easy to do, however, when people feel seen and heard, they are more likely to compromise and work together. The ultimate goal here is not to win the argument but to find middle ground.
3. Create a shared vision
Talking through these sharing prompts will help you recognize how your different parenting styles align with your sometimes differing goals:
- My parents were ___ and I feel that was ___.
- To me, discipline means ___.
- What are our parenting strengths (individually/collectively)?
- The approach to parenting that I most align with is ____ because ____.
Here, take the larger, shared vision and focus on desired rules and boundaries and why you feel that they are important. Children thrive off of consistency and predictability. Finding a rhythm among the two homes will help your children transition.
Some key intentions for both homes may be:
- A commitment to spending quality time with your child
- Focusing on discipline over punishment
- Fluid routines and schedules between homes
- Unity on clear limits
You may also take this time to address any reoccurring, high-stress situations you are dealing with. Together, brainstorm ideas as to why certain behaviors arise from your child.
Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, invites co-parents to ask these questions:
- Why did our child act this way (What was happening internally/emotionally)?
- What lesson do we want to teach?
- How can we best teach it?
5. Embrace differences
This is not a clear case of right and wrong. As two parents rearing children, you don’t have to have the same strengths to be effective co-parents. Find your co-partner’s strengths as well as your own, and bring the best parts of you to this transition.
For example, if your strength is talking to the kids about their feelings via a Time-In, use it to help them process what is going on. You may find that using a scripted story also helps your children integrate their emotions with the logic of what is happening.
If, on the other hand, your co-partner is more comfortable with being playful, use that strength to speak to your child’s developing brain to help them navigate the stress of change.
We can’t be everything to everyone all the time. But we can use our strengths as we work on our areas of growth, and this serves as a blueprint for our children to mimic.
6. Be a united front
It is highly unlikely that you will agree with every disciplinary action your co-partner makes. As long as you are not concerned with abuse or neglect, be a united front in the presence of your children. Undermining your co-partner in front of your children diminishes both of your authority and sends the message that there is a way around parenting decisions. Discuss your feelings in private and re-visit as a united pair.
WHAT IF YOUR CO-PARENT IS NOT INTERESTED IN SAME PAGE PARENTING?
Despite having the best of intentions, ultimately, we cannot force change on someone who does not want to change. When both co-partners continue to hold different ends of the tug of war rope, asking for help from an outside party can be useful. Parenting coaches, couple’s counseling, and/or online parenting courses can help co-parents reach compromise.
Every child needs at least one loving, stable adult in their life. You are that person. You cannot control what another says or does but you can manage how you show up for your children.
In being this safe place for your children, you boost their emotional resilience, essentially bubble wrapping them with protective factors to thrive.
Divorce can be a tricky route to navigate, and you will get through this.