Co-parenting is a difficult enterprise under the best of circumstances. It is likely that if you and your co-parent were able to agree on basic issues such as parenting, that you would not have divorced or separated. The problem is, the family courts expect parents to co-parent, especially where the decree or agreement awards joint physical and legal custody, as happens in the majority of cases. It is ironic that judges and court mediators often expect people who couldn’t make their marriage work find mature, win-win solutions to their basic parenting issues. But it can be done, and this article explores some techniques and strategies you can use to reach agreement on the parenting of issues.
1. Separate the person from the problem.
Your child has an interest in baseball, but many team practices are during your co-parent’s visitation time. Your co-parent is late for pickups and drop-offs for your parenting time. Or, your child has an illness and needs your co-parent to administer his medication properly. These are just three examples of issues which come up during co parenting.
Conflict often erupts because people, by nature, have a hard time separating the issues from the people involved. Divorce or separation often magnifies these problems, as the emotions of divorce make clear thinking extremely difficult. If you are not the party who wanted the divorce, you may feel deeply betrayed or angry. You may feel that you should not be in the position of having to co-parent with someone who is not your wife or husband.
When such emotions flare, we tend to revert to cognitive distortions. These are ways of thinking which personal the problem, such as “he’s always late with the children” or “she’s so selfish that she’ll never take Johnny to baseball practice during her parenting time.”
Notice how, in each example, the problem is personalized. The problem is the co-parent’s selfishness or bad habits. When issues are framed in this way, they offer the other person the role of the victim, and the natural human response is for the other parent to become defensive. In short, this is a recipe for conflict.
We advise that you plan co-parenting communications ahead of time, and that you couch them in such language that the problem is separated from the person. Then, invite your co-parent to suggest some possible solutions to the problem. In the above two examples, you could frame your communication like this:
Instead of “you’re always late with the children,” you could say, “There is a problem with consistency of drop-off and pick-up times. Do you have any suggestions on how this might be resolved?”
Instead of, “you need to take Johnny to baseball practice during your visitation time every Tuesday,” say “Johnny is having so much fun on the baseball team this year. Some of his practices are on Tuesdays. Do you have any suggestions as to how we could get him there on time?
Getting into the habit of depersonalizing issues and problems will help your co-parent remain level headed and get him or her thinking about how to resolve the issue, instead of how to defend herself from attack.
2. Change from a message delivery stance to an information gathering stance.
Most of the difficult conversations we have in life involve some message we want to deliver. Your neighbor’s dog barks all night and you can’t sleep. You tell him that if he doesn’t do something soon, you’ll report him to the homeowner’s association or take legal action. This strategy may or may not deal with the barking, but it is sure to upset your neighbor.
Of course, if you don’t care about having a relationship with your neighbor, delivery of your message may have the effect of influencing his behavior. But you can be sure that he won’t be offering you a hotdog at the next block party.
As co-parents, we are forced to have relationships with the very people we were unable to stay married to. For the sake of the children, why not build some trust and good will into that relationship? You can do this effectively by changing from a message delivery stance to an information gathering stance.
In the previous example on late drop-offs and pickups, you could ask your co-parent if there are any difficulties with pickup and drop-off of the children. What are those problems? Is there anything I can do on my end to help? Get her talking about the problem from her perspective. Often such conversations can yield a win-win solution that neither party considered.
The best attitude for this type of communication is one of kind curiosity. Try to appear helpful, and communicate to your co-parent that you wish to attack the problem. If your co-parent becomes defensive, try one of the disarming techniques (acronym) discussed below.
When communicating from your information-gathering stance, it is best to avoid questions beginning with the word “why?” People often see this as a rhetorical question, or an accusation framed as a question. For example, “why haven’t you been able to drop of the children at the proper times in our agreement?” or worse, “why can’t you ever pick up Johnny on time?” These are not really information-seeking questions, but merely accusations framed as questions. Again, they extend to your co-parent an opportunity to play the role of the accused, and they invite defensiveness.
To avoid this accusatory stance, attempt to state the problem in neutral language. Ask questions of your co-parent which are likely to produce information useful for problem solving. Your co-parent may say that his boss was expecting unusually long hours during tax season, or that it is not realistic for him to get from work to your home by the time set out in the parenting plan.
3. Frame your communication in neutral terms.
In building the relationship of trust necessary for co-parenting, a good habit is that of framing communication in neutral language. Neutral language attacks the problem, and is as free as possible from any accusatory implications.
Reframing communication in this way takes practice. Divorce Life solutions can help you by reviewing your communications to see if they are neutral, and to ferret out any accusatory implication.
One technique is to detach from the situation emotionally, and try to look at it from the perspective of a disinterested third party. If this party were mediating your issue between you and your co-parent, how might she frame the issue? What might she say to each of you to stimulate creative solutions?
Here are some examples of neutral language:
“An issue has arisen regarding the schedule of pickups and drop-offs” instead of “why are you always late?”
“There seems to be some inconsistency in the rules between our homes” is much better than “You have no standards for Johnny, and I have to do all the discipline.”
“An issue has arisen as to how our parenting plan should be interpreted” is preferable to “Why can’t you follow the agreement?”
4. Become an active listener.
Strong emotions and underlying agendas can be communication blockers. One such blocker is the feeling by a person that they have not been heard. You can be sure to build trust with your co-parent if you can meet this basic human need.
Here are a few techniques to help you remove this communication blocker and help your co-parent feel understood and heard:
Validate his feelings. You don’t have to agree with how he feels. Validation helps the person feel that they have been heard and helps them move on to problem solving. Validating statements reflect the emotion in the other’s statements and body language. Examples include, “I can see that the traffic during the drop off is a source of frustration for you.” Or, “That must be very upsetting for you.” Or even, “I can see how you feel that way. If I had that perception I might feel exactly as you do.
Acknowledge understanding. It is not necessary that you agree with everything your co-parent says, but it is important to demonstrate that you understand her. Statements such as, “I can see how you might have that interpretation,” “you could be right,” or “many people share that opinion” acknowledge what the person is saying without agreeing.
Paraphrase. “What I hear you saying is that you have difficulty getting to my house due to traffic. Did I understand you correctly?”
Ask clarifying questions. “What do you mean by ‘rush hour traffic’.”
Steven Covey has pointed out that being heard is like giving psychological air to the other person. Such air tends to build trust in relationships, and will help you to diffuse conflict during co-parenting.
5. Get rid of your but.
Our final recommendation in this article is address to the concern that we should not be doormats, but should be assertive with our requests. I am not advocating that you give in every time, one way to communicate effectively while not giving in is to change your “but” stance to an “and” stance. The “and” stance acknowledges that the other’s concern might be valid, and also asserts your concern.
An example of the “but” stance might be this statement:
“Johnny might be interested in baseball, but I can’t take him to both baseball and soccer practice.”
Notice how the entire tenor changes by changing just a few words:
“I’m glad that you support Johnny’s interest in baseball. And, I feel spread very thin when Johnny plays 2 sports. How might we solve this problem?”
The problem with the “but” stance is that it sees all situations as a zero-sum game. In other words, if you win on an issue, I lose. The “and” stance validates the interests of both co-parents and the child’s interests, and asks for creative, win-win solutions.
Joint problem solving is difficult under the best of circumstances. Divorce and resulting parenting plans add a dimension of difficulty, because of highly charged emotions, which prevent clear thinking. Some of these emotions can be diffused through the communication techniques mentioned in this article. These techniques help co-parents to depersonalize the problem, separate the personalities from the problem, and to encourage a spirit of cooperation between co-parents. Whatever your differences with your ex, you can almost always assume that they love the children and want the best for them. Moving from a message delivery stance to an information gathering stance will empower you and your co-parent to create win-win solutions to any co-parenting difficulties that arise.
Copyright © Thomas D. Ferreira, all rights reserved.