By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W.
The person who has hurt you the most has just become your partner—in a job you aren’t allowed to quit. How do you survive?
It may seem to be an impossible task, but it is possible to co-parent peacefully with your ex. If you can learn to stick to a business relationship, you can not only survive, but do a great job of parenting as well.
The key, of course, is to deal with the pain and anger of the split without letting the kids see you sweat. As ex-spouses, it becomes your responsibility to manage your own emotional loads while continuing to communicate with one another so you can make joint decisions about school, health and social issues regarding the children you both love.
There are two steps to this process: The first is to work hard at dealing with your own feelings, and the second is to see your co-parent as a business partner.
Deal with your feelings When your marriage ends, the feelings of pain, anger and loss can seem overwhelming. This is a normal reaction to a traumatic life experience. People who divorce before they have children may have the luxury of taking all the time they need to deal with these feelings. But those who divorce and plan to share the custody of children need to find a way to manage the emotional baggage immediately so they can care for the kids in a healthy way. If you don’t manage your feelings adequately on your own, you will bring them into your dealings with your co-parent and make a hard situation worse.
The key word here is “manage”—not deny, cover up or explode. While your feelings may be deep and extreme, with practice you can control them. Here are four steps to dealing with your feelings:
Identify them. While some post-breakup feelings come in with an obvious roar, others take a more subtle path. Tension, tears, headaches, fatigue, even lightheadedness, can be signs of strong feelings stirring within. Emotions that aren’t let out consciously will escape in another way, either through physical problems or inappropriate tears and angry explosions.
Accept them. You don’t have to like them, but do accept your feelings. You have a right to whatever you feel, and experiencing your emotions is a part of the process of moving on. Remind yourself that it is OK to feel angry, sad, lost, confused or scared.
Label them. You need to know what you’re feeling so you will know how to take care of yourself. Anger will need one form of care, loneliness another. Being hurt by your ex may mean you feel betrayed, abandoned, deceived or used. You may also feel bitter, vulnerable, ashamed, helpless, disappointed or a host of other normal responses.
Express them. Here is the greatest challenge: expressing your feelings without hurting yourself or anyone else, especially your children. Appropriate ways of expressing emotion may include running, walking, swimming, biking, talking to a friend, writing in a journal, dancing, skating, screaming (somewhere you can’t be heard), talking to a counselor, tearing up the newspaper, playing the piano, crying, or kicking or pounding pillows. Inappropriate expressions would be putting your fist through a wall, screaming at your kids, driving too fast, abusing alcohol or breaking valuable possessions.
Form a partnership If you can manage your emotions, you have a chance of succeeding at step two: seeing your co-parent as a business partner. You are working together in the business of raising healthy children. It is the most important job in the world and possibly the hardest. It is a hard job for an intact family in which both parents get along. The better you can work together with your co-parent/business partner, the better chance you have at succeeding.
Depending on their relationship, some couples will find it easier than others to work together as co-parents. If the thought of working with your ex-spouse gives you nightmares, try the following suggestions:
• Start fresh. Your feelings toward your ex likely stem from what has happened between you in the past. Agree to keep all of the personal feelings about this out of your new business relationship. Look ahead, not behind.
• Get formal. If it’s too hard to keep your bad feelings in check, put as much structure into your relationship as possible. Choose an “office” where you will conduct your official child-rearing business. (Kitchen table, den, McDonalds? Choose a place where you can best work in a business-like manner.) Have a formal agenda or shake hands before every meeting if it helps set the tone. Decide on rules of conduct when you are together and stick to them.
• Agree on your goal. Assuming you both love your children, your ultimate goal should be to give them the best and healthiest life you can. Talk about this together; write it down in your own words and each of you keep a copy. When things get rough, bring your focus back to your main goal.
• Make it a business meeting. Go to the meeting with an agenda that is relevant to the care of your children. Make a list if it helps. Be efficient, consider all possibilities and make decisions that will help you reach your goal.
• Leave your emotions at the door. When you enter a business meeting with your job partner, make a conscious decision to leave your emotional baggage locked up. If there is a current personal problem between the two of you that needs clearing up, schedule another meeting for that. Keep your parenting separate from your relationship problems.
• Stay on track and in the present. If you find yourselves wandering into personal or past territory, get back to the point right away.
• Get out of the win-lose mentality. Do not make raising your children a point of competition between the two of you. Neither of you will win this way, and your kids will definitely lose.
• Learn to communicate differently. If you really can’t handle working with your ex in person, try the phone or e-mail. The important thing is that you two communicate so your children get the parenting they need. Also, remember it is never OK to use your children as messengers. “Tell your mom she’d better send your change of clothes or she can forget about the next custody payment,” is both disrespectful and frightening to your kids.
• Set a positive tone. Remind each other that the better you can work together, the better your kids will handle your split family situation. Children’s security comes from their trust in you to be stable, loving parents. When they see you working together as a team, they can breathe a little easier. When they see you fighting, they feel frightened and insecure.
• Get outside help. Co-parenting is hard and it only gets harder when you are forced to work with someone you dislike. Deep hurt and anger are hard to contain. If you cannot find a healthy way to parent with your ex, get some outside help. A counselor’s office can serve as an effective neutral ground for you and your ex to work out the problems that are getting in the way.
• Be bigger than the problem. Draw on a spiritual perspective to help you see your co-parent as a human being, struggling along life’s path just like everyone else. Try to move beyond hatred and vindictiveness.
• Remember the good. Maybe your personal relationship didn’t work out, but the two of you created some pretty great children together. If you can focus on that miracle, and agree to get along well enough to give them a good life, the rest will be easier to handle.
Strive for the ideal The ideal co-parenting situation is one in which both parents put aside their personal differences to work together in the best interests of their children. They are calm and mature when discussing their children’s needs; they compromise, respect each other and work out their own problems on their own time. Negative feelings for each other are kept separate from their work as parents.
This article illustrates an ideal co-parenting situation. It is important to set standards that are ideal so we know the best direction to move in. However, no parent can follow these suggestions perfectly. Know that if you are doing your best to work toward the ideal, you are doing as well as anyone can.
Lisa Schab is a social worker in Libertyville who works with blended families and couples, and is a stepparent in a blended family. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.