How to work with your ex-partner for the sake of the kids
'We're still going to be friends after all of this. We have to be, for the sake of the kids.'
Michelle used the well-worn cliche as she discussed her impending divorce with friends. Sadly, being friends is an optimistic idea that rarely works in practice. It is ironic that the person you will be forced to share the most important decisions with in relation to your children will be the person you find impossible to get along with. Co-parenting means putting your love and care for your children above your frustration and resentment with your ex.
The following list of ideas can help you to work together with your ex to give your children the best possible conditions in difficult circumstances.
How to treat your ex-partner
- Treat co-parenting like a business venture. You wouldn't yell at a client. You wouldn't denigrate your clients, talk about them behind their back to other stakeholders, or ring them at all hours. Show the same restraint in regards to your ex.
- Kill your ex with kindness. Do it for the kids. It's best for them, and for your relationships, and for you.
- Make it easy for your children to love both of you by showing a genuine positive interest in what they do with their other parent. Tell them you hope they'll have a great time at mum's/dad's. It reduces the emotional distress and internal conflict the child feels at departure. And it lessens the need children might feel to be loyal to one parent over the other.
Create a co-parenting plan
Sit down together and create a general parenting plan. Again, treat it like a business plan, and a business transaction. Think about things like schedules, agreement on friends, rules, etc. Keep it as your parenting template - but remember to be flexible. Then, maintain the routine in both houses. Work out how things should work, and communicate the right way:
- Use a book to write things down. It is much harder to forget things, mix things up, or get upset with each other when everything is in writing.
- Communicate on just one or two issues at a time to keep communication lines open and simple. It reduces confusion. It's not always practical, but it is generally the most helpful way to deal with things.
- Don't use your kids to pass on messages. Use the communication book, SMS, email, etc. It may be a simple matter like rescheduling a pick-up or drop-off, but if it upsets your ex (perhaps due to inconvenience) then your child will feel responsible.
For a lot of families, mum will become the primary carer of the children. But the other caregiver should remain involved:
- For younger children, shorter more frequent visits with dad are best. If your child is under the age of two then every effort should be made for daily contact with both parents.
- I discourage sleepovers until the child is three years old. It's confusing for the child and can cause real separation anxiety. It can also harm the attachment between the main caregiving parent and the child. For children under two it is generally too distressing to even consider sleep-overs (although some children will cope).
- If your child is upset at visiting his other parent, that should be acknowledged. In most cases, though, the visits are important (except in cases of aggression, abuse and violence). However, the contact should be in a way that you can all feel good about. For example, Mat would visit his ex-wife's home every night on his way home from work. He would read their four children a story and help with their bath. On some occasions he stayed for a meal as well, so he could tuck the children into bed. When Mat re-partnered, his visits became more sporadic, but enough time had elapsed and enough relationship building had occurred that he was able to have his children come over to his home for sleepovers. When Mat's ex-wife re-partnered, the visits stopped due to tension, but other flexible arrangements were worked out. Mat explained to his kids, 'Now that Mummy's married to Richie, it's better if I don't come in.' When asked 'Why', he simply responded that it's 'Mummy and Richie's house now, and it's better if I don't come in.'
- Some children work out that they can play mum and dad off one another. 'Dad let's me do that all the time though, Mum. 'In that instance, simply saying 'I'll talk with your Dad about it and we'll make a decision. Then I'll let you know. In the meantime, you follow our rules.'
- In some homes things will be done differently. Acknowledge that there's not really any right and wrong on most issues, and it's just 'different.'
Working with your ex will be one of the more challenging aspects of your life for some time after you have separated from your spouse. Your ability to treat your ex partner with respect and kindness, consider your parenting together as a business venture, and communicate kindly with one another can make an enormous difference in your own lives, and more importantly, in the lives of your children.
This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson for Kidpsot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz