5 Tips For Better Communication With A Difficult Co-Parent

May 22, 2022

Dear Divorce Coach: 

My ex and I are newly divorced and have decided to co-parent our two children, but they are an extremely difficult co-parent, always fighting me on everything. I feel like we’re constantly at each other’s throats on every decision involving them. I’m at my wits end, but I want this to work for the sake of our children. Do you have any advice for how to move forward and better handle our fights so we can make co-parenting work?  

– Trying to Co-Parent

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Dear Trying to Co-Parent,

I’m so glad to hear that you’re not willing to give up on co-parenting so easily as one of the first things I share with my clients when they come to me for co-parenting coaching is it’s going to be hard. And even former couples who have co-parented successfully for years encounter challenges when their children hit new milestones. It is so important to learn the skills to establish a positive relationship with your other parent because acting with hostility and anger towards them can create lasting negative impacts on your child(ren). It may not be your fault that there is significant conflict, but it is still your responsibility to try and create a shift—for you and your child(ren).

All of us play a role in how we co-parent with someone else and we must reflect upon our role in a difficult dynamic. It is also true that some relationships cannot be the way we hope as we are only one piece of the puzzle. Even when this is the case, you want your child(ren) to grow up happy and healthy to become functional adults. Research shows that conflict between parents can result in harm to your child(ren)’s development and ability to maintain intimacy as adults. You can do things differently  in order to take care of them and you! 

You are now a co-parent and your relationship with your former spouse has changed 

First, remind yourself that regardless of whether you chose to separate and divorce or your co-parent did, there are reasons your co-parent is no longer your intimate partner. Understanding and accepting this truth is critical to how you create communication and interaction with them as your influence and contact should be much less now. The nature of your relationship is fundamentally different and it is in your best interest not to blur the past with the relationship you need to build going forward to be a good co-parent. I recognize letting go of or separating your history can be almost as big as the decision to divorce, but it is imperative that you do so for a number of reasons. It creates clear “rules of the road” for interaction, removing confusion and ambiguity which can be fodder for conflict. It also allows you to focus on the future and define the relationship you need to have for the sake of your children. Take a deep breath—likely more than one—and remember that your best responses and interactions will not be reactive, ever. 

In order to shift from a reactive mindset, you should proactively build a plan for self-care and de-escalation so that you feel more prepared for anything that may come your way. Taking the time to plan for your reactions outside of the moment makes it far less likely that you will find yourself escalating to high-conflict interactions. A few simple ideas include a meditation app, like Headspace as it can work wonders for your well-being. A power walk or other daily exercise also provides an outlet to let off steam appropriately. Finding a support network, whether friends or professional, with whom you can vent, pressure-test, etc. can also help you be prepared for potential tense moments with your former spouse. All of these can help you manage your own emotions better when interacting with any difficult person, including your co-parent.

Reduce high-conflict likelihood through parental cooperation, negotiation, mediation

Plan for communication and interaction with your co-parent in the same way you would for a difficult business or social colleague. They are no longer your romantic partner, so it’s best to recast how you think of them to a more “professional” view. This will help with keeping that clarity of interaction I mentioned before. But remind yourself that this relationship is far more important than any business or social interaction as it involves the health and well-being of your child(ren).  One strategy I have clients employ to mitigate conflict is through an enhanced and continued focus on their child(ren)’s needs. For some parents this does not come easy as they try to insert their desired outcome through the lens of their child(ren) which is not the same as child-centric co-parenting. We work, rather, over time to discern the difference between what is truly in the best interest of the child, how they can stay attune to this approach, and how they can then best communicate with their co-parent who may also be struggling with the same communication challenges.

Think carefully before you “dig in” to any particular viewpoint and allow yourself to imagine if your perspective does not prevail. Will your kids be ok? If so, step away from the conflict and seek to let it go! If your child(ren) are at risk, engage with purpose using the tools you’ve built through planning, make sure the kids are safe and then let it go!

You likely have only one-half of the legal authority to make decisions for your child. You can continue to advocate that you are right, in an unsuccessful way, with someone unlikely to see your perspective, or adopt a  new method of giving it your best and letting it go when you can. You will always love and care for your children, and you must recognize that you are part of a larger team on which there are members who may no longer agree with you, think highly of you, or even like you. And that’s okay; what will make you successful moving forward is ensuring you have the tools to respond to your co-parent when they use difficult tactics to get their way.

When dealing with a high-conflict co-parent, you can only control your response

Do not believe, even for a moment, that you have the ability, with someone who has repeatedly shown you they are not willing to be cooperative, kind or reasonable, that you can change that with explanation, extra kindness or accommodation. It just doesn’t work with someone who has not done their own work and wants to project their own unhappiness onto you. It’s still possible to plan for success, however, if you make the goal your own peace of mind and not justifying, demanding or winning with them. Also keep in mind your relationship divorced may end up being longer than your relationship together; and like any relationship, it will go through changes. If your divorce was full of high-conflict, you will have to work extra hard to ensure you are staying child-centric in your approach. 

Parallel parenting is a way for parents who wish to be child-centered, to still do so, even if they are experiencing conflict.  At its core, parallel parenting is when parents essentially agree to disagree and not fight for the sake of their children.  Parallel parents still communicate, but they do so in ways that avoid conflict triggers that often lead to arguments.  Much of the communication is done non-verbally via email or via divorced-parenting software.  Over time, people may transition to co-parenting if and when the conflict subsides.

First, make a plan for how you interact and always give yourself time to craft a neutral response to even their most escalated one. And remember, their urgency isn’t necessarily your emergency. It takes practice, for sure, and often the behavior of a difficult co-parent escalates when you begin to implement clear and neutral boundaries. In fact, it almost inevitably does. Stay steady and keep doing it.

Role modeling this to your child(ren) will help them cope with a difficult parent too. You don’t have to tell them their other parent is difficult at all! They will simply see how you manage difficult situations and learn volumes from it for their own lifelong relationships. It can truly be a gift that gives for generations if you can create the change now!

It is up to you to continue to be consistent and clear and neutral. Remember, even if they never change, and they likely won’t, you are setting yourself up for success for you and your child(ren). Peace of mind is priceless, after all.

Let’s focus on five steps to create your piece of mind communication with a difficult co-parent: 

  1. First, remember that their urgency isn’t your emergency so unless the message involves your child heading to the ER, you likely can decide when a response, if any, is needed. If this is the case, don’t respond immediately and calendar a date by which you should respond so that you have time to craft a clear and concise response. Usually, responding immediately is a bad idea as it sets a clear precedent that you view their communication as urgent even when it isn’t. 
  2. Next, take a deep breath and reflect. If your co-parent has a historical pattern of yammering on about unnecessary or irrelevant topics before getting to the point, throws in jibes that are unrelated to the matter at hand or is generally just mean or pointless, recognize it is more about them than you. It never feels good to get these messages, and you cannot control likely whether they send it, but you can control when you read it and how you respond to it. Create a separate email or folder for their emails and address only once daily or weekly, as needed.
  3. Third, draft a response, when necessary, that includes these key elements: be brief, be clear, be neutral and use a friendly tone. In order to maintain this tone throughout your communication, and to stay organized about details too, consider using the Alimentor Child Custody App and website too. It helps you organize information and share in a consistent way with your co-parent. It may help you de-escalate conflict too!
  4. Next, after drafting the email, put the communication away and come back to it before sending for a final look. Remember, too, that not every email needs a response so, upon reflection, think about whether it is required each and every time. 
  5. Finally, update your response, as needed, based on the important criteria involved and double-check to be certain you are not adding any drama or personal jibes to increase a likely hostile response. If not, hit send and know that you have done your very best to support your children and yourself.

Now, stop brooding/worrying/overthinking about what response you may get and live your life with your children. The communication with a co-parent is about and for the children. You do not need to manipulate, irritate, or trump the other parent of your child even when they are difficult. You do need to communicate in a brief, neutral, friendly manner to support your child(ren) even when you have a difficult co-parent. Keep going—you got this!

–  Cherie Morris