It can seem cruel that just as you’ve called your marriage quits, you have to quickly leap into “we’re a team” mode to work out what’s best for your kids. But it can be done with success.
Learning to compromise and setting new boundaries are key, says family therapist Constance Ahrons, PhD. She’s a professor emerita of sociology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and author of The Good Divorce.
Set Your Anger Aside
“Co-parents need to put their anger aside and focus on the needs of the child,” Ahrons says. “A good rule of thumb is that the more anger there is between co-parents, the more they need to have firm boundaries. The more divorced parents can get along, the more flexible they can be.”
For Nancy Cramer, adjusting how she worked with her ex made all the difference. “I learned to give my ex-husband space to think about things instead of demanding an immediate decision over a phone call,” says Cramer, of Roswell, GA. “If I got angry, that served no purpose, because then he’d make a decision just to spite me. It went back to keeping the boys’ best interests at the forefront.”
Swap Touchy Subjects for Calm Conversations
Your boundaries need to include what you can talk about, and what topics are best left alone, Ahrons says. “Co-parents need to learn what their ‘hot button’ issues are, and stay away from them. They have to keep their conversations on track and focused on parenting, not on ex-spousal issues. It’s sometimes very difficult to do.”
Clifford Kipp, who lives in Marietta, GA, and shares physical custody of his sons with his ex, agrees. “We really had to focus on being amicable in order to maintain sanity for all involved,” he says. “Of course, that only works when both are cooperative. We probably tried yelling at each other the first few times there was a conflict, but soon realized that a calm, productive conversation was really the only way to resolve an issue.”
Robin Wilson, of Myrtle Beach, SC, says learning to admit to being wrong became an asset. “If there’s an argument, I look at what my part in it was,” the mother of a 16-year-old says. “It’s not showing weakness. It’s showing my son how two people with a difficult past can adapt and have a new, healthier relationship.”
Find a Schedule That Works for Everyone
It’s important to respect the other parent’s time with the children. “Remember that your child has the right to both parents,” Ahrons says.
When Kipp and his ex were divorcing, they both wanted the kids full-time. Instead of launching a custody battle, they came up with a 1-week-on/1-week-off schedule that had worked for a relative.
“Monday morning, the kids would go to school and go home to the other parent and stay that entire week until the following Monday morning,” Kipp says. “We soon decided that once the weekend came around, we would be a little too worn out to have a rip-roaring weekend with them, so we changed the transfer day to Friday. That way, the parent is fresh on Friday afternoon.”
Alton Aimar, of Savannah, GA, and his ex separated when their son was 7 months old. They kept the court-ordered visitation schedule for the first few years. But they were able to relax some rules as the tension thawed. For example, when their son started middle school, he switched to also staying with his dad Thursday nights, the day Aimar coached his son’s soccer team.
For Cramer, keeping her sons’ interests first is important. When she embraced her Christian faith, the Christmas holiday meant more to her, but she chose not to ask for a new arrangement. “They celebrated every year with their aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents” on her ex’s side, she says. “It would have been completely selfish of me to deprive them of that.”
Team Up for Key Conversations
Aimar and his ex both remarried, but over time kept their family roles front and center. Whenever something came up, all four sat down with his son to discuss what happened and agree on a course of action. “Our son knew there was no, ‘Well, Mom said X,’ or ‘Dad said X.’ He knew we were all in agreement.” Though his son is now 23, Aimar and his ex still talk about what’s going on with him and keep a united front.
Mind the Rules
All households come with their own sets of rules. What works in one home might not in another. The COVID-19 pandemic makes this setup more complex, Ahrons says.
What one parent feels is safe, the other parent might not, she points out, such as if the child can visit a friend’s house. “Realize there’ll be differences, and ground rules need to be established,” she says. “Whenever they are not, children suffer.”
As with any disagreement, Ahrons urges parents to find a professional to help them come together and smooth out prickly situations.