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Coparenting: A War That Doesn't Have to Happen

Ever heard the term “coparenting”? If you are a single, perhaps remarried parent sharing a child between you and a former partner while you both have separate lives, then you coparent. Did you know that over forty percent of children born in the United States today are born to parents who are either unmarried, or are not in committed relationships, and that about half of all marriages will end in divorce? That can bode disaster for children. When couples split up, their children don’t. Even if you hate your ex-partner, your child still only knows them as mom or dad, and always will. Sadly, and I am included in this statistic, we usually learn how to do coparenting right, after doing it wrong or seeing it done wrong. I made mistakes, but I did a lot of things right, too, that even today, I can still be proud of. Funny how some of the hardest lessons come from those skinned knees I wrote about in a recent column.

Walk into any church, any classroom, any grocery store, any public park. Chances are between 30-50% of children there are being coparented. That’s serious business. Ask any schoolteacher who can tell you what he or she encounters on almost a daily basis from the fallout of children caught in the middle of warring coparents. What that teacher will tell you is that they tragically see children who are highly stressed, tired, sad, feel guilty, sometimes hypervigilant, afraid, angry and sometimes feel powerless and out of control, because that's what their situation feels like to them.

It’s a delicate balancing act…just one mistake, one fight, one misunderstanding, one hurt between the ex-partners, and guess who often takes the brunt? The children. Ever heard (or said) this? “Oh, really?! Really?! Well, just for that, you’re never gonna see little Bobby again!” I am saddened today that I said it myself once many years ago. Your anger may even be justified. And little Bobby will never forget it. I can tell you that digging a deep hole for yourself requires a lot of work to crawl back out of.

Family court systems were never designed to deal with the onslaught of warring coparents in divorce court and custody battles, or fights over visitation. In response to this, some family court systems have begun appointing court-ordered Parent Coordinators. Sometimes, a set of coparents will voluntarily seek out the neutral help of a Parent Coordinator (PC). The PC doesn’t take sides, and is not serving in a role as a therapist while serving as a PC; the roles are different and separate. Think of it like a “case manager, appointed by the judge, to help in situations of custody battles, visitation”. PCs assist with creating a parenting plan and schedule, and can help parents arrive at sound decisions that make it easier for everyone involved on such things as who drops off and who picks up Janie at dance class, or who pays for the prescriptions, who gets Thanksgiving and who gets Christmas, what summer visitation will look like, etc. Again and again I encounter hurting blended families and coparents, and each time, the problems are, really, a lot alike. And to each one, there is an answer and the solutions are not impossible.

I have studied the literature for several years and find that children are often harmed more by chronic, ongoing conflict between parents during and long after a breakup, than they sometimes are by the divorce or breakup itself. It’s healthier for children to create two homes for them to live in that are as consistent and calm as humanly possible, that disagreements between parents are resolved out of earshot of the children, and that a PC is voluntarily sought out before a judge has to step in and appoint one. I can tell you from personal and professional experience, that your children are watching. What they are learning from mom and dad are conflict management, how to handle anger and frustration, how to forgive, how to speak to each other, how to negotiate. It’s the actions the children remember long after the words are forgotten. If you’ve seen the disturbing Michael Douglas film, “The War of the Roses”, you’ll see a divisive couple who are dangling from a chandelier, in a destructive quest to destroy each other. I see this all the time in parents who would rather verbally, financially, psychologically kill their child’s other parent, than sit down and learn to grow up and learn to work together for their children’s sake. Nobody said you have to like your ex or even be happy with the situation – but you do have to man up or woman up and conduct this coparenting arrangement almost like a business. I have watched some parents be placed into handcuffs and one put in a jail cell for refusing to abide by family court orders and coparent maturely. Please – don’t let this happen to you.

If you come see me and we work together in your divorce / coparenting situation, I’m never going to try to take your anger away from you or tell you that you don’t deserve to be hurt or angry. I’m not going to try to make you “like” your situation or your ex or their new spouse. Been there myself. We’re going to start right where you are. But we will look at this from a future-oriented perspective. What do you see when you think of your child as being well-balanced, emotionally healthy, secure, unafraid, and in a healthy, close relationship with you and their other parent? We can work towards that because it IS possible. But it will never happen without your hard work. If you can’t or won’t work towards that, then it saddens me to inform you that this coparenting journey has a lot of potential to be toxic, draining, and expensive for years to come. It never – ever – has to be that way. Also, if you’re the coparent who is trying and the other one is fighting you every step of the way, then we can work with that, too, in protecting yourself, setting healthy and firm boundaries. Remember, you can only have control over your own behavior and choices - not your ex. Keep handing the rope to a fool and they will eventually hang themselves with it. So maintain distance, take the high road, and interact only on an as-needed basis, document well, meet in a neutral location, and have witnesses present if necessary.

If your school, church, group, community, business would like more information about coparenting, divorce, blended families, please contact me as I have given talks and some teaching in these areas and I am happy to come talk to your group.

I am a trained PC, and I specialize in my counseling practice at working with coparents, blended families, divorce situations. I can help coparents make this long, winding journey more peaceful, more mutually respectful and more focused on the future for the children’s sake.

I am writing a curriculum called “Blended or Blitzed: Winning at the Blended Family Journey", which will be available in a workbook format either in print, electronically, in an online class, or available for a group or individually. I have also been approached to create a group for coparents and a class/course for coparents. If I do this, it will be inexpensive and practical.

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