Most judges favor custody arrangements that maximize a child’s contact with both parents. Overall the guide is always in the “best interests of the child”, but barring situations of neglect or abuse, chances are you will be sharing custody with your ex in some form.
Do you wonder how you would communicate about parenting when you couldn’t communicate during the marriage? Child custody agreements and visitation plans can be designed, but in between the technical responsibilities, there is a lot of space for parents to fall back into their old patterns.
Sociologist Constance Ahrons, an expert on the wellness of families, analyzed decades of research. The data shows that it’s not divorce but the conflict that is a problem for children. This is true whether you’re married or not. If you can learn to co-parent by communicating less conflict, you can set healthier patterns for your kids than the environment when you were married.
It’s human nature to repeat learned patterns, so to help your decision to do things differently, consider these strategies.
Make a commitment to shield the child.
Psychologist Edward Teyber offers strategies to establish cooperative parenting after divorce. In his book, Helping Children Cope with Divorce, he stresses the importance of shielding the children from their troubles with their ex. As hard as it can be, try to resist ranting to your kids about your ex’s latest screw-up. As vulnerable as you may be feeling, resist trying to feel assured that the kids are on your “side.”
One important step parents can take to stop a moment and acknowledge the impact of the changes that divorce brings on the children. Although research shows children of divorce rarely show lasting effects from the divorce itself, in the short term, they have to adapt to upheavals in their home environment.
A commitment to shield the children can be especially challenging at this moment in your life. If your ex was the person you typically turned to in a crisis, that shoulder is no longer available. The other people you’ve traditionally turned to for support may no longer be there – friends and in-laws may not want to choose sides or may not want to get involved.
You may suffer temporary depression or feel alone as so many knowns in your life become unknowns. But even with all these challenges, remember to shield the children. When you get home at the end of the day, try to put aside whatever new frustrations have developed and talk with your kids about their day. Learning to do this can serve you in the future to help handle whatever other frustrations happen in the coming years. It is a habit that can help us all learn better work/family/life balance.
Learning to hold our need to vent, being more choosey about who we vent to, and finding alternate ways to let off steam are healthy lifestyle choices for everyone.
This is not to say that parents should pretend that nothing’s wrong. You can acknowledge if you’ve had a bad day or if things are currently frustrating. Just don’t turn it into a rehashing of all the things that are wrong with their father.
Ask your ex to make this commitment to shield the children as well. If they keep waging war against you in front of the children, try to resist engaging in battle. Children need at least one parent to be emotionally available to them if the other has gone off the rails.
Don’t use litigation to communicate.
In the midst of a bitter divorce and in the hands of the wrong attorney, disagreements about child custody can escalate. This spectacle of parents at each other’s throats, warring over control of their children, can have lasting effects on the children.
In dissolving marriages with a complete breakdown in trust, spouses often resort to litigation as their primary method of communication. Regarding the kids and custody, some warring parents can return to court as many as 25 times a year. This gets enormously expensive and takes an emotional toll on everyone.
Of course, the stakes are very high when your kids are involved. It’s understandable that your nerves are raw and if your ex attacks (in court) or files outrageous motions, it’s natural to be tempted to strike back. The first step to prevent this is to ensure you’re working with a family law attorney who knows when and how to compromise strategically. You need a lawyer who will vigorously defend your interests but you don’t want an attack dog who can’t ever stop snarling.
Respected family law attorneys will know when to urge you not to vent your anger in yet another child custody motion with little chance of success and instead help channel your emotions into crafting workable parenting plans for a healthy future together.
A second move to resist using the court to communicate about your kids is to spend time thinking about how to advocate for yourself. A good counselor or therapist can help you unwrap your old patterns. If you usually give in to your ex or other demanding people, a counselor will help you realize why that is and help to create new habits to hear your needs. If you tend to be demanding and have trouble compromising, you can work on that too.
During the heat of the divorce, it can be a relief to have a divorce lawyer advocating for you. While it is nice to have someone on “your side” at this crucial stage, eventually, you will have to go it alone. What better time than the present to learn better-negotiating skills? Learning how to express your needs effectively will also help you build healthier relationships in the future.
Workout communication short-cuts with your ex
In his book Helping Children Cope with Divorce, psychologist Teyber offers some tactical tips for exes. While some of these ideas may seem staged or forced, it’s because, in a way, they are. If you want to interrupt old patterns rooted in how each of you was raised to handle conflict, it will take some new tools. If you want to disrupt your old familiar battles, then it will take some staged tools to intervene.
Establish hand signals to end escalating conflicts – Pick-ups and drop-offs can be especially challenging soon after the divorce. It may be hard for you to even think about being in the same room, or on the same porch step, as your ex. And then, something’s come up with your child, and you are forced to interact with him. The idea behind hand signals is that you and your ex agree ahead of time on the signal. Then, if you start arguing and one person uses the signal, you both agree to stop fighting immediately. You agree that no one will get the last word. This system spares your children from watching another fight and offers a way to start new communication patterns.
Learn to communicate effectively – Many people who remain married are mired in power struggles and have never learned healthy communication skills. A divorce can be an opportunity for personal growth and for you to model healthier communication styles to your children. Dr. Teyber’s tips for learning new skills after the divorce include:
- Accept responsibility for your share of the problem when possible – are you really “all right” and your ex “all wrong”?
- Try to remain focused only on the issue at hand, keeping the conflict localized instead of tying it to a long list of past wrongs;
- Think about really listening to your ex, and,
- Treat your ex with respect as a gift to your children.
Of course, some of this sounds idealistic. You may be dealing with an ex so mired in anger that even after the divorce is finalized, they will still use the children as pawns or punching bags to get back at you. If you’re in a situation where your ex repeatedly insults you in front of the children or has seriously been badmouthing you to the children, you may want to talk to your family law attorney about it. There may be further legal action you can take if you fear your ex’s behavior is more than just sour grapes and is seriously impacting your children.
Or, you may have an ex who isn’t exactly spoiling the children against you but who still won’t grow up or won’t take responsibility for some things. If your ex doesn’t take the opportunity to become a better communicator, you can still learn to set clear boundaries and limits and take control over how you let their behavior impact your life.
It’s too bad that custody agreements and parenting plans can’t force parents to be civil. But if you can keep focused on moderating your own behavior, hopefully, newer and healthier patterns with your ex will emerge organically over time.