In Part 1 of this 2 part series, we examined the role feelings play as parents move through the ending of the marriage/divorce process and then beyond into a co-parenting relationship. In this article, we will explore how to effectively make the emotional shift from spouse to ex-spouse to cooperative co-parent, in two big steps. In Step 1, you will work to CONNECT with all of your feelings about what has happened to your marriage, about your divorce, and about your prospects for the future. Once you have a handle on what you are experiencing emotionally and on how these feelings are impacting your life and your relationships, you can move on to Step 2 which is to begin to DISCONNECT with your ex from the emotional relationship you have had and then transition into a business partnership, for co-parenting purposes.
Step 1: Connect With Your Feelings
Before you can roll back your relationship emotionally from spouse to ex-spouse to co-parents, you will need to study and understand what is going on inside you in the feelings department. While talking with loyal and respected friends and family members can be helpful, this is most effectively accomplished with the assistance and guidance of a skillful licensed psychotherapist, mental health counselor, or family therapist. (For tips on how to choose the right therapist, see Picking Your Therapist ). These professionals are best qualified to help you ‘connect all of the dots’ to make sense of what has happened, how you got here, and explore the possibilities for moving forward.
As you learn more about what the ending of your marriage (and life as you knew it) truly means to you, you may find yourself moving into a slightly different place, emotionally. You may discover that as you learn more about yourself, about how you felt then and how you feel now, it becomes increasingly easier to avoid falling into the same old traps and negative patterns you’ve repeated before (with your ex and others, too). This happens because as we explore feelings and increase our understanding of ourselves and of what we are experiencing (i.e.-where we remain unsettled or vulnerable, where we are able to move forward and where we may seem to be stuck) the old ways of doing and thinking about things begin to lose their grip on us. Increased awareness of what’s going on for us on the inside can lead to increased freedom and a more expansive list of options to choose from regarding how we live our lives, parent, interact and react/respond to others (even with your ex). As you CONNECT with and EXPERIENCE your feelings and learn more about YOU, in time you may feel more in charge of yourself and able to make better choices for you and for your children. This does take time and effort, but can yield extraordinary results and can be a most effective way to help yourself begin to move forward toward creating a more successful life, after divorce.
Step 2: Begin To Disconnect With Your Ex
Disconnecting with the person you have been married to and have had children with is no easy task! Then again, nothing about divorce is easy, right? But, there are certain things you can do to disconnect with each other and to begin to establish a different, more business-like relationship and approach to co-parenting.
Think about the relationships you have had with co-workers, employees, or a boss when you began a new job. Each of you acted in a polite manner, made promises and set deadlines you intended to keep, respected boundaries, and followed protocols, right? (This would apply to how you might interact with a new neighbor, teacher, or friend, too).
In a business relationship, there are certain ways that you are expected to behave and communicate and certain ways that you are not. For instance, you probably wouldn’t yell at a brand new colleague or employee, call them names, or slam the door behind them if they didn’t understand what you were asking them to do the first time, right? Most likely (if you wanted to keep your job or your new employee) you would repeat your instructions calmly, clearly, and patiently or ask them where they might need some help in understanding you or even write things out for them. In this way, you would be expected to take time, invest energy and put thought into making certain that your communications were clear (perhaps customized to the particular communications style/needs of the individual you are talking with) and that there was a level of agreement and understanding between you on the process of how you were going to work together, the tasks that needed to be accomplished, what the expected outcomes might be, etc. These would, hopefully, help you both to get the job done correctly and to treat each other respectfully in the process. The same approach can work for co-parenting.
There are several important principles to keep in mind when making the shift to a business-like, co-parenting relationship with your ex. While I have outlined a few of these below, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Keep in mind that every co-parenting partnership is different and the needs of each varies. Some co-parents will need extra help, for instance, in figuring out how to respond to their different parenting styles/philosophies, to correct communication distortions on the part of one or both parents, or to tolerate the stresses and strains of persistent acting out behaviors by a child. Whatever the case for you, it can help to begin your transformation to co-parents by keeping in mind the following:
Decline All Invitations To Fight
It has been said that when you shoot an arrow at your ex, it lands in your child’s heart. This dramatic communication highlights the importance of resisting all temptations to continue fighting with your ex as it truly is detrimental to your child’s well-being (children struggle and suffer more in families where exes are perpetuating the old battles). An essential step to shifting your relationship with your ex to a respectful and business-like co-parenting one is to make a commitment that, from this day forward, you will decline all invitations to fight. As you have taken the time to study yourself (Step 1) and are by now aware of your triggers or ‘hot buttons’ when it comes to your ex, when the invitation to fight arrives, you will have the opportunity to choose to react differently. Even if your ex seems to be purposely trying to get a ‘rise out’ of or is baiting you, you don’t have to fall for it! Keep in mind that if you stay the course and refuse to fight, sooner or later your ex will become discouraged and just give up. This will only happen, however, if you can consistently maintain your cool and decline to engage in fighting back!
By the way, stopping yourself from fighting does not mean that you are giving in to your ex or validating their behavior or views, it simply means you are picking your battles. If this or that particular issue is important enough to you, make sure to address it (privately) as soon as possible and use talking, clarification, and negotiation as your ‘weapons’ of choice.
Maintain Clear Boundaries
Many of us need to keep our distance in order to keep our cool. No problem! Limit contact with your ex by avoiding being together physically for any length of time, if at all (especially in the beginning). Stick to very brief and very specific phone conversations, emails or texts (a few sentences long). Be business-like in how you communicate–get to the point and get off. Do not succumb to the temptation to vent your feelings, attack or unleash anger or share any other deeply held feelings. Again, remember that this is now a business relationship and try to act accordingly as you work to create new, more distant boundaries between you.
This can be difficult as individuals moving through and beyond divorce feel at times that they are on an emotional roller coaster. One day they might be recalling the happier days of the marriage and want to approach their ex differently than on the days they are remembering the anger or hurt or disappointment. Again, envision this as an office relationship where you are expected to act and behave in a professional manner, no matter what you are feeling. This keeps signals clear and can help you and your ex move ahead in a predictable, reliable manner. Consistency can also help your children feel safe that you are both dedicated to their well-being and to helping them adjust to their situation, rather than letting continued struggles distract you from good parenting.
When your co-parenting business partner meets expectations, goes the extra mile, or otherwise surprises you, make certain to recognize this good behavior by saying “Thank You” or by otherwise taking note. It’s always important to speak up about what is going well and to reinforce good efforts or good performance. This can help you to build, step by step, a positive and productive co-parenting partnership between you.
In summary, transitioning emotionally from spouses to ‘exes’ to co-parents can help you both to engage more peacefully in the business of raising healthy children. While rolling back your relationship to a more formal, business-like arrangement is not easy and may pose difficult challenges for each of you, it truly is do-able. It is also much healthier for your children, and what better reason is there to give it a try?