Making joint custody work after a separation or divorce can be fraught with rage, bitterness and unrealistic demands. Moving beyond the underlying emotions surrounding the relationship you once had with your ex and parent of your child is essential to providing a stable and loving family home. It’s rarely easy but there are a few key parameters that can help you create a cordial co-parenting relationship.
Start with Yourself
Dr Catherine Day, Clinical Psychologist at The Wellness Centre, recommends taking time to reclaim your own personal identity, deal with changes in other relationships with family and friends affected by the separation and sort out your finances. “Regain confidence in yourself, set goals for your future and take stock of your life.”
Check-in with yourself often, especially after a conflict, to ensure you responded in a way that was both mature and respectful of your ex. And use your time alone to reflect and consider how your decisions and behaviour may affect your child. Consider seeing a family therapist or pastor for objective advice and guidance, and seek an outlet to release tension like exercising, meditating or praying.
Establish a New Family Structure
While your relationship may be over, your family is not; you and your ex still need to work closely together to foster an environment that makes your child feel loved and appreciated. Work with your ex to agree on a visitation schedule that suits both schedules and allows the child to spend adequate time with both parents. You will also need to exercise flexibility as situations will arise such as work demands, travel plans and special events. Spend time in advance outlining the framework for big decisions like finances, education, healthcare, holidays and birthdays to avoid confusion and conflicts later.
Keep your Emotions in Check
The most challenging factor with co-parenting is perhaps emotional obstacles. Think of this as a new relationship with your ex, one that focuses on your child, not each other. “You need to separate the parenting relationship from the personal relationship,” said Dr Day.
It is okay to feel hurt and angry about the loss of your relationship, but don’t let it cloud your judgement and control you. Feeling the need to control everything will only create unnecessary stress and anxiety so don’t sweat the small stuff.
Be Mindful of your Child
According to Dr Day, children also grieve the loss of the relationship after a separation and go through several stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining and depression, before acceptance. Children have a way of recognising something is changing within their home even when you think they don’t. Children often are not given a proper explanation for the separation,” says Dr Day, so you will want to consider their feelings and behaviour and carve out time to speak with your child regardless of their age.
Also, avoid arguing with your ex or speaking ill of him or her in your child’s presence or using your child as a go-between as it can create anxiety, especially in high-conflict situations.
Work Towards Mutual Respect
Regardless of the reason the relationship with your ex has ended, it’s important to create an environment of mutual respect. Accept that you will not change your ex – he or she will likely be exactly the same person and parent they were when you were together – so set realistic expectations. Play to your ex’s strengths, rather than focusing of his or her faults, and don’t push buttons you know will create a conflict. Model the behaviour you want to see of your ex and hope they follow suit. And if you’re in the wrong, be the mature person and apologise. It will go a long way towards creating a civil relationship.
Communication Goes Three Ways
Your ex has just as much say in how your child is raised as you do so listen to his or her concerns and opinions. You should also listen to your child and what he or she wants from your new family structure. You will not always get your way but co-parenting is about your child, not you, so compromise when possible. Learn to make requests of your ex rather than demands, adopting a “we” approach rather than an “I” methodology.
With the many extracurricular activities, school plays, field trips, dental appointments and the like, it will be important to communicate often with your ex, but limit conversation to matters relating to your child only. Try using an App like Our Family Wizard to rack all of your child’s activities, as well as medical history, shoes size and allergies, in one place so both parents have all the information at their fingertip.
Each co-parenting situation is different and it will take time to figure out what works and what doesn’t so be patient with yourself and with your ex as you manoeuvre your way through this new journey.
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Published: Cayman Parent, Summer 2016