What Do I Do if My Ex is Willing to Co-Parent Well But His Partner Won't Cooperate?

Investing in cooperative co-parenting is worth the time and effort for the benefit of the child, but can be a huge challenge. Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., explains how to keep building the relationship even when things get difficult.

Co-parent trouble game board illustration
Photo: Illustration by Eric Jeon

Trouble in Co-Parenting Paradise

My ex-husband and I have a great co-parenting relationship, but his girlfriend is suddenly acting jealous of the time he spends with me and our child and won't cooperate in our arrangement. What do I do about this? 

—Trouble in Co-Parenting Paradise

Dear Trouble,

It is very unfortunate when the emotional hang-ups of adults get in the way of what's best for the kids, but we all know it happens more than we want to admit! Sometimes it is hard to see that we are responding to a situation in a way that is more about us than about our kids, and other times, it can be obvious. Either way, it is usually clearer to see from the outside looking in. It seems like you can see what's happening, but your ex and his partner may not.

Finding Good Relationships

As much as the parenting instinct serves to protect our children from harm, real life is full of stress and challenge (case in point: global pandemic). What's best for child development is not to prevent stress and challenge, but to build our children's resilience to recover and overcome. Our job is to be good role models for how to do this, as well as coaches for them to develop these adaptive life skills.

The separation of a child's biological parents is undoubtedly a stressful experience. Even if the separation is ultimately what's best for the child via happier and healthier parents, it is a significant loss and one that requires a lot of effort from the parents to support the child through it. As is true with many types of adverse life experiences in childhood, the way a stressful situation is handled is more important than the situation occurring in the first place. We can probably agree that a harmonious and cooperative co-parenting relationship is the crux of helping a child manage their parents' separation.

Even though this is common sense, making it happen in reality is an Olympian level feat of parenting. It involves a complex combination of emotional gymnastics. First, each parent has to work through their own emotions about the dissolved relationship so they are clearly separating their relationship issues from the child's relationship with their parent. Second, even though we all know the wisdom of not talking negatively about each other in front of the child, this restraint can take a huge amount of effort.

Finally, the very essence of co-parenting requires effective communication, which you need a good working relationship for even if the love and romance parts no longer exist. This has to be primary for the long haul of being legal guardians together for many years of decisions, commitments, and milestones big and small.

How to Make it Work

All this to say: you, your child's father, and his partner need to figure this out. Everyone has an important role to play in getting to a solution. Every family's style and comfort level vary, but here are some suggestions:

  • Make time for the three of you. Her discomfort and jealousy may come from a place of mystery, and the more she spends time with you and sees you and your ex together, she may feel more reassured that you two co-parenting is not a threat.
  • Build your own relationship with her. Depending on how serious and long-term this relationship between your ex and his partner seems, it may be worth the effort now to invest in spending time getting to know each other to develop trust. You don't have to be best friends (probably better not to be!), but at least enough comfort for a better working relationship.
  • Set a boundary with your child's father. There's only so much you can do, and ultimately, he is the one who needs to insist that co-parenting comes with the territory of being in a relationship with him. This is their relationship issue, not yours! But you can assert that your child's welfare comes first, and keep showing up to do the co-parenting with him regardless of his partner's reaction.
  • Show compassion. It may be tempting to shift blame to this jealous partner undermining what is clearly best for your child, but she is managing a relationship with someone who has a significant history with someone else who remains in his life. You and he share the strongest bond anyone can share—a child. The sympathetic part of you probably understands this is intimidating. Use this sympathy to respond with calm and compassion when she may have a hard time doing the same.

Trust Takes Time

It sounds like you have two major advantages in this situation: you have your child's father who wants to co-parent, and you are also motivated to make this happen despite the challenge. You and he may share a level of trust in your parenting relationship, but she hasn't had the same time to establish this as you two! Trust cannot build without time. As time progresses, everyone becomes more accustomed to the situation, and the relationships all around have had the opportunity to feel more stable and secure.

The Bottom Line

While you wait for time to do its potential magic, stay focused on being a strong and steady force for the mission of co-parenting your child. Even if you face bumps and setbacks along the way, the more you keep your eye on the guiding principle of doing the best for your child, the better the ultimate payoff for all four of you.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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