How to Be a Great Co-Parent If You Don't Get Along With Your Ex
Even if you're not best friends with your ex, it's OK. It may not be realistic for some people. But you can still be a great parent anyway.
You know those celebrities that consciously uncouple (ahem, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin)? The ones who actively promote their love for the ex-spouse making the rest of us feel like failures for not having the desire to skip through the world of divorce, hand-in-hand, singing "Kumbaya" alongside the person you couldn't make a marriage work with?
Well forget them, because they might not be you. And you know what? They're not me, either.
Sure, as much as I would enjoy a made-for-TV movie friendship with my ex-husband, the odds of that happening are about as likely as us getting back together. It was a tough pill to swallow once I realized that even though I was comfortable with being friendly, my ex was not, but somehow, we keep on keeping on. In fact, my commitment to putting aside our differences and standing together in the face of our daughter was so strong that I even invited my ex-husband to join us for her first Disney experience last spring. (Yes, you read that right.)
But if we're all going to be honest with ourselves, being besties with your former spouse just isn't the norm. Sure, in a perfect world it would be, but then again, we could argue that in a perfect world, you wouldn't have gotten divorced and all marriages would be endlessly harmonious and full of passion.
Look, it's scary. Many people leave their marriage with feelings of resentment and pain. In the meantime, you're left to wonder how to move on from a marriage while simultaneously sharing children with someone you will no longer share a life with.
I hear so many people talk about how much they dislike their ex, and each and every time I am compelled to cut them off and say, "Well, yeah, duh, that's why you're divorced."
Repeat after me: You do not have to turn a soured marriage into a deep, meaningful friendship in order for your co-parenting lifestyle to work. In fact, you don't even have to like your ex to make it work. Why? Because it's not about you—it's about your kids, and if you're ever going to be able to co-parent effectively, you'll have to stop trying to force your ex to live up to this unrealistic expectation of a friendship that just may not be in the cards, and move forward.
Let's pretend for a moment, that your ex-spouse was your boss at the dream job you waited your whole life for. Let's pretend that job is your kid—because, isn't it? If you finally landed that dream job but couldn't stand your boss, would you let it affect your work? No, of course not, because you'd get fired.
By the way, your kids did not ask to be in this situation. The kids, however, are the ones who are thrust into a whole new world of existence after your marriage hits the skids. Everything you do, and I repeat everything you engage in regarding your relationship with your ex, should be about them, for them, and in the best interest of them.
It's not the easiest thing to navigate, but here's how to be a great co-parent, even if your schedule does not include weekly coffee dates and long, friendly conversations with your ex-spouse.
Treat It Like a Business
Back to that whole boss/job thing. In the early days of my separation, I was completely caught up in emotion and worried about how my ex might react to painful bits of news, such as "I'm taking our daughter on vacation with my new fiancé." My lawyer gave me the advice to treat our relationship like a business. We reserved communication to email, we kept things simple and dry, and I really enforced the need-to-know basis thing, fully drawing lines in the sand and setting boundaries.
You don't have to like your ex, but you damn sure have to respect them. The more respectful the relationship between the two of you, the more comfortable your child or children will be with your new co-parenting situation. If a child observes one parent talking badly about the other, thus disrespecting both the parent and the child at this point, alienation will inevitably occur. And research shows that bringing kids into your adult drama can lead to "feelings of helplessness and insecurity, causing children to question their own strengths and abilities."
Have Open Lines of Communication
Communication is important in a co-parenting relationship, but keeping it just about the children is totally OK. Being able to check in with your ex about how the kids are when they are with you or not with you, when an issue arises at school, and/or when you have concerns about your child will ensure that you remain on the same page with covering the children's needs. If there is an issue in one home that is not appropriately addressed in the other home, this could have a profound impact not only on your kids, but on your ex's ability to trust you.
It is no secret that children thrive with consistency. Having two sets of rules in two different homes—if one parent allows television before bed and the other does not, for example—can send very negative and mixed messages to the children, increasing any anxiety associated with "the unknown." It's important to agree on boundaries that both you and your ex can maintain with the children.
Speaking of boundaries, it's important to set these for your co-parenting relationship with your ex. Your co-parenting relationship should leave no room for one parent to badger the other with questions about their personal life or their plans with the kids on their time. There's no need to micromanage time spent with the kids. Unless your child's well-being is at stake, a boundary needs to be set to ensure that this relationship is on a need-to-know basis and nothing more.
Above all else, if you can't make these things work and find a mature, respectful balance with your ex, just promise me this one thing: Do not ever, under any circumstances, let your child become a pawn or an audience for your feelings about your ex. You may be hurting about your divorce, but your child does not have to carry that burden for you.
Michelle Dempsey-Multack is a mother, writer, speaker, marketing expert, and fierce girl-gang enthusiast. A native New Yorker, Michelle now resides in Miami with her 4-year-old daughter, Bella, her husband Spencer, a beautiful step-daughter, and a very needy cat.