Some people will never be able to co-parent effectively. No amount of mediation, therapy, or positive thinking will get them there. Sound familiar? If you are stuck in a high conflict divorce, or if the conflict continues although your divorce was finalized long ago…it may be time to learn about parallel parenting, a form of parenting that can ease the tension when parents don’t get along.
Co-Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting
Family law professionals and most therapists do a disservice to people embroiled in long-standing high-conflict divorce by giving them a one-size-fits-all paradigm of co-parenting. This advice can make the sane ex feel like a failure for not being able to co-parent with a terrorist hell-bent on destroying their former spouse. It can also be harmful, since the counsel to compromise – doable in amicable divorces where both parties are capable of reciprocity — can lead the accommodating parent to become a doormat.
Parallel Parenting means radical acceptance of an unfortunate reality. It means you stop expecting your apocalyptic divorce to turn into Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Would you go to the hardware store looking for milk? Then why would you wait for your unreasonable ex to morph into a reasonable person?
How to Practice Parallel Parenting
The goal of Parallel Parenting is to limit contact with your ex. This will reduce the conflict and make your kids feel safer — and keep yourself from going nuts! Read on for tips on how to do this.
1. Communicate as little as possible . When speaking with a hostile ex, you will likely be drawn into an argument and nothing will get resolved. Avoid phone contact and limit communication to texting and e-mail. This way you can consciously choose when and how to respond and you will be able to delete knee-jerk retorts that are easy to make on the phone.
2. Follow Communication Rules. Hostile exes steam-roll over other people’s boundaries so you need to be firm about the terms for communication. E-mail or texting should be used only for logistics: vacation plans, a proposed weekend swap (good luck with that!), dentist appointments. If your ex uses digital communication as a weapon, tell him you will not respond, and if the abuse continues, you will stop e-mailing altogether.
3. Do Not Respond to Threats of Lawsuits . High-conflict exes frequently threaten to modify child support or custody arrangements. Don’t panic and don’t respond! Tell your ex that any talk of litigation must go through your attorney. This will require money on your ex’s part: phone calls between lawyers, disclosing financial statements, and reams of legal correspondence. It is quite possible that your ex wants to bark more than bite, so don’t get rattled.
4. Avoid being together. Yes, it’s ideal for your kids to see the two of you together — but not if you can’t get along. Do not sit near each other at public events. Schedule separate parent-teacher conferences. Trade off hosting birthday parties. Do curbside drop-offs so your anxious child doesn’t have to watch an impromptu re-enactment of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
5. Be proactive with school staff and mental health professionals . School staff and therapists may have heard things about you that aren’t true — for instance, that you are mentally ill, out of the picture, or don’t have custody. Be proactive! Give your custody order to these individuals so they understand your legal rights. Even if you are a non-custodial parent, you’re still entitled to information about your child’s academic performance or mental health treatment. Usually school staff and therapists want you to be involved, so talk them as soon as possible. Don’t be defensive, but do explain the situation. When they see you, they will realize that you not the horrible human being your ex says you are, but a reasonable person who’s trying to do the right thing for your child.
6. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff . Parallel Parenting requires letting go of what happens in the other parent’s home. Although it may drive you crazy that your ex lets your six-year-old stay up until midnight, there is really not much you can do about it. Nor can you control your ex’s selection of nannies, children’s clothing, or TV time.
Your child will learn to adapt to different rules and expectations at each house. If he complains about something that goes on at Dad’s, instruct him to speak to his father directly. Trying to solve a problem between your ex and your children will just add fuel to the fire and train them to pit the two of you against each other. You want to empower your child, not teach her that she needs to be rescued.
Parallel Parenting is a last resort and should only be implemented when previous attempts at co-parenting have failed. But that doesn’t mean you have failed. By reducing conflict, Parallel Parenting will enhance the quality of your life and most importantly, take your kids out of a war zone.