So here you are. You’ve been divorced for several years…the kids are growing up and doing well…and all’s well with co-parenting 1.0, right?
My guess is that like most divorced couples, your co-parenting arrangement underwent a bit of tweaking once you started living the realities of the plan you made in the mediator’s or attorney’s office. A co-parenting arrangement that worked for a couple of toddlers doesn’t always meet the demands and desires of school-aged kids with busier lives filled with extra-curricular activities. Then there are those unexpected life events that require an on-the-spot adjustment, like grandparents or good friends who announce a surprise visit on a weekend you don’t have the kids.
In healthy relationships post-divorce, co-parents willingly extend flexibility and consideration, especially when the “ask” is in the best interests of the kids. In fact, that’s the most important tenet of any co-parenting relationship: the mutual and agreed-upon desire to keep the kids front-and-center whenever there is a decision or alteration to be made.
Coparenting 2.0 issues generally fall into four categories:
Let’s take them one by one.
Custodial. Healthy co-parents know that in terms of attachment, in terms of feeling safe, in terms of learning to trust…it is in the best interest of children to have a healthy relationship with both parents. After all, a child’s relationship with his or her parents is the fulcrum on which many of their adult decisions will rest. So when it comes to changes to who-stays-with-whom-and-when, every parent should advocate for an arrangement that considers the long-term effect on kids if they don’t have substantive time with both parents.
Problems can arise when co-parents get confused between what’s right for them versus what’s right for the kids. Even if your desire is to have the kids 100% of the time and your ex is fine with it – reconsider. Obviously parents need to assess their feelings about their spouse’s competencies as a parent. But simply because one parent was working while the other cared for the kids is not reason enough to insist on primary or sole custody. The “working” parent, with some coaching and trial-and-error, will likely turn out to be an effective parent.
If you and your co-parent are struggling in your relationship, I know it can be challenging to respond fairly when the unexpected arises. And yet I’m going to be emphatic here: Do not let your personal ill feelings or a punitive mindset affect your decision-making.
Let’s say your ex wants to take the kids on a fun camping trip, but the only weekend he could reserve a campsite is for one of your weekends. If you’re still smarting from a real or perceived slight, you may think refusing to accommodate is punishing your co-parent. But it’ll be the kids who bear the brunt of the punishment – not your ex. The question is not, “Why should I go out of my way for him?” but rather, “Is what my ex is proposing a good experience for my kids?” Deal with your feelings with your spouse – by all means — but don’t let them get in the way of making the right choice in the end.
Medical. When it comes to the health and safety of our children, most co-parents get on the same page stat in an emergency or with a life-threatening illness; there’s just too much at stake to quibble. There are a couple of outlier situations that can arise, however.
The first has to do with parental decisions regarding important but non-emergency medical interventions such as physical or occupational therapy, vaccines, or other elective interventions. These issues can be challenging even for married couples whose values may not align, but are often exacerbated post separation.
The second issue is when one co-parent’s religious or other beliefs radically change post agreement, resulting in them no longer believing in treating even grave illnesses and/or preferring an untraditional (or unproven) approach. Since the ethics and repercussions of such decision can be far-reaching, co-parents may need to work with a mediator or even the courts to come to a sound decision.
Financial. There are two reasons that can make finances a source of friction for co-parents:
1. Money is a fraught topic for many – married or not
2. Kids get more expensive every year
Co-parents generally agree on the big buckets in their initial agreement: spousal support; living expenses; gift buying; college funds. As kids age, however, they often uncover unique talents, expensive interests or develop special needs, all of which begs the question: Who pays for what?
Then there are issues like these:
· Your ex gets a new job or a big bonus payout, is it appropriate that he or she pick up more of the extraneous childrearing expenses?
· Your parent dies and leaves you a larger-than-anticipated estate. Do you owe any of that to your ex? Or should it impact your contributions to expenses?
These are a few of the financial reconsiderations scenarios that may affect your co-parenting agreement as time passes. If you can hash them out with your ex over a cup of coffee, that’s great. If need be, though, a conversation with a mediator or therapist can be helpful – particularly if, as with all things co-parenting, you keep the best interests of your children top-of-mind.
When your kids become teens, sometimes even co-parenting 22.0 won’t help. At 16, kids can vote with their feet (or request an Uber). In truth, parents need to honor teens’ desires to make decisions about where they want to stay. If they’re responding to a packed high school schedule and simply can’t afford the time to schlep and readjust at parent #2’s house, give them some slack. But if they’re being intentionally injurious to the other parent and can’t or won’t work with you to figure out a plan to deal with their feelings, then it’s likely time for a therapeutic intervention of some sort.
Be mindful of your own projection, too. One client believed she was “supporting her kids feelings” when they didn't want to go to their father’s for the agreed-upon weekends. To her credit, she eventually realized that it was her own rejection of her ex that was motivating her.
The other huge relational variant is when one or both co-parents begin dating. A 2.0 agreement setting some basic parameters you can both agree on can be really helpful in avoiding surprises. For example:
· If kids are younger than X, no partner visits or overnights when the children are present
· No introducing partners to the kids until 6 months into relationship
· “My house, my rules” rules
Sometimes non-dating co-parents feel badly when their exes start to see other people. Here more than ever, whenever you’re faced with a decision be sure to ask yourself “Who’s interest am I really thinking about…mine or the kids?”
While it can be hard to believe in the first few years post-divorce, I know many people who have become friendly with their exes once again – and who even like and appreciate their ex’s new partner (myself included).
If you keep a few basic truths in mind when in discussions with your co-parent, I promise it will be best for everyone:
· Treat your co-parent with respect – just as you want to be treated
· Even if you can’t stand your ex, remember that you both love your children and want the best outcome for them
· Know your kids are watching you and developing their values about relationships by your actions
· Don’t trash your co-parent in front of the kids. I guarantee you’ll never regret not telling your kids how you suffered in the marriage
Being a co-parent can certainly be more logistically complicated, but when you are mindful and intentional about your decisions and actions, everyone fares better.