Blogs #1, 2 & 3 of this Series assumed that two co-parents would like to improve their co-parenting relationship and are willing to cooperate to do so. Blogs #4 and 5 assume that one parent would like to make improvements, but has an uncooperative co-parent. For that purpose, we introduced a new Mindset: in Blog 5: focusing solely on what you have control over (yourself) and using co-parenting problems as opportunities to teach your children useful skills and lessons. In this Blog, we take that a step further and show how teaching the children skills and lessons can actually make you an agent of change. By that, we mean that the uncooperative co-parent might also make some positive changes in response to your actions. Think of it this way. If two parents are in a toxic dance and one leaves the floor, the other parent is left on the floor alone. This creates pressure to do something different.
As a simple example, in Blog #5, we wrote that you can stop accepting criticisms and nasty comments in emails by stopping to read them. If you are watching a scary movie, you have a choice: you can watch the whole thing and have terrible feelings, or you can turn the TV off. If your co-parent learns that you will not read the remaining part of any email if he or she makes a nasty comment, etc., especially if the email starts with a nasty comment, then he or she immediately realizes that whatever useful information was in the remainder of the email was not and will not be read. That co-parent might start being more careful about emails because became self-defeating.
As another example, if you are respectful and courteous to your co-parent when you see one another at a child-related event, your co-parent might be reluctant to act like a jerk when seeing you. When two parents are both nasty in public (because not even looking at one another is noticeably nasty), people just think you had a nasty divorce. When one is respectful and courteous and the other is nasty, people think that the nasty parent is just a jerk. This generally puts pressure on the other parent at least to be courteous.
Another strategy is to keep your co-parent informed about the lessons you are teaching the children. For example, if the co-parent has badmouthed you to the children, you might send the co-parent an email explaining how you responded. For example, you could say something like:
“Joey told me that you blamed my having an affair as the reason for our divorce and that I now want Linda to be his mom at my house. I admitted to him that I made an awful mistake getting involved with Linda while we were still married. I apologized to him and am apologizing to you for that too.
However, I also explained to him that you and I had other problems that would have likely led to a divorce anyway and that you were wrong saying that you and I would still be together. Finally, I explained to him that you were also wrong that I wanted Linda to be his mom at my house. She is not his mom. It was a good opportunity to teach him that sometimes people will tell him bad things about another person and that he should check it out, because sometimes what he has been told is wrong and not true. One more thing you should know, I explained to him that this will come up many times in his life and that it is important that he learns how to deal with it. I am just letting you know.”
Notice that your response does not require any cooperation from your co-parent. However, you might get a negative response to an email like this, or to other choices that you make, and it is important not to react negatively. Here we introduce a very useful phrase:
“I am sorry that you feel that way.”
For example, after sending the above email, you get one back,
“You are a selfish jerk.
Now you are badmouthing me to our son.
I am going to call my lawyer.”
Your response might be:
“I am sorry that you feel that way.”
There are many variations on this phrase that can work just as well. For example,
“That is an interesting way to look at it.”
These types of responses have one important characteristic in common: they are conversation stoppers and isolate the other person. Notice that there is no emotional message in these phrases – no criticisms, nothing defensive, no explanations and so on. There is an emotional reaction from the non-cooperating co-parent, but there is no emotional reaction to reward the behavior. Without the reaction, the action tends to go away. In other words, the uncooperative co-parent might begin to change.
The co-parent asked you to join in a toxic dance, but you did not accept the invitation.
Summary. Wanting to be right and winning the conflict contest are natural human urges that can and often do serve people well. However, there are circumstances in which those impulses can lead us down a very dark alley. In this Blog Series, we have suggested a way to change a problematic co-parenting relationship with a cooperative co-parent by redefining what it means to win and working together (as best as possible) so that everyone (including the children) wins. We also made recommendations for changing a problematic co-parenting relationship with an uncooperative coparent. The biggest challenge is letting go of all of the toxic emotions involved in the problematic co-parenting relationship. When someone treats us badly, our primitive instincts are to fight or run away. We want to argue, be right and win or not talk to or even look at the other person. As we posited above, the best practice is to disengage.
The Solution: the more mature parts of our brain need to override these instincts to change things over which you have no control. We recommend you seize the opportunity to teach the children skills and lessons that can actually make you an agent of change. Your action maximizes the possibility that the uncooperative co-parent might also make some positive changes in response to your actions. By acting in this way, you serve your children well, giving them at least one healthy parent and possibly changing the family experience for the better. Why not try it? You (and the children) have nothing to lose and everything to gain.