In Blogs #1 & #2 of this Series, we focused on the importance of being right and winning in conflicts with others. A conflict is simply a disagreement that does not get resolved easily. Disagreements get resolved easily when one of the two people admits to being wrong or when one of the two people gives in with either a compromise or some sort of trade-off. We continued to point out that in marriages in which conflicts do not get resolved, the desire to be right and win can escalate to the point of destroying the marriage. When people have children and divorce, they still have a relationship, and unfortunately many divorced co-parents continue to have unresolved conflicts, still trying to be right and win the conflict contest. In Blog #3, we pointed out that this destructive process can be changed by redefining what it means to win the conflict contest. This requires cooperation between co-parents, but some parents do not have a cooperative co-parent. Does that mean that the parent who wants to change the destructive co-parenting relationship is helpless? Our answer is no.
This Blog will focus on an important Mindset change, enabling one of the parents to co-parent with at least better success. We will also share a couple of examples. [Blog #6 will give other details on a strategy one parent can use to change for the better the way co-parents interact with one another. Stay tuned.]
The Mindset change proposed for co-parenting with an uncooperative co-parent involves two ideas: (1) understanding the control issue and (2) understanding the importance of reality. Understanding the control issue is “easy”: A parent has no control over the co-parent but has complete control of him or herself.
In an uncooperative co-parenting relationship, that means making no effort to control the co-parent and having strategies that only involve yourself making choices. This sounds easy, but is complicated because of the emotional reactions to what the co-parent does or does not do. More about this later.
Continuing on this Mindset change, the cooperating parent must understand the importance of reality. But, what does this mean?
- One thing it means is that the cooperating parent must teach the children skills for dealing with situations they are likely to face in the future, meaning situations that might be unpleasant but real. One current unpleasant situation is that they have parents who do not get along with one another.
- The other thing it means is that the cooperating parent must teach the children important life lessons, for example, by teaching them how to deal with a poor co-parenting relationship between their parents. In other words, rather than trying to protect children from the other parent, over which you have no control, you teach children good skills, over which you have complete control.
In a moment, we will give two examples to help make this clearer. However, Please re-read the two subparagraphs until you really understand the two basic ideas presented above.
Before going on, we want to remind you of what we wrote in another Blog Series, “Healthy Choices for Children”. Interestingly, you will be hopefully following some of the suggestions and recommendations presented in those blogs, even though the other parent does not. There are Four Steps we recommend that you do unilaterally:
- Share information with the other parent about the children. You will send emails to the other parent giving the other parent as much information about the children that you have that will help the other parent make good choices.
- Be flexible with the schedule when the other parent makes requests. For example, when the other parent wants to change the schedule (e.g., switch weekends), you should do it unless you have competing plans that you cannot change.
- Allow the co-parent access to the children when they are with you. For example, make it easy for the children and the other parent to have telephone contact.
- Be respectful and cordial with the co-parent. In your communications, and when both parents are at events or transitions together, be respectful and cordial, no matter how the co-parent acts.
These four steps model maturity to your children. You will also be doing some things very differently, compared to what you might have done in the past. Please read or re-read the Healthy Choices for Children Blog Series on our site. Try to do as many of those suggestions as possible, given that you have an uncooperative coparent. This is a perfect segue to our three examples. While these might not fit perfectly to your situation, the points we are making will be obvious.
Example One: Assume that you exchange emails with the co-parent, where the co-parent makes demands, criticisms and/or nasty comments. You get very upset and want to write back comparable demands, criticisms and/or nasty comments. Tit for tat! You have just been invited to the toxic dance with the co-parent. Refuse the invitation. What is the mature way of handling nasty emails? Remember, you cannot control the co-parent, but you have complete control over yourself. So, perhaps you write the co-parent and say something like:
“Emails are to share information about the children. Going forward, when I read your emails and there is a nasty comment about me or an inappropriate demand, I will stop reading it. Do not assume that I know anything in the rest of the email. [Optional: However, as a courtesy, I will indicate where I stopped reading and send it back to you.]”
You have just walked off the dance floor and refused to get embroiled in toxic nonsense.
Examples Two and Three. These examples are a bit trickier, for two reasons: one, they require complete honesty on your part; and two, they require a clear understanding of the difference between teaching reality to the children and bad-mouthing the co-parent. The latter is merely a reaction to the co-parent badmouthing you.
First, let’s look at an example. One of your children tells you that the co-parent criticized you. Let’s address the easy part first- complete honesty.
Example 1. Dad said: “Your mom doesn’t really care about you, and that is why she didn’t show up on time at school.”
If the comment is true, you have to admit it to the child. The response might be,
“It is not true that I don’t care about you. I care very much. But, it is true that I get disorganized sometimes and am late. I am working on that.”
Example 2. Mom said to the children: “The reason dad and I are not together is because dad had an affair with Linda and now dad wants Linda to be your mom over there.”
First complete honesty: your response might be something like,
“It is true that Linda and I became involved when I was still married to your mom. That was a big mistake on my part. I owe you an apology, and I owe your mom a big apology. I really hurt her, and I wish that I had not done that. However, I want to assure you Linda is not your mom and never will be. Linda does live here and sometimes is in charge of watching you, like a live-in babysitter. Sometimes she tries to teach you things, but she is not your mom.”
After being honest, teaching reality to the children becomes important. What is the lesson here? Children will always face situations where one person tells them something negative about another person. e.g., office gossip, etc. What is a healthy way to handle that? This is your teaching opportunity, so you might say something like the following regarding complete honesty:
Example 1. “You will always run into people who are disorganized and/or late. They might not mean anything by it, but it still can be upsetting. I would appreciate your helping me and practicing with me when I am late. Think of what you can do while you are waiting, and when I do come, tell me what it was like for you, even if you are really upset with me. Please tell me and be honest with me- just like I am doing with you. I promise I will say I am sorry, and that will make me work even harder to be on time next time because I don’t want to upset you.”
Now, for the hard part- teaching reality:
Example 2. “Your mom was right that I made a big mistake getting involved with Linda when I did, and that hurt you and her very much. But she was wrong when she told you that we would still be married if I had not done that. Your mom and I would have likely split up anyway because there were big problems that we could not solve. She was also wrong when she said that I want Linda to be your mom here. When someone tells you something about another person, you did exactly the right thing by bringing it up with me. Your mom was making some good guesses, but was wrong. Always check out what people tell you about other people because they might be wrong.”
Notice that you are teaching a skill, but not badmouthing the other parent. You are teaching the child about how to deal with reality. You are also teaching the child to admit to mistakes and be honest. Most importantly, the focus is on what you could do to be helpful without any cooperation from the other parent.
In Blog #6, we will describe several other strategies to use in an uncooperative co-parenting relationship and also show how sometimes one parent can be an agent of change. Please read on.