In this Series on Co-parenting Communication, we address a major obstacle and identify a solution to that obstacle. We then define the two purposes of communication in a co-parenting relationship and provide information-sharing rules and procedures for instituting effective communication in a co-parenting relationship, regardless of the history of that relationship (with a couple of exceptions that we will point out).
We will be referring to the other parent as a co-parenting partner (CPP), which will be shorthand through the rest of the Blogs. In this brief Blog, we are limited in the amount of information that we can give. For much more detail, consider buying our Co-parenting Training Workbook. Ordering information is available on our website. https://www.unhookedmedia.com/stock/coparenting-workbook.
The Obstacle: Ineffective Communication. Most divorces occur after a prolonged period of sometimes painful frustration and hurtful behavior. Many of those marriages also included communication problems, perhaps including having reached a conclusion that communicating effectively with the other spouse is impossible. A hope might be that there will be relief in a separation from the frustration and hurt and no longer a need to communicate with the CPP. However, when children are involved, having no effective communication with the CPP creates its own frustration, and often leads to more hurtful behavior and harm to the children.
It is literally impossible not to communicate with the CPP. While the parents might no longer be connected romantically, financially or even intimately (as close confidants), they are still connected as parents. Having in many cases lost the desire to communicate, there is no motivation for communicating effectively as co-parents. As a result, many separated parents develop ineffective communication, which results in frustration, misunderstandings, using the children to bring messages to one another, and, at the extreme, a high conflict relationship between the CPP’s. A cold war between CPP’s might not appear to be high conflict, but the damage done to children is as serious.
The two horns of this dilemma are: no motive for working on developing effective communication and the absolute need for an effective communication system.
The incentives for changing the communication pattern to one that works are profound: (1) healthy happy children who escape the damage done in an ineffective communication pattern between their parents and (2) peace and amicable relations between the parents. Sound impossible? Believe us, it is not. We have seen the change through co-parenting counseling. It only requires the knowledge of what steps to take and then to take those steps.
The Two Purposes of Communication. Fortunately, there is a solution to this dilemma: an approach that overcomes this obstacle. The solution hinges on the fact that effective communication in a co-parenting relationship is much simpler than communication in a romantic or even a friendly relationship. There are only two purposes to co-parenting communication: one, sharing information, and two, taking action. Let’s unwrap each of these.
- Sharing Information. In order to have a functioning co-parenting relationship, both parents need a common body of information about their children. This occurs without much effort when people live with one another. Both parents are witness to most of their children’s lives, and the parts that they don’t witness are covered in brief conversations. One parent takes a child to the dentist, and at dinner, the other parent asks what happened at the dentist. When parents live in separate residences, they are no longer witnesses to a portion of the children’s lives and do not have an easy opportunity to share information. They have to share information deliberately so that both know what is going on. In Blog 2 of this Series, we will discuss sharing information procedures at length and how to have them be functional.
- Taking Action.Taking action comes down to three actions:
- Making decisions about the children
- Solving problems
- Raising and solving concerns.
Some decisions are big decisions, such as what school to send a child to, or small, such as what chores a child should have. Some decisions are dictated by law, such as medical decisions, and some are just practical, such as what extracurricular activities to choose. Many separated parents believe that they can make almost all of the child-related decisions when the child is in his/her home, but this can create a nightmare for the child and the parents.
For example, if parents don’t make joint decisions about chores and expectations in both homes, going back and forth can be like traveling to two different countries, or even walking across the bridge to east and west Berlin in the past, an disrupt family relationships. Children benefit from chores and high expectations, but if those are much stronger in one home than the other, the child can come to see those chores and expectations as oppressive in one home and the less strict parent as a favorite in the other home. Rather than learn responsibility and good work habits, the child learns to avoid them.
The second and third type of taking action is the way that parents smooth out family life for the child. Problems come up. It might be a problem with going back and forth between two homes or a conflict in the schedule. The parents need an effective way of solving the problem. It might be a problem that the child is having outside of the home that will be best solved if both parents are involved. A parent might have a serious concern about something that is happening in the other home that needs to get resolved. This means that parents cannot just avoid one another and cannot avoid the reality that they need to solve problems and resolve concerns together, and that might include disagreements.
The Solution. In a series of six Blogs, we address decision-making, problem solving and resolving concerns. The title of that Blog Series is: “Becoming an Expert Problem Solver.” You can access these Blogs on this site.
More on Sharing Information. For children’s and parent’s lives to go smoothly, both parents must have basic shared information. When people are unable to communicate effectively because of distrust, or even hatred, the solution is to have rules and procedures. For example, people who don’t even know each other, or who do but don’t trust or like one another, can play a card game with one another effectively because they know the rules and procedures of the game.
In a co-parenting relationship, there can be a set of procedures and rules for sharing information, which will be the subject of the next Blog in this Series.
The Exceptions. Procedures and Rules of Conduct can lead to effective communication in a co-parenting relationship, but not always. The purpose of Rules of Conduct is to make communication emotionally safe. However, there are some CPP’s that are not likely to reach a point of feeling emotionally safe with one another. This occurs when one, or both, CPP’s do not keep agreements and/or do not follow rules. The same would be true if playing a game with someone who cheats.
Rules are only good if they are followed. Communicating with a CPP who is a rule breaker is not emotionally safe. Also, some relationships have a history of severely damaging behavior, such as a history of domestic violence or serious emotional abuse. In those relationships, emotional safety might best be achieved by minimizing or even eliminating any direct communication. Programs like Our Family Wizard do not meet the standard of effective communication, but they can be helpful in situations in which the parties don’t feel emotionally safe with one another.
That being said, sometimes parents have very negative impressions of one another and can be reluctant even to attempt to build effective communication. They might even view each other as having been emotionally abusive, although usually not at the level of emotional abuse we are talking about. In almost all cases, it is worth trying to develop effective communication in the model that we are suggesting, because we have seen it work in many challenging co-parenting relationships. Additionally, the worst outcome of trying is that it does not work, because of broken agreements and broken rules, where the parents can always go back trying to avoid one another.
We encourage you to read the remaining Blogs in this Series before making the decision to try or not try to develop effective communication with your CPP.