Co-Parenting through long term conflict
Much of the conflict that occurs between parents is happening months or even years before it leads to the separation. However, there is critical point immediately following separation that conflict can reach an all time high. About 80% of couples experience a decrease in conflict within two to three years of divorce (1). But when there is continual or ongoing levels of blame, tension, verbal or physical hostility, the impact on you and the children have the potential to be mentally and emotionally destructive. Working towards minimizing the conflict needs to be a priority!
I have been a co-parent for 11 years, and it has taken me a lot of time and intention to work on various skills and integrate knowledge, tools and tips into my life. This isn't a relationship that ever ends, so truly putting in effort to get along, as best as you can, will hopefully give you peace. I have been inspired to create this program because I was meeting so many couples that were struggling. My course is very interactive and reflective.
When you and your co-parent remain embroiled in conflict, what does that feel like?
-It can make it challenging to be an attentive parent to your child, and available as a co-parent to the other person.
-Living in a state of fear, stress or anxiety can rob you of your own sense of inner peace.
-Often you are unable to relax with your child, your friends or your family.
-It consumes a lot of emotional space because you may be thinking about it often, ruminating on things or constantly trying to figure out how to manage the situation.
-You child could be suffering in their own way by feeling the conflict, stressed about seeing both of you, feeling trapped in the middle or even afraid.
-It can deprive you of effective parenting, in a way that offers a safe, nurturing and comforting relationship.
“Parents in conflict model the behaviors that few would want their children to adopt.” (1)
Think about this, if your child hears you speaking negatively, poorly or critical about their parent, particularly on a regular basis, they may feel that you will speak that way about them when they aren’t around. There are several outcomes that may result being a witness to your words and actions. The first is they may feel the need to please you, because they don’t want you to see them negatively the way you see their parent. Sometimes children go to great lengths not to upset you, cause you stress or push your buttons. Over time, they develop the belief that if they are good enough then they can make you happy. They will minimize or ignore their own feelings for fear of rejection or criticism from others. Inherently they don’t learn that your feelings had nothing to do with their behavior and they had little control over it. They learn NOT to speak up if something is emotionally or physically wrong for fear of upsetting you. They don’t learn how to talk about difficult things and build confidence in relationships.
THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK
Secondly, it can make a child feel conflicted in their loyalties to either of you. Being forbidden to mention one parent in the presence of the other can have a negative impact on the child’s adjustment. (1) You are losing out on a relationship with your child where they can share with you happy moments with the other parent, fears they may have, insights to their relationship and common knowledge about how they are doing. You child may shut off emotionally from you because the conflict, tension or words are too much from them to emotionally process. Over time they may have trouble opening up to other people or develop healthy relationships because they don't feel safe. A part of their life may feel “cut off” from you which leads to two distinct personalities and behaviors, one with you and one with the other parent.
Thirdly, their behaviors may indicate what is happening internally. Some behaviors related to being witness to or directly involved in family conflict could be emotional outbursts, yelling, being defiant, stealing, lying, putting the parents down, being critical of others, problems at school and/or difficulty to maintain friendships. Think about it this way - if their environment doesn't have some stability, comfort or peace, a developing brain with limited experience in life and cognition is trying to express and regulate the emotions they feel. The nervous system is on alert, there may be an abundance or cortisol stress hormone in their body (there is an immense amount of research in adults and children about the negative health impacts of long term stress) and their behavior is one of the few paths they have to express or release their feelings.
It's not all doom and gloom though - but it is really serious!
You and your co-parent can begin to focus on how to minimize the amount of conflict your children are exposed to, then actually try to reduce the conflict and tension between the two of you. Is all of this worth your health and theirs? Would trying be worth a better night's sleep or a peaceful evening? Is what you are attached to that significant that you can't let go, maybe even just a little, so you can actually have some emotional freedom? Do you even know what the conflict is about at this point?
I Now Pronounce You Co-Parents, is an online course I designed to facilitate a better, more neutral and sustainable coparenting relationship and help your child thrive. Here are some skills you can put into practice, to help you begin this process.
1. Be able to identify your feelings. ASK YOURSELF: When I communicate with my co-parent, are the root of any of my feelings based in…
The marriage or partnership when we were together? The loss of our relationship? Directly about your coparent? Struggles or feelings from your own family of origin? Something that happened to you, maybe you're afraid of it happening again? The feelings of betrayal or broken trust that haven't been resolved? Abandonment?
Once you can identify WHAT you are feeling, and the ROOT of the feeling, then you are aware of how to MANAGE the feeling. Take control of your actions and figure out a new way these feelings need to be supported or expressed. You possibly need to vent to a trusted person, attend therapy, process some pain, try something new or accept things that you cannot change. When you begin to engage with your co-parent, try to remain neutral and clear about what you want, not projecting, displacing or dumping your feelings onto them. The same is true for your children, is what you are saying or expressing about something completely different, or is it directly related to them? The goal is to be less reactive and have more insight about your internal emotional landscape. Given how you feel, CHOOSE to express it in a more effective way.
In this new co-parenting relationship, it can be futile trying to process unresolved wounds or repeat patterns that are harmful with your co-parent.
2. Be mindful of what you are saying and doing. If you start lashing out, you are probably going to hurt the other person. If you are trying to hurt them with caustic remarks, it makes it very difficult to have a positive or neutral exchange. In your head you may feel validated or right, however words can do real emotional damage, erode trust or illicit fear. Really check in with yourself: what is the value in treating the parent of your child like this? Words have the power to hurt.
3. Stay on task. Remind yourself what the conversation is about and don't deviate. Especially if you are being triggered, talked down to, pushed or activated somehow, keep the conversation about the co-parenting issue at hand. The both of you can decide on a later time to talk about the other issues. I know this may be difficult because there's so much to say, however learning to focus on what the real topic is will serve the relationship better, and give you time to calm down.
- It is absolutely OKAY to tell your co-parent that you need some time to regulate, gather your thoughts or calm down.
- If your co-parent is flooded with emotion, reactive or overwhelmed, take a break. Don't continue to push the other person. It usually escalates the conflict or someone shuts down (emotional regulation is discussed in great lengths on the course)
- If you choose to process your feelings, make sure there are boundaries and create a safe space. Be respectful, don't lie, wait to speak until the other person is finished, know what your goal is for the conversation and set a time limit.
Remain child focused in the conversations and understand you both need emotional boundaries.
4. Is it more important to be right, or to be happy? Do you continue to argue because you are trying to convince the other to see your point of view? How long have you been trying to do this? It may seem like there is nothing more valuable than convincing your coparent to see or do things your way. If this is happening, ask yourself how important this topic is and see if there is a different way to approach it that is CHILD focused. How much happiness is being depleted in your life by hanging on to this? Check in to see if there is any space for negotiation or compromise if the two of you are at a stand off.
I Now Pronounce you Co-Parents: A way to help transform your co-parenting relationship!
The online course has 7 topics:
Identify your feelings, how to manage and regulate them
The child's experience - an in depth perspective of how to become attuned
Focusing on the child's needs
Communication - evaluate the cycles you are stuck in, how to reframe conversations, blaming vs. cooperative statements
Co-parenting with a narcissist or abuser
The necessity of health boundaries - these are great to have in all aspects of your life, but especially co-parenting
Caring for yourself - one of the most overlooked needs of the parent, caring for yourself is not selfish, it's necessary
There is a comprehensive workbook and a video for each section. The video explains all of the concepts, tools and skills and offers many examples of how to create change. Additionally there are a lot of reflective questions so you can take this information and personalize it to your family.
(1) Putting Children First, Parenting Strategies through Divorce by JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D.