Co-Parenting: How to Be a Parenting Team When You Are No Longer a Couple

Every year, 1 million U.S. kids become children of divorce. In settling child custody issues, their parents are likely to hammer out co-parenting agreements - committing to working together to raise their kids in spite of a divorce or separation. But co-parenting has its challenges. In the second part of our series of occasional articles on co-parenting, we look at how to make the transition from separated couple to parenting team.

Co-parenting may not come naturally to you, particularly if you're a high-conflict couple or you're still recovering from the nastiness of a divorce. Divorced parents need to make a concerted effort to keep their conflicts with each other separate from their relationship as co-parents to their child.



Working together to help your child grow into a happy, confident and well-adjusted adult is something that all parents should aspire to. But it's not something that comes easily to newly divorced or separated parents, or even to parents who were living apart in the first place.

It takes hard work to craft a "co-parenting" relationship that enables parents to cooperate in a way that benefits their child. As separated or divorced parents, you choose to live apart because you can't see eye to eye on many things, and it's unreasonable to expect that you'll be able to immediately step away from all of that and become a cheery, friendly, co-parenting couple. It can take months or years to forge a new relationship as parents together. But no matter how long it takes - or how difficult it is - finding a way to cooperate together as parents ultimately does pay off.

Keep Your Child Uppermost in Mind

Divorce or separation is devastating for children. It's normal for them to experience anger, sadness, helplessness, fear and withdrawal. (Extreme behavior or serious depression requires treatment by a mental health professional.)

8 Cardinal Rules of Co-Parenting

In order for co-parenting to succeed, there are some important rules that all co-parents should follow:

1. Do not use your child as a go-between.
2. Do not discuss your feelings about the other parent with your child.
3. Always remember that your child needs time with both of you to grow up healthy and happy.
4. If possible, never argue in front of your child.
5. Be flexible whenever possible.
6. Think of parenting time as benefiting your child, not you or the other parent.
7. Envision yourself and the other parent as a team.
8. If you are the residential parent, include the other parent as much as possible.
- Brette Sember
It is impossible for you as a parent to fully protect your child from the impact of the divorce. Your family has changed, and you have to expect that your child will need time to adjust. But the way that you and the other parent handle the change of a divorce, and the years following it, has a huge impact on the kind of experience it is for your child. The purpose of your divorce was likely to end the fighting, to improve how you both feel, and to create happier lives for everyone. If you go through the divorce, only to continue arguing and fostering unpleasant feelings toward the other parent, you haven't made a lot of improvements in your family's life.

You can't give your child proper support and attention if you and the other parent are always focused on what the other is doing wrong, or if you continue to dredge up bad feelings from your relationship as a couple. Developing a new relationship that is low-conflict, pleasant on the surface, and routine will help your child relax and begin to feel more comfortable with the new arrangement. You will be able to focus more directly on your child's needs. Your child will function better if she knows that there are two parents united behind her.

Learn How to Think

Learning to co-parent means making a mental shift in the way you think about the other person. This is a person who has undoubtedly hurt you, let you down, insulted you, or worked against you in your relationship. It may seem like a tall order to set that aside and smilingly co-parent together.

You need to mentally compartmentalize your relationship with the other parent. In one room, put all of your feelings about him or her as your partner, spouse or lover. All the hurt and anger from a divorce goes behind that door. You can go into that room whenever you need to, to work through those feelings.

In another room goes your relationship with this person as a parent. In this room, there is a table where you can sit and work together to create a good life for your child. On the walls are photos of your child in happy moments. This is the room you must place yourself in mentally when you are dealing with the other parent in a parenting situation.

This compartmentalizing is something you must commit to doing. It may be hard to sit in one room in your mind, while you know that the other room is next door. But you must direct your attention to cooperating and welcoming the other parent into your child's life so your child can have the benefit of two parents who are reasonable, pleasant and accommodating to each other.

Learn How to Talk

Open communication is essential. You and the other parent need to be able to talk about your child and make cooperative decisions. If you're able to talk naturally in a pleasant and reasonable way, you're on the right path. But if you find yourself gritting your teeth, shouting or getting upset, try to treat your conversations with the other parent in a more detached, business-like way.

You have to conduct the business of parenting together, so treat it like a business transaction. You wouldn't let your temper get the better of you in most business situations, so try to be polite to your ex in the same way you would to a stranger you are working with.

I worked with one family that kept ending up back in court. The bottom line was that they could not communicate in any reasonable way. Every time they exchanged children, they had a blowup. They finally went to a therapist who had them practice discussing only the situation at hand, and putting their emotions and problems with each other on the back burner to be dealt with at another time. This worked, and when they had to do the business of parenting, they were able to focus only on that task and keep the rest of their problems separate.

Get Help

Co-parenting may not come naturally to you, particularly if you're a high-conflict couple, or you're still recovering from the nastiness of a divorce. But there are plenty of ways to get help with your parenting relationship.

    • Take a co-parenting class together (even if you go at separate times). These classes, which many state court systems now mandate for all divorcing couples, can be very helpful. If a class is not required in your area, check with your attorney, the court clerk or the state department of mental health services to find a class near you.
    • Consider seeing a therapist. A couples therapist can help you improve your co-parenting skills. Your child can also benefit from having a therapist to talk with, and that therapist may, ultimately, be able to help you and your ex work together to help your child. If, however, you have serious, lingering disagreements about the co-parenting plan itself, a mediator can help you work through them and come to an agreement that will work for everyone.
Forgive Yourself

While it may seem as though co-parenting is solely about your interaction with the other parent, a big part is your own internal thought process. Although you have to learn to forgive or at least let go of things the other parent has done, you must also forgive yourself for anything you secretly believe you've done - whether to the other parent or to your child. Everyone who goes through the emotional turmoil of a divorce makes mistakes and you need to tell yourself it is OK.

You also need to learn to forgive yourself for the slip-ups you will make as you co-parent. No one can keep up a perfect façade at all times. You're going to lose your temper, be inflexible or let your hurt get the best of you sometimes in dealing with the other parent. Tell yourself it's OK and that you will simply try harder the next time.

More Resources:

 Co-Parenting: How Separated Parents Can Make It Work


Brette Sember is a former family law attorney and mediator. She is the author of numerous books on divorce and child custody, including The Divorce Organizer & Planner, No-Fight Divorce and How to Parent with Your Ex.

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08 Oct 2017

By Brette Sember