How to co-parent when your relationship breaks down

Kinderling News & Features

The journey of parenting is a joyful, exhausting and trying one. What happens when the relationship with the person you've chosen to go on that journey with, splinters? How do you continue to parent positively when your relationship is anything but positive?

How can you co-parent if you're separated?

Co-parenting is a style of parenting where both partners bring their different parenting styles to child rearing and work out a way to compliment those styles for the growth of the child. When you become separated, this task becomes monumentally more difficult. Particularly in the early months.

Karen Kristjanson went through her own separation 30 years ago. When she wanted advice, she turned to books. Surprised at the lack of material on the subject she took it upon herself to change that; interviewing mums and dads from all walks of life to put together her book Co-Parenting From The Inside Out: Voices of Moms and Dads

Karen defines co-parenting as "both parents [having] 35% or more time with the children." That percentage split is important. Karen says that she settled on that number because it means that both parents are experiencing both the fun activities and the routine of the everyday. "It means that the children will be known to both parents as they’re growing and changing and the parents will be known to the children, both of them in terms of what are their strengths and what are their flaws," she adds.

Does co-parenting work if your split isn’t amicable?

It's certainly easier to co-parent when your split is amicable, but that doesn't mean it's entirely impossible when there's conflict.

When you agree on your separation you begin having the conversations you need to have around parting quite quickly and without massive amounts of difficulty, or being side tracked by conflict.

Listen to Karen on Kinderling Conversation

Karen explains that while co-parenting through conflict can be more difficult, research has shown that it is still better for a child in the long run, excepting instances of course where one parent is abusive. "Even when there's a lot of conflict, co-parenting when it's accomplished will have much better outcomes for the children than when it's primarily one parent doing the childrearing… There's more mediation and supports for parents to help them through, especially through the first bit. When one parent is ready to move on and the other is just like 'what'! it will take a while to let them get to a good meeting place."

Put yourself first

When staring down the barrel of separation, it's only natural to let anger and annoyance fester and to push away grief. Karen points out that putting others first and ignoring your own feelings can create problems later on. She recommends you allow yourself time to grieve, and not to overload yourself with organising your children's lives in the beginning.

What this does is simply is distract yourself from sadness. "For lots of us it's easier to be angry than to be sad. It's certainly there is grieving to be done for all the dreams that have to be let go of in order to move on," Karen explains.

"Try not to just push through and say 'I can make it through this, I don't have to worry about these feelings,' because for most of us, those feelings are too strong. If we don't face them directly, they will run us down and mean that our best selves aren’t coming forward when we are trying to put our children first. Get some help and face your feelings directly." she adds.

 Some techniques Karen recommends for dealing with separation and confronting co-parenting are;

  • Counselling, therapy or coaching
  • Join a support group
  • Vocalise the things that are tough and upsetting about where you find yourself right now, i.e "My kids won't have that perfect family life," "I feel betrayed by my ex," "I'm single and 45."
  • Write a list of the changes you’re facing, both physical and internal
  • Do something that will allow you to let in whatever it is you’re feeling. Sit with it a bit and then those feelings will slowly abate.
  • Be kind to yourself!

Am I messing up my kids by doing this?

In short? No. In fact, quite thoe opposite. If you make time for yourself and your own well being during the transitional phases, you and your family, whatever that looks like in the future, will be better off.

Karen believes that even during our most tiresome and trying days, the long-term benefits of co-parenting, provided neither party is abusive, are irrefutable. "A preponderance of research says that having the influence of both parents is healthier for children. Parenting is a big job. Not just financially but it takes a lot of energy so it makes a lot of sense to me that when you get the human resource energy of two parents then that will be good for the kids."