I recently read an article that stated, “if you’re not co-parenting, the only one hurt is the child.” I sat with that for a moment and noticed several feelings pop up. First guilt, then incredulity, then curiosity. It can be a dangerous thing to tell a survivor of abuse that if she doesn’t “get along” with her ex, her child suffers. This ill-informed and narrow viewpoint massively complicates situations and is yet another reason many women don’t leave, and this is what actually harms children.
I decided to break down this idea a bit more since the quote in question seemed, perhaps unintentionally, short-sighted and judgmental. Co-parenting, like any other element related to divorce, whether it is amicable or high conflict, is both multifaceted and none of your business. But let’s say for the sake of argument it is everyone’s business and “random stranger” or “well-intentioned friend” asks you how co-parenting is going. They might wonder if your ex is a good parent or how the children are dealing with it all. There is nothing inherently wrong with these questions. Here are some ideas to consider when asking and answering.
- Co-parenting To Fit Your Safety Needs
First of all, parenting is complicated. It can be both amazing and infuriating at the best of times. Co-parenting is similar, but convoluted due to changes in the family dynamic. Add in trauma from an abusive ex-partner with a heaping side of post-separation abuse and well – it can be a serpentine nightmare.
- Is there only one right way to co-parent? I have thought a lot about this and wondered if I’m doing it wrong and hurting my family (as I’ve been accused of) or if I’m in fact taking the necessary steps to protect my peace, my body, and my children. Sure, I could remind my kid’s dad when school is out for summer or what medicine to put on chapped lips, but he could also check his email or use that thing called Google. And in healthy circumstances, these are not unreasonable requests or exchanges. But in my experience, almost any correspondence is a gateway for verbal abuse and I have actively chosen not to be at the mercy of another person’s unpredictable moods. It’s the confusing bits of amiability (i.e. random photos of our kids at the park) followed by often erratic tantrums of vitriol (i.e name calling and threats about money) that can muck up this seemingly straightforward idea. So I have decided with the help of my intuition, my experience, and my therapist that the best way to respect my nervous system is to parent with my ex in a way that is geared toward schedules and emergencies rather than friendship. This can (and should) be done in a cordial manner.
- The Term “Co-parenting” Can Be Weaponized
The language around “co-parenting” can often be used as a means to manipulate and control. On multiple occasions, my estranged husband would tell me after he text ranted after not getting the response he wanted that when the divorce is over, we can go back to co-parenting. This statement posits that the only reason we are not “getting along” is because there is a divorce taking place and that eventually when documents are signed, we will both begin to behave ourselves. First, a divorce is occurring because many things were wrong in the marriage, including multiple forms of abuse. Therefore, the intentional choice to disengage from unhealthy and unilaterally abusive tirades is not out of line. If I give an emotionless, but cordial response stating a boundary and expectation and am met with threats and insults, then my choice to stay away both physically and emotionally was correct. Short, factual responses could be seen as rude or hostile or simple and polite. This is a matter of perspective. I’m happy to say that grey rocking has worked in these scenarios. It takes a lot of self and possible white-knuckling to remain calm when you are verbally attacked. There is no winning here, only further destruction to the already difficult dynamic. Ground your feet, take a deep breath, tell your BFF what you wish you could say, and respond with grace. After much practice, I’m close to mastering the art of staying on the topic of logistics and other child-related matters when my character is under attack.
- Historically speaking, no amount of time, money, or court filings will change the value system or behavior of an abusive or narcissistic person. So unless a signed document can magically (and drastically) alter attitudes and actions, I can co-parent from a distance, ensuring my child is safe, seen, heard, clothed, educated, and entertained.
- The Kids Are Watching
Here is what I know to be true. Communicating with brevity and decency does not make you a bad parent. As long as one parent is not speaking ill of the other, trust between parent and child is being built and you are offering a soft place to land during what is most definitely a hard and confusing time. I have come to fully embody the fact that I am responsible for my relationship with my children. And I know that bad-mouthing only drives a wedge between me and them.
- Children can learn healthy relationship skills by observing what it looks like to make and keep boundaries. When we are calm and our lid is not flipped, we can be present and deal with parenting woes and excitements appropriately. Survivors of abuse know what it’s like to be on high alert, in fight or flight, and waiting on a potentially abusive response; it’s the same game that was played when everyone lived under the same roof. Our attention is biologically geared toward safety and not higher-order luxuries like happiness and playdates. So when we are choosing our safety, we are doing our children and ourselves a kindness.
- After pondering one person’s interpretation of co-parenting, I propose an alternate idea. Envision a scenario where one parent makes the difficult and often dangerous choice to leave. The children see that it’s ok to be human; to cry, to worry, to thrive, and to heal. The hope is that these children grow up to have better outcomes, enjoy healthy relationships and end cycles of abuse. If one agreed-upon definition of “co-parenting” means blame, hateful language, and gatekeeping, then I want no part in it. When trying to do the difficult task of parenting with someone who has narcissistic tendencies, abusive behavior, or a combination of both, it is best to stay on the high road to stay safe.
Moving forward, I will continue to take deep breaths when I read or hear things about difficult topics; especially from people who either haven’t experienced it or more possibly, have had their own experience, which does not always translate to everyone else’s. If setting boundaries, showing compassion to self and others, and communicating truthfully is what our children witness one, or hopefully two parents doing, then I think the kids are going to be alright.