Navigating separation, divorce, and child custody issues is stressful and often fraught with conflict. For those of us who have committed an act of domestic violence but are working to change, this stress and conflict are major challenges. The situation is ripe for our worst behavior. Still, we know a bad reaction is going to get us into trouble and damage our relationship with our kids. So how do we do respectful co-parenting after we are no longer in a relationship with the other parent?
Not respectful co-parenting
When my kids’ mom and I separated, our already troubled relationship got much worse. That’s not unusual or surprising. We’d split over some major differences, and any incentive to be nice to each other was gone. She dished out her version of nastiness, and I responded and escalated it with mine: harsh words and violence.
It was the wrong response. It made my relationship with my soon-to-be ex even more strained and difficult. My kids hated that I’d hit their mom, and it severely hurt my relationship with them. While I couldn’t control her behavior, I did get to control mine.
I did not get arrested for domestic violence at that point, but I could have. The threat of arrest was leverage to make me give up fighting for shared custody. The truth is, I probably had no chance of winning it at that point anyway.
Unpacking my reaction
Did I sit down and plan my nasty, verbally and physically abusive reaction? Of course not—it just spilled out in the heat of the moment. Had I thought through my best response, however, it would have been one that was much more civil and helped me get the outcome I wanted. I should have acted with respectful co-parenting, not the angry and violent reaction that I had. What was missing was my control over my emotions.
There were good reasons why the situation was upsetting to me. I felt the sting of her rejection, which led to our divorce. Plus, her badmouthing me to the kids and others felt hurtful and unfair. And, losing custody meant losing influence with my children, which felt like a threat to my relationship with them.
None of these circumstances are trivial and the emotions they produce are powerful. Is it hard to be respectful to someone who has hurt us, is being disrespectful, or is threatening something that is important to us? Of course, but it’s in our best interest to do so anyway.
Gain emotional control, then make good decisions
It’s easy for someone to point to my behavior and say I made a poor decision. I would have had a far better outcome by acting respectfully toward my ex, regardless of what she did or how custody was awarded. The problem is, I didn’t think through the options because I was flooded by my emotions in the moment.
Most of us make good decisions when our emotions are under control. I’ll discuss why respectful co-parenting is a good decision in the next section, in case you have any doubts. But the first step is to maintain emotional control so we are actually making a decision about our actions rather than reacting to our out-of-control emotions.
That process of getting and maintaining emotional control begins with being aware of what’s happening inside of our heads. It means we need to identify our emotions. In my case, it was realizing I was feeling hurt, disrespected, and threatened.
Once we’re aware of our emotions, we can address them. Maybe I didn’t need to feel these powerful feelings, and I could reduce or eliminate them by challenging my thoughts. Another strategy I could have taken is to accept those uncomfortable thoughts, and still choose to act in accordance with my values.
Either way, I take control of my emotions first. Then, my brain is free to make decisions that are in my best interest. The Ananias Foundation website, our Guidebook, and our online groups can all help you develop this emotional control. Counselors excel at working with individuals on this issue. But telling you to make a different or better decision without that ability in place is not going to work.
Why respect matters
Why is it in our best interest to engage in respectful co-parenting? The biggest reason for adults to communicate calmly and respectfully is our kids’ well-being. When this doesn’t happen, or kids are put in the middle of conflicts, they feel insecure. The damage can be long-lasting.
Another very important reason is to model for our children how to respect others. Respect is an essential skill that will serve them well their entire life. Note that respect is not necessarily agreement or submission, but a way of interacting despite differences.
Kids are great at copying the behavior they see. If we want to be respected, we have to be respectful, even to people we don’t like or agree with. I guarantee that your kids will disagree with you sometime, and I’m pretty sure you’d like them to be respectful to you when they do.
What respectful co-parenting looks like
Once you’ve committed to maintaining a respectful co-parenting relationship with your kids’ other parent, here’s what that looks like. You:
- Value and honor the other parent’s needs.
- Share decision-making about raising the children.
- Support the other parent in front of the children, even if you disagree with their decision.
- Discuss disagreements about parenting in a respectful way, and only when the children are not present.
- Agree on shared goals for children.
- Agree or compromise/negotiate about the care and discipline of children.
- Resolve problems in a respectful, non-violent way.
Respecting the other parent also continues when that parent is not around. Say only positive things about their other parent, or don’t say anything at all! Some issues that you should definitely not discuss with your children include:
- Arrangements for child support
- Anger, resentment, or frustration with their other parent
- Questions about who their other parent is seeing, where he or she lives, where he or she works, his or her phone number or address, or anything he or she is doing that is NOT related to the child’s regular activities
- Any feelings for their other parent outside of the parenting relationship
- Any feelings about his or her new partner
New day, new strategy
When I realized the damage I’d done with my anger and violence, I called my kids’ mom and apologized. We still run into issues where we disagree. But because I deal with my emotions before I confront her, we are able to discuss and resolve them satisfactorily. Eliminating this source of stress in my life is a relief, even though the decisions don’t always go the way I hope.
If reading these guidelines has left you feeling guilty about your co-parenting approach, use that as motivation to do it differently. It’s never too late to take a new strategy. You, your children, and your relationship with them will benefit when you do.