Co-Parenting After Divorce: 8 Key Lessons I’ve Learned

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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When my ex-husband and I decided to have children, it was a well-thought out decision. We knew that there could be hard times as well. We knew that we came from very different worlds (he’s American, I’m European) and our characters differ in many crucial ways. We were prepared to deal with all these challenges, but the one we’d never counted on dealing with was parenting together after we got divorced. That’s the one great life event we don’t plan for. It’s not part of our design, is it? “I’ll get married at 21, with 2 kids by the time I’m 30 and a divorce at 34″ said no one ever.
Yet, this is the challenge that we’ve been facing for the past three years, and I actually think that, considering the circumstances, we’ve done a really great job.

I’ve learned a lot over those years, not just from co-parenting myself but also from seeing other parents do the same and from hearing children of divorced parents talk. They are, after all, the reason we have to do the very best we can.

These are the most important things I’ve learned about co-parenting in the wake of a divorce.

  1. The toughest conversation of your life
    When you’ve made the decision of divorce final, there will be a moment that you’ll have to tell the children. The idea of this conversation was one of the things that pushed me to trying to stay together over and over again. Every time I thought about having to tell the children that their entire world as they knew it would be falling apart, that they would henceforth be missing a parent for pretty much 99.9% of the time, I burst into tears. And it was, I’ll be honest, the hardest conversation of my life. In fact, answering the question ‘why’ and dealing with the children’s grief after the divorce remains one of the hardest things I have to deal with even after 3 years of practice.

    Here are some of the key things I’ve learned about that conversation:

    – It’s okay to show your emotions, but it’s also important to show yourself as being in control of those emotions. The uncertainty of the events is scary enough for children so they need a reliable base to be able to fall back on. If their parents are also falling apart, that feels really unsafe. We prepared for and practiced this conversation together a couple of times.

    – Keep the information short and clear. Focus on what will happen to the children, not on what happened in the marriage.

    – Tell the kids you still love them (often!). Tell them it’s not their fault (a lot!). Tell them they can’t change this. As long as they keep hoping, they can’t get to their grieving process.

    – This is the first conversation of many. Tell your kids they can always talk to you about it, and to other people (you’re not a neutral party, so your children might not feel comfortable in talking about issues with you). In the beginning, I brought up the divorce and the fact that they missed their Daddy often. I often asked if they had more questions, if they wanted to talk about it, just so they knew the door was open. The topic still arises quite frequently now, with new layers of understanding as they get older, and new layers of grief as their awareness grows.

  2. Don’t ever play on children’t loyalties
    Children love both their parents, even if they are angry with them (they wouldn’t be angry if they didn’t care). So when you want to vent about your ex, go to someone else. Your children should hear as few negative remarks about your ex from your lips as possible. As far as they are concerned, the other parent may be a saint and you have no right to interfere in that relationship. If it’s hard to say anything positive, just don’t talk about the other partner. It’s not just the words either, they’ll pick it up in your tone, attitude and just general energy. You may not tell the children, but they know exactly what the relationship between Mom and Dad is.
    Asking kids to choose between the two is, in my opinion, incredibly cruel. Please, just don’t.

  3. Leave the lines of communication open between parent and child
    When my children are with me, they are free to send messages to their father through my phone. Sometimes they call, or we skype or zoom. There are times he comes to visit on a free afternoon as well, to do an activity with them. I can only imagine what it must be like to miss your father or mother that much, so I want them to know that we’re still there, even if they’re not with us at that moment. We’re still available to them.

  4. Let go of the differences in parenting styles
    This was a tricky one for me, at times, and I’m sure it’s the same for my ex. We both want what’s best for our children, and our ideas on what that is are, in some aspects, quite different. So I let go of the fact that they occasionally play video games at his place, and he lets go of the fact that I’m less strict around what they eat. That doesn’t mean we don’t bring those things up, but after a polite discussion about how we feel and why, we let the other parent in his/her responsibility for how to deal with the situation. When we visit each other, we make it clear to the kids: ‘his house, his rules.’ The children can deal with the differences really well.

    Over time I’ve come to appreciate these differences in parenting style as well. My ex has a higher risk-tolerance which is scary to me, but it also means he takes the kids on adventures I couldn’t deal with. I see benefits there, too.

  5. You’re still a team
    As parents of the same children, you’ll be connected for life. The sooner you come to terms with that, the easier it becomes to move forward. Make it clear how you’ll make decisions together, what you pay for together and what you pay for separately, what happens with school communications, etc.
    If you find that you get triggered by each other (you’re bound to, you’ve got years of ingrained patterns to deal with), you can mention that and then see how you can make it about the children again. I’ve noticed how easy it is to revert to the person I was when we were still married when I’m around my ex, and it’s not the nicest version of myself either. When I notice, I apologize to my ex and forgive myself. Then we move on. It gets easier over time.

  6. Deal with your own issues as much as you can
    There was a good year or so in which my ex and I had a difficult time communicating, and we were each dealing with our own process. Going through our own emotions and working on what’s underneath has been pivotal in how we can now relate to each other. I have learned compassion for myself and for my ex. We’ve had conversations in which we acknowledged in what ways we weren’t the right partner for each other. Accepting that we didn’t ‘fail’ as a couple, but we ended a relationship that had run its course, makes it much easier to relate to each other now.
    When your ex or you, yourself, remain the villain in your story, it’s hard to move forward and see them as the equal partner in your co-parenting relationship.

  7. Model good behaviour
    Be polite to each other, at the very least. Say ‘hello’, communicate directly to each other in case of news and don’t show up late without notifying your ex. You’re not hurting them nearly as much as you’re hurting your own children. You don’t want that.
    Your children will be badly affected by divorce, I don’t think there’s a single child that isn’t. But they will also learn a lot about how to deal with adversity, conflict and grief through how you cope with the situation.

  8. Build a new relationship with each other
    You’re marriage has ended. You’re no longer partners in a romantic relationship, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be anything else to each other after that. My ex and I have found friendship in our post-marriage relationship. We can support one another, because having happy parents means our children can be happier as well. The fact that our relationship ended, didn’t mean we stopped caring about each other altogether. We take an interest in each other’s lives and celebrate birthdays together. Sure, this has been awkward at times, but it gets less so with repetition. You’re adjusting to a new reality, give it some time.

I know that some of the tips above may seem easier than others. It’s been a learning curve for me as well, and I’m sure there’ll be more challenges up ahead, too (puberty anyone?), but I’m really thankful for the foundation we’ve built over the past few years that makes it clear for our children that we are still supportive of each other.

For those of you who may be in the middle of a (looming) divorce, this is an incredibly tough place to be in. It took me a good year to wrap my head around the possibility of (and even just the word) ‘divorce‘ because of the effect it would have on my children, my ex and me, our family and friends. Somehow it seemed as if the future I saw ahead wasn’t so much a future as an abyss completely void of joy. But the dust does eventually settle. In the case of me and my ex, I now find it much easier to appreciate his differences and we’re on friendly terms. My current partner and I are throwing him a birthday party as well, since today is his birthday (Happy Birthday A.!)
Once you’ve been able to take some time and some distance, and once you can see where things went wrong, you can learn to forgive each other and yourself, for just not knowing any better at the time. We all act out of a desire to meet our own needs. Finding the need underneath the actions can really help you find empathy for your ex and yourself.

I know that we’re lucky in how we’ve been able to handle our divorce and the impact it continues to have on our two children, and I’m so grateful that I have a co-parent whose been willing to do the same in the interest of our children.

Honestly, I hope you never have to face this situation in your life, and that this post will forever be a completely pointless one.
I still wrote it, just in case…

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