Successful co-parenting relationships are possible when managed thoughtfully and intentionally by two parents acting in the best interest of their children.
For couples with young children, the prospect of divorce can seem particularly daunting. As a marriage is ending, parents experience a fierce sense of protection to preserve normalcy for the children so they can thrive and grow into happy, independent adults. All too often, however, parents enter into a co-parenting relationship with an ex-spouse without sufficient guidance and resources.
Teresa Harlow, author of Combative to Collaborative: The Co-parenting Code, has taken great efforts to address this need. She left her high-profile job in corporate America with the specific intention of helping couples achieve successful co-parenting relationships. She drew inspiration from her own journey – she managed to navigate a strong co-parenting arrangement with her ex-spouse. She is an author, speaker and coach. Her book, Combative to Collaborative, provides excellent insight and a step-by-step formula for divorcing parents to follow when transitioning into a co-parenting relationship.
I had an opportunity to speak with Teresa about co-parenting and the lessons contained in her new book. What stood out was her sense of optimism and hope about what a co-parenting relationship could be when managed thoughtfully and intentionally by two parents acting in the best interest of their children. She shared a few thoughts with me which I hope will be helpful to others:
1. Raise the bar: don’t just aim to “survive” co-parenting
Perhaps the most notable lesson Teresa aimed to impart was the overall attitude you should bring to a co-parenting relationship. Most feel the need (and perhaps for good reason) to simply endure and survive co-parenting with an ex. The standard thinking is: you simply have to do your best and just “get through it” until the kids reach adulthood. This mindset, however, might ultimately sabotage your effectiveness as co-parents. When you have two parents genuinely wishing to do what’s best for their children, the bar should be set much higher than mere survival. Instead, the focus should be: how can we work together so our children will have wonderful childhood experiences? The key ingredient in this formula is the need to genuinely root for your ex to be a successful parent. Think of ways to set your ex up for success as a co-parent. Even though you might be entirely exasperated and angry with your ex as a failed romantic partner, it will only benefit your children (and thus you) if they manage to be a good co-parent.
2. How to tell the kids you’re getting a divorce
When it’s time to tell the kids you’re divorcing, Teresa recommends that you sit down together as a family. Make sure you are both calm and able to speak. Most importantly, you want to affirm your love for your children. Avoid saying anything that might lead the children to think it’s their fault. Similarly, avoid the temptation to get into the details of why the relationship fell apart or what you really think. If they ask why you are separating, you can explain that it’s a private matter between you two but that it has absolutely nothing to do with them. Ask the children how they are feeling and affirm those feelings. It’s ok if they feel sad and angry. Reassure them of your love and tell them you will both be there for them. During this conversation, be mindful that this is your first opportunity to act as co-parents together who genuinely root for the success of one another. You do not want to paint your ex in a light that will handicap their ability to effectively co-parent.
3. Fashion your life around co-parenting.
In keeping with the overall desire to thrive—not merely survive—as co-parents together, Teresa emphasized the importance of fashioning your life around a co-parenting relationship. As she explained, it’s important to place a high priority on your obligations as a co-parent. This means living relatively close to your ex so your kids are not subjected to long commutes back and forth or having to leave a familiar school district. It might mean turning down a job offer that pulls you to a distant office location. Yes, your individual life and career are important. But so is your role as a co-parent. When considering life and career choices, think about how it would feel if the shoe were on the other foot? How would you feel if your ex chose a career advancement that created a significant inconvenience for you and your children? To diminish the risk of these dilemmas, Teresa recommends – when appropriate – negotiating restrictions on residential distance when crafting a divorce agreement.
4. Be considerate of your former in-laws
When you divorce, there may be a mix of emotions when it comes to your former in-laws. Perhaps you were close to your ex’s mother and mourn the change in relationship? Or maybe you couldn’t stand your former brother-in-law and are relieved to be done with that relationship? In either event, the chances are likely that your former in-laws are important to your ex – just as your family may be to you. Teresa encourages people to keep the “golden rule” front of mind and put in the effort to continue and honor those relationships. Too often, extended family gets the raw end of the deal when a divorce happens. For this reason – and so long as it’s safe and comfortable – consider allowing your kids to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. You might want to initiate contact with your former in-laws, invite them to the t-ball games and dance recitals, include them on birthday and graduation invitations. By being inclusive and kind to your former in-laws, you will only make matters easier for yourself in the long-run. Ultimately, if you want your family to remain active participants in your children’s lives, then you should consider extending the same courtesy to your former in-laws.
5. How to handle new relationships
If and when you start a new relationship post-divorce, Teresa recommends that you let your co-parent know before you tell the kids. You should wait to disclose the news to your kids — she recommends at least 6 months so you have confidence that it’s a serious relationship. Conversely, if your co-parent begins dating, you want to strike a balance: you do want to set a respectful tone that your kids will follow. You do not want your kids feeling pressure to bad-mouth or gossip about your ex’s new love interest in order to curry favor with you. That said, if there are genuine concerns, Teresa recommends you encourage your kids to raise those concerns directly with your co-parent.