Why co-parent problems are predictable and sympathetic.
Imagine two adults fall in love, get married, and have children; now imagine that same couple spirals into a bitter divorce.
This distressing shift from married romantic partner to ex-lover (but still) co-parent happens all too often.
As a psychologist that has worked on the front lines, clinically serving the top one percent of high conflict and court-involved families, I have seen how deceivingly complicated and emotionally painful the situation can be.
Let's start with the negative impact of this process on the children of divorce.
For a child to shift from a united family under a single roof to a scenario of separate homes, parallel routines (to say nothing of the now-unstable view of relationships the child harbors)...is inherently highly stressful. In the short-term, there is a legitimate risk of general psychological distress (e.g. moodiness, acting out at school, poor sleep, etc.).
However, if the situation is managed by the parents in a healthy manner then the child is likely to exhibit a resilient response (with no permanent damage).
To clarify, there is nothing in the clinical research and literature to suggest the mere act of divorce is inevitably damaging to children; what is highly damaging, however, is co-parent conflict.
This single factor dramatically influences a child's post-divorce adjustment, and general psychological wellbeing (to say nothing of the increased risk to each parent of personal distress and litigiousness).
In other words, theoretically, a child would be fine in the post-divorce climate if his or her co-parents simply cooperated on childcare decisions, aligned household rules and routines, and compartmentalized disputes.
And yet what so often happens is that each co-parent unwittingly, sometimes intentionally, engages in a series of choices that derails from this outcome.
The psychological train wreck happens when both co-parents get embroiled in a vicious cycle of open conflict, poor communication and intense distress. This escalation unleashes a tidal wave of emotionality that washes over the family unit, including all over the child's vulnerably fragile psyche, which can cause long-term damage and decline across every major domain of functioning - cognitive (academic/work life), emotional (mood and self-care) and social (relationships).
In other words, each parent's treatment of the other and their co-management of the post-divorce situation is a game-changer in a child's general life trajectory of health, happinessand success.
Given the high stakes, why is such derailment so prevelant?
As it turns out, there are understandable (though not justifiable) challenges and preciptants for such co-parent misbehavior, in fact, I have come to view the high-conflict and court-involved co-parent as sympathetically surrounded on all sides by stress.
In most romantic breakups, when the ugly end finally unfolds, the relational pain can be cushioned by the freedom of fully moving on (and never seeing your ex-partner again!). The divorce of a child-based romantic relationship, however, is not only more painful and prolonged then the average split, but it is utterly uncushioned.
Co-parents are tethered to each other by psychological, moral and legal rules (barring rare exceptions due to restraining orders, reports of abuse etc.).
As a co-parent you must continue to interact in a general and ongoing manner with this person that has severely annoyed, disappointed, enraged, frustrated and frightened you.
Further, your co-parent is not only still in the picture, but nightmarishly at the forefront as far as power and control. Childcare is a business, and your co-parent is a business partner. Daily childcare matters ranging from the scheduling/commuting of your child's educational and extracurricular activities to ongoing decisions about schools, summer camps and other major expenses demand weekly, if not daily, communicaiton and coordination. Plus, your co-partner/business partner has the capacity, whenever he or she feels impulsively distressed, to negatively influence your child.
Your co-parent can disnegage from a heated phone exchange with you, and then channel his or her frustration into snapping at your child or, worse yet, badmouthing you which can cause your child to perceive you in critical terms.
And even if this scenario didn't unfold, you could still be racked with worry that it could.
Heck, on rare occasions, you might even engage in this feared residual reaction.
On top of the anxiety-provoking exposure and frusrtation-inducing power dynamic of this co-parent dynamic, there are going to be unavoidable wrestling matches around naturally conflicting basic needs within the co-parent arena.
A classic example is parenting time. Most parents are desperate to spend most, if not all, of their available time in parenting mode. Both parent A and parent B want maximum time; and even if the situation were as theoreticall fair and balanced as possible (a 50/50 timeshare), that's half the time you want. This harsh reality is even harder to accept if you perceive your co-parent as someone who provides relatively poorer, or even inadequate, childcare.
There's also the problem of natural comparisons. As human beings we are automatically comparing ourselves all the time, and then judging those comparisons. Thus, all the stress that your co-parent causes to your now-single parent situation is made even worse by your awareness of the ways in which all the happily married co-parents in your life are actively supporting and de-stressing each other.
With all this going on, how could resentment, anger and regret possibly be avoided? How can the emotional baggage be skillfully handled?
Solutions to co-parent problems will be discussed in the next blog, but I'll leave you with one central principle - radical acceptance.
Most co-parents that I interact with tend to actively and unnecessarily perpetuate conflicts because they refuse to accept that their co-parent is attached to their children. I see parents laser focused on the pursuit of parallel parenting and avoiding interactions with their co-parent at all costs. Often times, these parents dedicate their time, money and energy to officially limiting or extinguishing their co-parent's role as a parent. In very rare situations this is a warranted and plausible option; most of the time, it is a pursuit destined for failure and assured to trigger conflict.
Acceptance is a much better approach to the situation. Your children love and benefit from their relationship with your co-parent; and your co-parent loves your children and deserves full opportunities for involvement in their lives. If you're lucky, then you and your co-parent are going to be grandparents together.
The sooner you accept this, the better.
Dr. Jeremy Clyman earned a master’s and doctorate in clinical psychology (PsyD) from Yeshiva University. He completed three years of doctoral-level clinical externships in neurocognitive assessment, couples and family treatment, and cognitive behavioral for adolescents, adults and older adults.