7 Rules For Successfully Co-Parenting With An Ex You Don’t Get Along With

So you tried and tried to make it work but pettiness still prevailed. Here’s how to set boundaries that keep the child-focused relationship civil.

by Graham Techler
Originally Published: 
Emma Chao/Fatherly; Getty Images

When the dust of a divorce finally settles, the hope is for exes to remain on good-enough terms with one another. Life, it can’t be denied, is easier when you are. But when pettiness and anger win out, adjustments need to be made to ensure the heart of your co-parenting arrangement stays intact. And the solution boils down to empathy.

“In order to create a more cooperative environment, each parent should be encouraged to understand the perspective of the other,” says relationship therapist Sophie Cress. To find common ground, share goals, and establish boundaries, you need to listen and understand your ex’s perspective.

But empathy comes easier when you have ground rules in place. Here, Cress helped us outline some basic ways to establish a more trustworthy partnership — even with someone you might not get along with.

1. Look For Legal Solutions At The Start

Before the ink is dry on the divorce, it can be extremely helpful to establish mechanisms in advance that will provide a legal framework for resolving disputes down the road. Making sure your agreement incorporates provisions for things like mediation or arbitration will help you avoid ending up back in court.

“By doing so, not only can conflicts be resolved more quickly, but it can also help minimize the emotional burden experienced by both parties involved in the dispute,” says Cress.

Another helpful addition to your parenting plan is what’s called the ‘right of first refusal.’ This requires a parent to first seek out their co-parent when they’re unavailable to care for their child during their scheduled time before they ask anyone else. “This provision can help maintain consistency in the child's routine and promote cooperation between the parents,” says Cress.

2. Create Boundaries That Force You To Communicate Kindly

Healthy boundaries are key for every relationship, but when you’re co-parenting with an ex with whom you’re not on good terms, you can’t always be confident those boundaries are going to be respected. It’s important, then, to build in fail-safes to make sure the boundaries are followed.

“To avoid unnecessary emotional exchanges one can set up specific communication channels, such as using a co-parenting app or designated email for child-related discussions,” says Cress.

Another essential boundary to maintain between co-parents is unnecessary intrusion as to the status of each other’s lives.

“This may involve refraining from asking personal questions or commenting on each other's dating life,” says Cress. “This can help foster a sense of independence that is necessary for moving forward.”

3. Create A Co-Parenting Book That Sets Your Standards

It’s important to take the time to set up detailed co-parenting strategies you and your ex both agree on, with the express goal of fostering a good environment for this new, child-focused relationship. Yes, even if this means having to spend more time with your ex up front.

“A detailed parenting plan outlining responsibilities, schedules, and decision-making processes can serve as a reference point, reducing the need for frequent communication on logistical matters and minimizing potential conflicts,” says Cress.

In other words, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to throw the book at each other, at least have a book to throw.

4. Establish Shared Expectations ...

One of the more difficult aspects of co-parenting is settling on rules that can be enforced in both households. Still, accomplishing this kind of consistency is key for the stability of your child’s life.

“Collaborating on establishing shared expectations and consequences can ensure that both parents are on the same page regarding behavioral guidelines,” says Cress. “Consistency provides a sense of stability for children as they move between households, reducing confusion and stress.”

Making sure bedtimes, mealtimes, allotted screen times, homework rituals, and other such routines stay the same between households as much as possible lays a great foundation for co-parenting success. This goes double for any disciplinary methods that are on the table — you don’t want one parent to let a child off the hook where the other has laid down the law.

5. ... But Stay Flexible

Schedules change. Emergencies happen. If you want your new relationship with your ex to exist within an atmosphere of cooperation, stay open to compromises — both in advance and last-minute.

Life's unpredictable nature may necessitate adjustments to custody arrangements or visitation schedules,” says Cress. “Demonstrating a willingness to accommodate each other's needs can help.”

Separating personal feelings from co-parenting discussions and avoiding revisiting past relationship issues can help create a more amicable environment and reduce emotional strain on both co-parents and their children.

6. Don’t Put The Kids In The Middle

When you have an ex you loathe communicating with, it can be really difficult not to slide into this kind of behavior on a long enough timeline, but it’s crucial to stay vigilant here and not engage in this practice.

“Involving children in communication between ex-partners can negatively impact the child's well-being [as well as] the co-parenting relationship,” says Cress. “Children should not be made to relay messages or navigate the emotional complexities of their parents' relationship. The practice places an undue emotional burden on the child, causing stress, anxiety, and feelings of being caught in the middle.”

The biggest shared goal you and your ex should have as co-parents is preserving your child’s sense of security and stability —relying on your child as a messenger directly undermines that goal, inevitably contributing to loyalty conflicts that will hurt the child’s relationship with both parents.

7. Keep It Functional

No, this isn’t to suggest that anyone out there is aspiring to dysfunction. But it’s easy to get emotionally caught up in needing to communicate with an ex and forget its actual purpose. Remember: the goal is to get to the point where you can have regular logistical conversations to update each other on what’s going on with your child.

“If you've just given your children a pain killer for a headache before your ex picks them up, you don't want your ex to give them another one an hour later,” says family mediator Louisa Whitney. “If your child has an issue about school or a medical problem you need to be able to talk about it and create a plan. You don't need to be friendly or to socialize with each other. You just need communication that does the job.”

That last bit is important to emphasize: You don't need to be friendly or to socialize with each other. You just need communication that does the job. This all comes back to the establishment of shared goals, drawing on as much empathy as you can muster to do so. If you’re in this situation, it’s entirely possible that the benefit of the doubt has, in fact, been extended. Perhaps many more times than were deserved. But sometimes all that’s needed is that tiny extra bit of latitude, enough to ask yourself if your ex is doing what they’re doing because they think it’s what’s best for your kids, even if you don’t agree with it. If you extend the benefit of the doubt when you can, you never know when it’ll be returned your way when it counts.

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