How Can I Co-Parent When I am Deeply Hurt?
It seems cruel to be expected to co-parent with someone who has betrayed your trust, bruised your ego, damaged your reputation or harmed your body. Yet when relationships break down, parenting continues. And sometimes that means sharing the parenting with the person that hurt you deeply.
While co-parenting does not necessarily require a lot of interaction, estranged parents can be conflicted. It can be rough showing respect to someone who has treated you badly, but it might harm the children if you don’t. Children tend to feel more secure seeing parents treat each other respectfully.
In my coaching practice, I listen to parents as they process their co-parenting situations. Break-ups that are especially painful make it difficult to create a new, co-parenting relationship moving forward. Some parents proclaim, “tit for tat.” In other words, they let the other parent’s behavior set the tone for their own behavior. Jay, a father of two boys, told me, “She doesn’t deserve respect. She cheated on me, and I want my boys to see you get what you give.” Jay expressed the conclusion that if he treated his ex with kindness, it would condone her betrayal and leave Jay feeling like a doormat.
A second way parents may react from their hurt is to insist the other parent communicate better. They insist on new behaviors, citing the best interests of the children. While this approach sounds child-focused, it may actually be a back-door attempt for the offended parent to soothe a wounded ego. Overly attaching to the behaviors of the other parent only prevent healing and taking personal responsibility for moving on with healthy independence.
What do children really need?
Two clear directives come out of the research on child well-being after separation and divorce. Marsha Kline Pruett, researcher and professor at the Smith College School for Social Work focuses on the promotion of healthy child and family development during life transitions. She indicates the two main negative influences when parents end their relationship are parental conflict and destabilized parent–child relationships. In short, on-going tension and fighting along with distracted parenting are what cause the most hardship for children.
Children need parents to protect them from the adult conflict. Children consistently report being much less interested in which parent is at fault than they are in having the fighting stop, period. Parents, however, tell me they feel compelled to focus on the facts, as though one set of facts is going to prevail and bring peace to the situation. Children need the parents to be more interested in preventing conflict than in proving they are right.
Children also need the parents to pay attention to their parenting. Listen. Play games. Be available. Be clear and consistent with rules. Distracted parents may not know where the parents’ own needs stop and where the child’s needs begin. Children need the parents to see life through the child’s eyes and put aside their own grievances for a while.
Additionally, children need adults to model self-respect. Children learn to take responsibility for their own emotional health when parents demonstrate an ability to stay calm, not take arguments personally, and use good problem-solving skills. Adults have a big impact on helping children understand powerful and meaningful ways for handling conflict and standing up for themselves.
What do injured parents really need?
Grief is a given. No one intends to enter in a relationship, have a child and then say good-bye. Grieving is a healthy way of transitioning out of a relationship when it ends, including all the stages of denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance that go along with it. Parents do best when they allow themselves to grieve openly, which may require the support from a therapist, friend, or support group.
Exasperated parents also benefit from separating their feelings from the presumed cause. Feeling powerless, misunderstood or angry are valid feelings. We mistakenly expect these feelings to subside by demanding change from others. Enduring relief comes from making choices in line with our desired feelings, rather than assigning our feelings to people or circumstances we cannot control. Sarah was incensed by her co-parent’s continual lying to make himself look good to their teenagers. She tried insisting he correct his lies and only felt worse when he rebuffed her demands. As I coached Sarah through this situation, she discovered she was giving so much attention to the lies, she made the situation even more unmanageable. As she learned to focus on her own truth-telling and gained confidence in her own decisions, her co-parent’s lies lost impact.
A powerful awareness of choices can elevate hope for even the most devastated co-parent. Choosing new modes of interaction or communication that truly focus on the real, present needs of the child can turn a desperate situation into a hopeful one. With enough support and the right boundaries in place, parents come to realize their co-parent cannot re-injure them anymore. I recommend all parents protect themselves with the best possible defense – maintaining a high level of individual well-being even in the face of accusations of wrong-doing or blatant disrespect.
So how can a parent accept and move on from their co-parent’s “bad” behavior without condoning it? In a recent on-line article, The Conscious Lifestyle, Deepak Chopra tells us, “Attention is important, because whatever you pay attention to grows. The brain strengthens or weakens in specific areas depending on the input it receives, and paying attention provides concentrated input.” My advice is not about letting your co-parent “get away with” whatever they want. The advice is about paying attention to choices and the real-time needs of your child in order to create a whole new array of thoughts. You have the power to create a mindset free of attachment to your co-parent’s behavior. You have the power to create thoughts about your own competence that far outweigh your present pain.
Affirmation: My healing is not dependent on any one person other than myself.
Amy Armstrong is the co-founder of The Center for Family Resolution in Columbus Ohio, serving separating and divorcing couples through parent coaching and mediation. Amy inspires clients to take responsibility for their choices and create new habits that transform chaos to calm. For further coaching and mediation services, see www.thecenterforfamilyresolution.com.