I was seeing a couple the other day, assisting them to smooth the way as much as possible for their children as they separate and prepare their children for what life will be like going forward once they are no longer a single unit family, but become a two household family. One of the parents asked me what I think are the main ingredients in those families where the parental separation has been handled the best in my experience. It was a great question and made me reflect on the specific characteristics of particular couples I have met over the years whose way of handling this delicate and complex situation for their children has left me full of respect and admiration.
Perhaps the starting point needs to be the frame you take into the separation from your not-yet-ex-enough-ex. How we think of people, situations, places, provides us with a mental frame through which we then filter all of our dealings with those people and situations. The frame allows us to see certain things about them, directs our attention to focus on certain familiar aspects, and also blinds us to other elements that contradict our frame. A frame can be so powerful it can effectively make us act as though we think, ”Don’t confuse me with the facts, I’ve made up my mind”.
Once you are both clear the relationship is over, then taking on a mental frame of thinking of your children’s other parent as your co-parent, rather than ‘your Ex’ means you set yourself up to be potentially more objective, more constructive, and less reactive than if you stay thinking of them as ‘your Ex’. The idea is to make a shift in perspective from who they were to you as a partner primarily (and the reasons why you are not together), to the fact they are and will likely remain, your kids’ other parent. Thinking of them in this way (using this frame) helps to think of them as someone with certain rights as well as certain responsibilities, and thinking of them as a co-parent means you will hopefully orient your attitude towards them in the manner of someone you are working with, as distinct from someone you are working against. It helps to access the best, not the worst of you, while also giving them a chance to potentially come up with the best in them as well. It also reduces the chances of your children getting caught in the middle of your unresolved differences from when you and their other parent were partners.
- Your co-parent is not the enemy – maybe there are remains of friendliness and care that are there, and you might benefit from training yourselves to look out for small acts of care, respect, kindness and consideration;
- Practice asking more questions instead of assuming you know what your co-parent is saying, just because it sounds like what they’ve always said. Be prepared to hear something new by asking more questions.
- Be willing to be surprised. Remember: living separately means you will both be learning new skills and be put in different situations demanding new things from each of you where you won’t be able to outsource to one another like you used to when you lived together. Be willing to see positive changes in your co-parent once they are faced with situations they used to avoid or pass on or insisted did not exist.
I think those parents whose children adapt the most smoothly after their parents separate share a number of characteristics. I suggest you consider the following –
- Hold the children’s best interests as the most important thing as your joint guiding principle.
- If you can, work out some core principles about how you both want to parent the kids and what you want those to be based on, and agree to stick to those. Once these are clear – I suggest keeping those things very simple, such as that the kids will be loved, cared for, fed, and kept safe at all times, regardless of whose care they are left in. In that light, other concerns that you may want to raise might not be so crucial (e.g. whether one parents’ place is as clean and tidy as the other would prefer).
- Maturity on the part of both former partners! By this, I mean that neither of you descend to the low blows and shenanigans of what I call ‘playground politics’: name calling at any time; squabbling/point scoring in front of the kids; involving the kids in your own unresolved disputes; inappropriate sharing of adult material that belongs to your own relationship as adults and has no relevance to children; trying to garner favour with the kids for your advantage/turning the kids against the other parent; no matter how much the other parent is acting reprehensibly, holding yourself to your own code of moral conduct and not deviating from that in acts of revenge/passive aggressiveness; holding yourself accountable as an adult parent who remains an adult parent responsible for these children irrespective of your former partner’s behaviours and words – if you say you’ll do something for the benefit of the children, then do it.
- Compartmentalisation. Be willing to separate out mentally what directly involves the children, has relevance to their care and safety, and stick to that in conversations; do NOT bring up old relationship gripes you had as adult partners; do NOT involve the kids at all in adult conflict –learn to say “That’s adult business”, and leave it at that, even if asked by the kids; accept that the old reasons why you are now separated are likely to continue to be there in mannerisms and stances, and work to keep the old hurts about those to the past, accepting that those will remain unresolved; focus only on the ones that manifest now that impact on the children’s wellbeing and safety or your joint capacity to parent; respect that, now that you are separated as partners, you need to respect one another’s boundaries as adult people – there are many things that are no longer your business and to which you have no right to know/ expect to be told; similarly, you need to cultivate privacy and boundaries about your personal life with your children’s other parent in regards to your personal life.
- Remember at all times that this is going to be for the long term… Know that, while you left an unhappy relationship with the children’s other parent, keep in mind that you will have to deal with their other parent as your co-parent for the rest of the children’s lives and possibly your own. Having a long range view means you know you need to motivate yourself to find new ways of making the new structure work, rather than get stuck in doing more of whatever it was you did before when you were together that didn’t work: be that nagging, stonewalling, bullying, or caving and resenting afterwards.
- Remember: how you relate will be what teaches your kids about relationships between parents when they come to an age when they might want to get into an established relationship and form a family. Ask yourself – What are you teaching them by treating their other parent like this, what are you teaching them by letting them see you accept being treated in a certain manner? A good metric to use is: are your actions towards the other parent passing the respect, self-respect and dignity test? If they don’t what needs to change? Do it. You may have given up on changing things when you were together, but you need to consider what the long term outcome of not changing your own behaviour will model to the children.
- Accept that, the former partner may not have been a great partner for you/ anymore, but they are nonetheless the kids’ other parent, and be willing to support that and respect that. The kids don’t need to know the details of your past experience of their other parent as an adult partner. That’s your business. They need two parents who love and care about them, and that’s the focus now.
- Accept that the old conflicts are likely to go on in another form in this new structure, and be willing to approach those in a new way. After all, there’s a reason you separated. If the children’s best interests are to be the central issue that both ex partners hold front of mind, this will mean learning new ways of dealing with the gridlock of old that led to the separation. This may mean going to therapy to work on each party’s side of the remaining issues that are still surfacing, going together for post-separation counselling to help put to bed what can be put to bed; and learning skills to self regulate in order to not be held to ransom by their reactions to their former partner’s mannerisms, attitude/ stance, and remarks. Most of all, it means learning to live with the fact there are many things you need to let go of solving or controlling.
- Be willing to support one another as co-parents and learn not to treat one another as enemies. Once upon a time, hopefully, you both felt you wanted to raise children together. Go back to this position of goodwill in your mind and approach the children’s care and future like two friends who have the same interest in mind when it comes to the children (even if it doesn’t look like it at times). This may mean extending each other the benefit of the doubt and not assuming that the other person is trying to do something to piss you off, or to exact revenge. Starting from a place that assumes goodwill on the part of your ex is likely to being about the best in them, compared to them feeling like you are always looking at them as a monster/incompetent/idiot. If a boundary has been set that is meant to apply in both places, then stick to it – don’t undermine it. If there is a decision to be made that you know the children’s other parent would want to be consulted about, then try to involve them whenever possible as part of showing your own respect and goodwill.
- Be willing to apply the same generosity of spirit that you extend to your friends to the kids’ other parent. If they make a mistake (even if it seems it’s always been THAT mistake), see if you can find it in yourself to accept that as part of their overall humanity, and not a sign of their monstrousness, their cruelty, their intentional act of disrespect, and their incompetence. Friendships that work well and last the distance rely on a good dose of acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, and generosity of spirit – see if you can cultivate that now that you no longer have to live with them.
- Remember: your relationship with your kids is now entirely in your hands. How you act, what you do to them, with them and around them will have a flow on effect on how they see you in the long term. Even if the children’s other parent tries to discredit you in any way, your own conduct, if consistent and clear with the children, needs to clearly demonstrate to them your love and unwavering commitment to their wellbeing over time. If you remain steady on that course, the children will eventually make up their own mind about you as well as about their other parent independently of whatever other messages they may have been given about you.
- Use whatever tools are at hand to minimise any and every opportunity for either of you to end up in one upmanship or excluding wars with the other – they only hurt the children. Use shared tech calendars, use apps that enable both of you to upload important dates about doctors’ appointments, school meeting, excursions, carnivals and prize days (then take responsibility to look at them and keep yourself informed about what’s changed); take responsibility to note down what you want to track for yourself about the children’s care and lives; use reminders on your phone or computer to prompt yourself about things you formerly relied on their other parent to tell you; set up a shared photo folder on the web so that you can both enjoy those ‘special’ moments. If you make agreements about shared resources (e.g. one family car) trial the agreement to see if it really works. If you notice it becomes a vehicle for one or both of you to act out your worst selves, then do whatever you can to sort out a more effective solution. It really doesn’t matter if you think you ‘should’ be able to make the agreement work. If one or both of you aren’t able to make it work, then take the temptation to turn something into a weapon out of the way.
- Involve as few people as you possibly can in your discussion about the kids’ care with your former partner. The fewer people get to be in your ear, having their opinion when you’re trying to shape a new one for yourself, the better. Much as it might be tempting to have a debrief and vent with a few people, it may make things even worse by inflaming your reactivity even more, or keeping a conflict that needs to be hosed down alive. If your aim is to facilitate as smooth a transition and as peaceful an adaptation for your kids and for yourselves, then that’s not what you need. A cool head is a head that can think in the complex ways that a truly ‘successful’ separation calls for.
And if you relate to what I’ve outlined, and think you might need some help in achieving these lofty goals, then please contact me.