Perfecting the art of co-parenting

Long-line-in-the-sand

I have been dating a man for 2 years, I’ll call him Jim. Jim is actively involved in his 7 yr old daughter’s life, which is a quality I find attractive. However, Jim always checks with his ex to see if she needs him to watch their daughter before he will make plans with me. Additionally, he, his daughter and his ex still function as a family. They will go on short vacations, camping, dinners, etc together. When he spends time with his daughter it is always at his ex’s house and he will even stay the night there when his daughter asks him to.

I have tried to be patient with this, thinking it was only temporary (based on comments from him) but I have recently come to realize that he is still acting as a de facto husband. That probably explains why, after 2 years, I have not met his daughter and his ex doesn’t even know I exist.

Eyes Wide Open

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Divorce demands balance, an ability to create harmony from chaos, the art of squeezing lemonade from lemons. Like a tightrope walker, forethought and tact are needed else we may trip and fall into the abyss of confusion and frustration.

There are telltale signs in a single father’s behavior that will suggest if he’s worth pursuit or better left alone. The most important of these, arguably, is his relationship with the mother of his children. The rationale is simple, the way he treats her is a clue to how he may one day treat you. There may be no clearer window into the true character of a divorced dad than this one point.

Marriage is an emotional affair, which is a good thing because we’d all remain in a state of perpetual singledom otherwise. But feelings are fickle things and because of this it’s impossible to predict how each man will react to the fallout of divorce. Will he take the familiar path and look at his ex wife as public enemy #1 or a more extraordinary approach as our friend Jim has apparently done?

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There are two points to her story that must be called out. First, is not meeting the daughter after two years together. I have previously written on what this says about the father and his views on the partner in particular and the relationship in general. Second is the concealment of their relationship from his ex-wife – again, after two years.

Those details, frankly, lead me to question just how divorced he really is?  But whatever the case, her email does surface a legitimate issue worth investigating. What should a good co-parenting relationship look like, and can -or  ought – we judge a future partner by the relationship they have with an ex spouse?

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The day I left the courthouse – a newly divorced father – I pledged to approach the remodeled relationship with my ex-wife as a business. I held to a doctrine that the more emotional tension between us the more difficult it would be to raise our kids. Eight years later it stands as a wise decision.

The most important step in this was establishing boundaries in how we would communicate and interact. Our contact would become limited to the one thing that endured from our marriage – the children. We wouldn’t socialize, mingle, or associate like friends or acquaintances. We wouldn’t share details of our personal lives or spend time ‘hanging out’. Like your dry cleaner or mechanic, our relationship became transaction oriented and the medium of exchange was the kids.

This matter-of-fact approach has helped curtail the emotional element of co-parenting and has allowed me the mental bandwidth to give the Queen and my kids what they need. Yet perhaps the most valuable side effect with this co-parenting approach is how little I have negatively to say about her. Because we rarely have ‘blow-ups’ there’s no reason to speak of her critically or to make disparaging remarks about her personally. Because I’ve stripped away the emotions there’s little opportunity to become emotional.

A successful co-parenting relationship, one that appropriately reflects the reality of the fragmented marriage, should possess a certain sterility and an acknowledgment that what was is no longer.  A divorce relationship comes with edges and trying to color outside those emotional and legal lines opens the door to confusion and resentment within each other, our children, and any future partners.

A co-parenting relationship that is brimming with animosity and bitterness points to the unhealed wounds of someone who hasn’t moved on. Conversely, if those lines become blurred and not reflective of the relationship’s current status, it may signal lingering hopes and unfulfilled longings. The most healthy and effective co-parenting relationships fall somewhere in the middle, possessing an emotional blandness that allows both ex spouses to effectively raise their children without engaging in an emotional tug-of-war. There’s no hatred or longing, only an acceptance of reality, a united focus of the task of raising their children, and a willingness to set aside personal biases to do so, much like the average job.

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In truth, Jim has yet to undo the emotional knots of his past. At least not in a way that allows him the necessary slack to mourn the loss of his marriage, heal from the pain, and grow from the lessons taught. Furthermore, this approach to co-parenting does his daughter a grave injustice. It prevents her from coming to grips with the new family reality while she is young enough to suffer the least amount of damage. So long as he and his ex wife engage in their ad hoc family approach, presumably under the veil of the daughter’s benefit, they will stifle her growth, limit their own emotional prosperity, and keep themselves from fully embracing a future partner.

♦ I frequently receive questions from readers, if you have one about relationships, dating, men, divorce, co-parenting, use the contact form at the top of the page, I always respond and may use yours in a future post  ♦

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4 responses to Perfecting the art of co-parenting

  1. Eyes Wide Open,

    What, I ask myself, would be the difference if this man were still married and you were having an affair with him? Not much, it seems, in terms of your anguish.

  2. Jeremy

    I strongly disagree with your generalities as every relationship is different. I have not spoken with my wife since the day I walked out of the house. My wife was horrible in every way imaginable to me and once I left I have had to spend tons of money just to fight to get equal custody. I was the sole breadwinner while she wrote thousands of pages of porn on our computer using our kids names. That is just the beginning. Forget the fact the court system does not help men who are successful.

    Anyway I have a lot of bitterness and anger but it does not mean that is how I handle new women in my life. I treat them as kind as I would my own mother but if they do me wrong I dont need to speak to them. I am an effective father and do not say anything bad about my ex wife to the kids when I have them. I simply choose to remove my ex from my vocabulary and cooperate with her in no way at all. She parents the kids as she sees fit and I parent them as I see fit when we each have them. There are no expressions of anger when I see her. I simply refuse to acknowledge her existence for my own sanity.

    My point is that new women in my life who know my story understand why I dont speak to my ex and they see how my kids love and interact with me. They judge me by how I treat them when we are together. I have never understood men who get divorced and still hang around their ex like they are friends and still do stuff together. You move on and move forward, kids or no kids. They will have their own relationship with each individual parent.

  3. Hi there – I’ve been a practicing Guardian ad Litem for about 14 years now (I’m also a Licensed Private Investigator who deals in domestic issues) When I first read the complaint by Eyes Wide Open my first reaction was that she was being a little too hard on her boyfriend and his relationship with his ex-wife. It is just so rare that people who divorce can get along so well that I was happy to hear a story of a divorce man having a good relationship with his ex-wife. Most people tend to have a relationship with their ex like Jeremy’s – a lot of time worst.

    However, the author really critiques the situation eloquently. Obviously, for an ex-husband to have a relationship with ex-wife at the exclusion of other relationships – such as his girlfriend of 2 years, and never once telling his ex-wife that he has a girlfriend then something is wrong. Depending on how old his daughter is, I might could understand why he has not introduced his girlfriend to his daughter (for young children especially, it can be rather confusing to bring in a new relationship)but again it has been 2 years and a good amount of time for his daughter to adjust. To me it’s obvious why he has never introduced his daughter to his girlfriend. It’s because he is afraid that his daughter will go back and tell his ex-wife that he has a girlfriend. This man still has a relationship with his ex-wife. His girlfriend is acting much like a mistress would be if the guy was still married. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a divorce couple going camping together for the sake of the child.

    When I counsel divorcees about co-parenting, I tend to explain it somewhat like Jeremy. From this point on, the ex-couple should have a business-like relationship – almost like you deal with a bank teller or like the person at the grocery store that checks you out. That’s usually as good as it gets. The more contentious the divorce the more you must protect yourself and the child from additional conflict. I can understand how Jeremy feels and as he noted every relationship is different but there is a general theme and what the ex-husband is doing in Eyes Wide Open’s relationship is just something I rarely ever see – that man is not functioning as if he is divorced – LOL, it’s like his ex-wife is really his girlfriend and his real girlfriend is someone he is using to cheat with. I can surely understand how she must feel. I have found as an investigator that people tend to follow patterns and routines and after 2 years, it is likely that this man will never give his girlfriend the true respect that she deserves.
    Thanks for listening – Tom Ware, M.Ed.

  4. Kyle Bradford – Author

    Tom, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Well said. I have long advocated for a ‘business like’ approach to co-parenting and have written about that subject here. The less emotional the more productive the relationship will be. That being said, as ex spouses we must find a way to get along that is more than just forced. Jeremy’s story is filled with bitterness and resentment. I’m not sure how long that marriage has been over but it seems to me that he has a great deal of room left to grow.

    As I noted the point of a business like co-parenting relationship is to remove the emotion, in other words, make the relationship transactional. However if there is a foundation of anger and bitterness that goal of emotionless behavior will never be accomplished.

    Thanks for your feedback Tom, and come back again, anytime.

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