My Key to Co-Parenting Success Is Not "Putting My Children First"


That's right. I said it. My key to co-parenting success with my ex is not "putting my children first," as so many professionals recommend.

My first year co-parenting

I remember the first year of co-parenting well. I would describe it as a complete failure and excruciating. My youngest son was three years old. Every time he had to go between my home and my ex's, he would have a complete meltdown. I felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest.

My ex wanted to be the fun parent, so he would sugar them up and let them stay up late. We have three kids. At the time, they were 3, 6, and 7. When they came home, they were exhausted and cranky from lack of sleep. So then I had to be the bad guy and send them to bed early.

To say that I was aggravated with my ex would be an understatement. But, in fairness, I wasn't innocent. He was pretty angry with me, too. I had recoupled very quickly after our divorce. He was hurt and uncomfortable with the situation and wanted to make sure I knew it.

What turned things around

I can actually pinpoint the day when things started to turn around for us. We sat down and had a conversation. We were honest about how things were going and how it wasn't healthy for any of us. We were honest about the kind of parents we wanted to be to our children.

What turned our relationship around was not putting our children first, although they certainly benefit the most. It was acknowledging that we would be in this together for many years to come. We both had to choose to create a new kind of relationship between us. In our case, it's a friendship. I don't think you have to be friends with your ex to make it work, but you do have to have a relationship of some kind.

As we rebuilt our communication, I relied on Bill Eddy's BIFF framework. If you're not familiar with Bill Eddy, he is the founder of the High Conflict Institute and is an expert in managing high conflict personalities. I would not describe my ex as a high conflict personality, but the framework is helpful, regardless. BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Firm, and Friendly. I worked hard for quite some time to keep my communication brief, informative, firm, and friendly. You can read more about corresponding using the BIFF framework here. I don't have to rely on it so much these days, but it helped me when we were trying to turn things around. 

I actually think we are better friends now than we were when we were married. For all of our differences, we have something pretty important in common - our kids. Our entire friendship revolves around our children.

Related post: A Letter of Gratitude to My Ex


What does it mean to "put your children first?"

I know that there are many professionals out there who consistently say the same thing - put your children first. Here's the thing. What does that actually mean? Does it mean the same thing to both of you? My ex and I did not parent well together when we were married. Without making a concerted effort, how could we co-parent after all of the hurt and anger that were heightened during our divorce? Suffice it to say, "Putting our children first" does not mean the same thing to both of us.

What is my key to co-parenting success?

My key to co-parenting success is choosing to be a co-parent. That means recognizing that I am not the only parent - that we are still in this together. While the divorce was the end of our marriage, it was not the end of the family that we created together. 

Spoiler alert: We do not agree on everything. Very carefully picking my battles has been critical to maintaining a good relationship. Here's the thing. If your ex did things that annoyed you when you were married, they're not going to stop doing those things when you're divorced. Your ex is still your ex. You are still you. You are not going to love everything they do, and they are not going to love everything you do. You wouldn't if you were still married either.

Benefits of co-parenting success

There are countless benefits to putting your differences and hurt feelings aside and successfully co-parenting. It is well worth the effort! Here are some that have made a big difference in my own life: 

  • Both my ex and I have positive relationships with each of our children.
  • My kids go back and forth between our homes with ease.
  • Nobody is in the dark. We communicate about the children regularly - not daily but at least a few times a week. My ex and I have dinner together with our children about once a month. Our kids probably wish we didn't because it would be so much easier to manipulate us. But, hey, they're kids. They're always going to test the limits.
  • My ex and I treat each other with respect and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Don't get me wrong. The kids say stuff all of the time that makes me raise my eyebrows. I do my best to bite my tongue and follow up with my ex if necessary. I make an effort to reach out to him in the spirit of genuine curiosity and try not to jump to conclusions. I'm human, though, so like I said, I make an effort and try my best.
  • Communicating about problems does not add stress to the problem. Instead, it's helpful to know that we support each other.

Top Tips for Co-Parenting Success

I know that everyone's marriage is different. As a result, everyone's divorce experience is different. Thus, the transition from parenting to co-parenting is not going to be the same for everyone. However, here are some tips that have not only worked for me but also for many of my clients:


1. Choose to be a good co-parent.  

Parenting is not easy, and co-parenting with an ex is even harder. Choosing to be a good co-parent is different from choosing to be a  good parent. It's recognizing that you're going to work together even though you are no longer married and making a conscious choice to co-parent successfully.

2. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Respect yourself, respect your ex, and respect your children. Notice that I started with, "Respect yourself." Set appropriate boundaries. Create structure in your relationship. Recognize what you have control over and what you don't.

3. Keep to a regular schedule.

You may need to change the schedule as life changes, but having a consistent schedule makes transitions easier for everyone.

4. Be flexible.

While you need to keep a regular schedule, you both need to be flexible. My ex and I try to give each other as much notice as possible with changes to the schedule. Still, we are both even more flexible when it comes to out-of-town family visiting and special events.

5. Talk

You have to talk to each other regularly to stay on the same page about your kids. For example, my ex and I text periodically, call when we need clarification, meet when we need to discuss something important about one of the kids, and eat dinner as a family with our children about once a month.

6. Be a team.

When it comes to significant health, education, or discipline issues, work together. As I mentioned before, my ex and I meet in person to talk about important issues so that we can speak to the kids as a united front.

7. Pick your battles.

You're not going to love everything your ex does. Accept it and decide what is really worth bringing up.

8. Honor each other's values.

Have an honest conversation with your ex about what is most important to you when it comes to your children. Do not assume that you know everything there is to know about their values just because you were married. Instead, listen with intention, share honestly, and honor each other's values.

9. Give your ex the benefit of the doubt.

Your kids will say all kinds of things. Always respond by giving your ex the benefit of the doubt.

10. Don't give up.

It's not always going to be easy. Just don't give up. Get professional support if it's not working. Mediation is a great way to work out co-parenting conflicts

One more personal note

My relationship with my ex is not perfect. No relationship is perfect. I've decided that it's important to me, though, and I treat it like it's important to me.

My parents divorced when I was eight years old. My mom raised me. I kept in touch with my dad over the years. He lived about two hours away from us, and I would see him a couple of times each year. I would not describe him as a co-parent. I always wished that I had a chance to know him better. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was in my mid-20's.

No parent is perfect, but being there and doing the best you can is all anyone can ask.

Related post: Strategies for Overcoming Co-Parenting Conflicts


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