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

co-parenting kids and divorce
handshake representing successful co-parenting

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

My first year of 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.

Our parenting styles were very different. 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 co-parenting 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. With that said, that doesn't mean we haven't found a way to successfully co-parent together.

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 co-parenting 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 Successful Co-Parenting

I understand that every marriage is unique, shaped by its own set of circumstances and personalities. Consequently, when marriages come to an end, the experience of divorce varies widely from person to person. This diversity in experiences naturally extends to the transition from parenting within a marriage to co-parenting post-divorce, which is not a one-size-fits-all process.

Despite these differences, I've gathered a set of tips that have not only been beneficial in my personal journey but have also proven effective for a wide range of my clients. These tips are designed to ease the transition and foster a healthy co-parenting environment, regardless of the individual challenges one may face.

1. Choose to be a good co-parent.  

Parenting is undoubtedly a challenging journey, and navigating the complexities of co-parenting with an ex-partner adds an extra layer of difficulty. Choosing to be a good co-parent is a distinct decision from choosing to be a good parent. It involves acknowledging that, despite the end of the marital relationship, a commitment to work together for the well-being of the children remains. It's about making a deliberate and conscious choice to set aside personal differences and collaborate effectively.

Successfully co-parenting requires open communication, flexibility, and mutual respect for one another’s roles in the children's lives. It's a process of continuous learning and adapting to ensure that the children's needs are met and that they grow up in a supportive and loving environment.

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

Respect yourself, respect your ex, and respect your children. It's crucial to start with self-respect. By valuing yourself, you set the foundation for healthy interactions with others. Establish appropriate boundaries to protect your well-being and ensure mutual respect. Creating structure in your relationship with the other parent is essential for navigating post-breakup dynamics, especially when children are involved. This structure helps in managing expectations and facilitating a smoother transition for everyone. Recognize what aspects of the situation you have control over and what you don't. Understanding this difference is key to focusing your energy on positive change and maintaining a sense of peace amidst the changes.

3. Keep to a regular schedule.

Adjusting your schedule as life evolves is sometimes necessary, but maintaining a consistent schedule can significantly ease transitions for everyone involved. A stable routine provides a sense of predictability and security, making it easier to adapt to changes when they occur. This approach ensures that, despite the inevitable shifts in life, the impact on daily routines is minimized, facilitating a smoother adjustment to co-parenting for all.

4. Be flexible.

Maintaining a regular schedule is key, but flexibility is equally important. My co-parent and I strive to communicate any changes to our planned schedule as early as possible. This approach helps in minimizing conflicts and ensuring that we are both on the same page. However, we both understand that certain situations, like out-of-town family visits or special events, require an even greater level of flexibility. In these instances, we make it a priority to accommodate each other’s needs, understanding that the well-being and happiness of our family are what truly matter. This balance of structure and adaptability has been crucial in navigating our shared commitments smoothly.

5. Talk

Maintaining open lines of communication is crucial to ensure both co-parents are aligned on matters concerning their children. In practice, this means engaging in regular discussions in various forms. For instance, my co-parent and I have established a routine where we exchange texts periodically to share updates or thoughts. When a situation requires further explanation or there are nuances that text messages can't fully convey, we opt for a phone call to ensure nothing is lost in translation.

For matters that necessitate a more in-depth discussion, perhaps regarding significant decisions affecting one of the kids' welfare or education, we schedule face-to-face meetings. This allows us to explore all aspects of the situation and come to a consensus on the best course of action.

Additionally, we believe it's essential for our children to see us collaborating and maintaining a healthy relationship, so we make it a point to have dinner as a family about once a month. This not only keeps us informed about what's happening in our children's lives but also reinforces the family bond, showing our children that despite the changes, we remain a united front in parenting them.

6. Be a team.

When it comes to significant health, education, or discipline issues, work together. As I mentioned before, my co-parent 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 co-parent the benefit of the doubt.

Children often say unexpected things, influenced by their emotions and limited understanding. It's crucial to approach their words with patience and an open mind. When they share comments about your co-parent, it's wise to respond by assuming the best intentions. Giving your ex the benefit of the doubt helps maintain a positive environment for your children and fosters a healthier co-parenting relationship.

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 far from perfect. In fact, no relationship truly is. Despite the imperfections and challenges we've faced, I've come to realize how significant this relationship is to me. It's a connection that I value deeply, and because of that, I actively make an effort to treat it with the importance it deserves. This means being more understanding, patient, and willing to communicate effectively to maintain the bond we share.

My parents divorced when I was just eight years old. My mom raised me singlehandedly. 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-20s.

No parent is perfect; every individual makes mistakes. However, the essence of parenthood lies in being present and doing the best you can within your capacity. This commitment to trying your hardest, even in the face of challenges, is all that anyone can reasonably ask for. It's this dedication and love that truly defines the quality of parenting.

Related post: Strategies for Overcoming Co-Parenting Conflicts


About Intentional Divorce Solutions

At Intentional Divorce Solutions, we specialize in guiding you through the divorce process with intention. This includes:

  • Mindful Decision-Making: Our expertise helps you make informed decisions with long-term benefits.
  • Constructive Communication: We foster open, honest dialogue to minimize conflict.
  • Collaborative Solutions: We assist in finding solutions that honor the needs of both parties.
  • Emotional Well-being: We address the emotional impacts on all family members.
  • And Future-Focused Planning: We prioritize your post-divorce stability and well-being.

At Intentional Divorce Solutions, our goal is to transform the divorce process into a journey of cooperation and respect, ensuring a healthier transition for everyone involved.

Our team provides comprehensive support and expertise in several key areas:

  • Divorce Financial Planning and Analysis: Providing in-depth financial insights and strategies for a secure future post-divorce.
  • Divorce Mediation: Facilitating respectful and balanced negotiations to reach mutually beneficial resolutions.
  • Divorce Coaching: Offering personalized support and guidance to help you navigate through emotional and practical challenges of divorce.
  • Divorce Support Groups: Creating a space for sharing experiences and finding strength in community support.

Please Note: We focus on providing support and solutions in various aspects of divorce. However, we are not attorneys and do not offer legal advice.

Work With Us

If you are on the journey of divorce and seeking professional, empathetic support, we are here to assist you. Reach out to us to discover how our services can be adapted to your unique needs, empowering you to make informed decisions for respectful and positive outcomes.

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