Co-parenting after a divorce

Dear Toni-

My marriage has been over for almost two years. It was not an amicable divorce--he had an affair and is now living with the "other" woman. Our two children who are 11 and 13 were caught up in the tension, silences, arguments and other fall-out that began prior to the separation and continues to be an issue--even though it is better now that we are living apart.

As part of our settlement, we have a joint custody agreement. It allows for us to share time with our children equally--but of course, is not ideal as they have to shuttle back and forth between two homes. In addition, I am not happy about this other woman spending time with them and even acting in loco parentis when she is alone with them. Then there is the problem of our different parenting styles, rules and expectations--which were always there but are now highlighted as I was the one who really handled everything related to our kids prior to the separation.

I am looking for some help and advice on how I could address this issue with him without it breaking down into accusations and shouting matches that leave us even angrier, emotionally spent, and with no solutions. I realize that I am part of the problem and that I have to let go of my anger and hurt over his betrayal and accept that my marriage is over. Any tips, advice, and recommendations for where I could start and who I could talk to would be much appreciated.

--Angry Ex

Dear Dear Angry Ex,

You have taken the first step, which is to acknowledge your role in and contribution to the problems you are now experiencing with co-parenting after your divorce. As you have discovered, anger doesn't just go away--it festers and finds an outlet every time and place it has an opportunity. Therefore, the first step I recommend is to focus on your grief over your lost marriage. It sounds like you are stuck in the second stage (anger) and that working with an experienced therapist would be a big assist to you.

Believe it or not--seeing a counselor for joint counseling with your ex would also be a great way to begin addressing your co-parenting problem. Given your description of how things are now--he would probably be motivated to participate, regardless of his present negative feelings towards you. Therefore I suggest you get into individual counseling ASAP and then ask your therapist for a referral to a good couples counselor. You could also ask friends, your kids' teachers or anyone who might be a good source for this.

There are also things you can start to do on your own that will help get some positive movement going. First, extend an olive branch to your ex. Acknowledge the anger you have been feeling and share with him that you are taking steps to address it in a healthy way. You don't need to offer specifics, just the highlights. Then apologize for your role in this on-going conflict and tell him you want to work towards solutions that will be in the best interest of your children. It's important to put the emphasis there because it puts him on notice and helps you to remind yourself that this can't be about either of you and your failed marriage--it should be all about making sure your kids get what they need and don't end up suffering from the divorce any more than they already have. That needs to stop immediately.

You don't have to talk to your spouse in person or even on the phone if this is just too difficult now. Instead, you could send an email or even a letter. Whatever is most comfortable for you would be best. Doing it this way not only allows you to carefully craft and articulate what you want to say, you won't be dealing with any interruptions or reactions from him that could lead to another conflict.

It would also be useful for you to spend some time thinking about the present arrangement and what it is about it that is contributing to your conflict. Is it the way you are communicating that isn't working? Do you feel as though you are getting dumped with things that he isn't handling? Do you find that the kids have few rules/expectations/little structure when they are with their Dad and this is negatively impacting their school work, behavior, and/or making you the bad guy when they come to your home and the rules are different? Whatever the issues are, write them down. This will be useful when you meet with your counselor and eventually with a couples counselor. In individual counseling your therapist can help you manage your feelings and responses and dealings with your ex.

In couples counseling, you can raise these as concerns and ask that some of the work be focused on addressing them. Your ex will have his own issues and those will be part of the work you do together as well. With the right support, counseling and help in moving on--you can work through your grief and anger and begin your new life as a single parent of two happy and well-adjusted kids. Moving on will also leave you open to new love and a second chance at being part of a two-parent household again.

(from April 2015)


Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


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