When Catherine* and her husband separated, their children were 3, 7 and 9.
The couple's separation and divorce was amicable. They were friendly, worked well together, and took turns if one of them needed child care. Catherine often thought that if they could have gotten along that well when married, they would have never divorced.
After about nine months, however, the relationship became ugly. The parents couldn't be in the same room without arguing or fighting horribly.
“I will never forget the time my youngest was clinging to me and crying, saying he didn’t want to go,” Catherine says. “I had to peel him from my body, hand him to his daddy, turn around and go in the house and throw up. Sometime later he said, ‘I don’t want to go, but if I cry it doesn’t matter.’ I told him that was right. It nearly ripped my heart out.”
People often think that if they are reasonable the ex will be reasonable, but that's not always the case. Smooth transitions and difficult ex-spouses don’t tend to go together. The challenge for co-parents is to set aside personal issues and focus on the parental issues at hand. The goal is to make transition times as smooth as possible. In some instances you just have to be decent.
“I frequently remind people that some of what happens during a transition is up to you and some is not,” says Ron Deal, author of The Smart Stepfamily and the web book, Parenting After Divorce at successfulstepfamilies.com. “An old African proverb says, ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.’ Biological parents who fight and refuse to cooperate are trampling on their most prized possessions - their children.”
Here are Deal's suggestions for diminishing conflict in the midst of transitions:
- Write down your goal for the parental task at hand on a 3x5 card. Whether it is making a phone call to determine drop-off arrangements or talking in person about an issue at school, script out what you want to say. This will help you stick to the topic and hopefully achieve your goal.
- Keep the conversation civil and nonreactive. Maybe you are calling about visitation arrangements and the other parent brings up something else. Instead of changing topics, perhaps you could respond with, "I know that is a problem -what time should I pick him up?"
- Avoid putting your child in a position to choose between one home or the other.
- Schedule a monthly “business” meeting to discuss co-parenting matters.
- Be reliable. Don’t disappoint your children with broken promises.
- Make your custody structure work for your children even if you don’t like the details of the arrangement.
“It is common for couples to move in and out of higher levels of cooperation,” Deal says. “Things are usually worse right after the divorce. Your goal is to create a strong boundary between old marital issues and the current parental relationship.”
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*Name was changed.