Mindful Co-Parenting After Divorce: The 6 Keys
Divorce can cause a lot of sleepless nights. Worries about joint property and investments, co-owned businesses, not to mention peace, happiness, and the future, can crowd the mind. But nothing ratchets up already-high anxiety more than worrying about your children. Fear about their feelings, security, and the potential long-term damage a divorce can cause can be overwhelming and even paralyzing. In fact, preoccupation with children can cause real health problems, including stress, anxiety, and high blood pressure.
But there is another way. I recently sat down with Dr. Jeremy Gaies to discuss collaborative divorce. Dr. Gaies is a clinical psychologist, family mediator, and author of two books, A Clear and Easy Guide to Collaborative Divorce and the co-author of Mindful Co-Parenting: A Child-Friendly Path through Divorce.
With nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce, children across the country are from divorced families. That will have an enormous impact on individual families and our society as a whole. Are we doing right by our kids? Is there a way to improve outcomes?
Will the kids be ok?
Yes, But Only If…
Dr. Gaies is reassuring on that count. Kids of divorced parents, he says, will absolutely be ok, “the research shows that when parents work together that way, the kids come out looking pretty much like kids with parents who didn’t divorce.” The key, he says, is parents working together.
One of the key pieces of the “happily divorced” puzzle is how you do it. He cites collaborative divorce as one of several approaches that foster a non-adversarial divorce. This sets the tone for everything: “If folks use a method that will be less adversarial, that will be more focused on the family, then the outcomes for children, and incidentally the outcomes for the parents, are better.”
Steps to Mindful Co-Parenting
In the book Dr. Gaies co-authored with Jim Morris about co-parenting, Mindful Co-Parenting: A Child-Friendly Path through Divorce, they discuss six key steps to mindful co-parenting.
- Putting the children first. This is the cornerstone of everything parents should do after divorce.
- “Focusing forward.” There’s hurt, history, and baggage in the past. Focusing forward keeps you from getting stuck there.
- Communicating effectively is the underpinning of any good relationship—it’s how you can work through problems, resolve disputes and ultimately understand each other.
- Honoring agreements established in a parenting plan. Create an outline for how you will co-parent. Then commit to it.
- Maintain boundaries. That means we take steps to ensure other people don’t intrude on our space, stay within the lines, and don’t cross over into other people’s space.
- Manage emotions. No matter how angry or frustrated you are, manage your emotions. You can’t say things that might inadvertently hurt your co-parenting relationship.
1. Putting Children First
There’s perhaps nothing scarier about divorce than fears about how it will affect the children. With the divorce rate around half of all marriages, it is an important issue for families nationwide. In the majority of divorce cases, the children are under the age of 18, likely living at home. A divorce will likely disrupt everything they’ve grown up with and know. That puts a lot of responsibility on the parents. Mindull co-parenting after divorce is critical.
In many cases, the problems between the adults in the home have little to do with how your partner’s parents. In fact, in many cases, one of the things we continue to love about our ex is how they parent.
So how can you and your ex do right by your children and end a bad or dysfunctional marriage? How can you remove the negative but still preserve—and nurture—the positive?
I recently sat down with Dr. Jeremy Gaies to discuss collaborative divorce. Dr. Gaies is a clinical psychologist, family mediator, and author of two books, A Clear and Easy Guide to Collaborative Divorce and the co-author of Mindful Co-Parenting: A Child-Friendly Path through Divorce. He is an expert in managing divorce with children.
Make a Plan
Dr. Gaies recommends drafting a parenting plan—together. This is an outline, put down in writing, of how co-parenting after divorce will work. Once you and your ex agree to a parenting plan, you must regard the agreement as set in stone. This is essential, according to Dr. Gaies. If agreements aren’t honored, tension, frustration, and hurt rise. That means that distrust and, ultimately, conflict is not far behind.
Put the Children’s Interest First
This seems obvious, but it’s critical that this be said out loud (or in writing). Parents need to start all conversations about divorce with this commitment. It must be their priority. And from there, the conversation continues, and you can ask what options you have to ensure the best outcome for the kids.
Focus on the Future
Parents should accept and acknowledge that things have happened in the past that perhaps they’re not proud of. But for now, caring for the kids’ needs must be paramount. And for that, you must consider where you want to see the kids in the future and how you will actively ensure they get there.
Talk Less, Say More
Parents sometimes need to learn to communicate a little bit less. That is, there’s a natural adjustment to the number of couples talking. And sometimes, engaging in the same kind of detailed and intimate conversations that you did as a couple can lead right back to the trouble you found yourselves in when you were married. Simple, direct communication is best.
Parenting under any circumstance can be difficult. And after divorce, it’s something that demands extra care and attention.
2. Focusing Forward
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney
Divorce can feel a lot like an ending. Marriage is being dissolved. A house may be sold. You may give up some property and, along with it, memories. You may feel like you’re losing a piece of yourself.
But divorce can also be an incredible growth opportunity. According to many experts I’ve spoken with, the key is shifting the focus from what’s gone wrong in the past and, instead, focusing on the future.
Look for What’s Ahead
It can be hard to move past the anger and acrimony in the throes of divorce. History—with all its hurt, resentment, and even betrayal—can create a barrier to our own growth and happiness.
But instead of looking back, shifting your focus forward is important. If you cannot accept what has happened in the past, there’s great freedom in at least not focusing on it and, instead, shifting your gaze to the future. This is especially important in families with children.
How do you take the first step?
Start with Curiosity
Being curious, working toward finding answers, and focusing forward is a highly-valued skill in our culture, from business to science to education. In fact, much has been made of the importance of curiosity. According to The Harvard Business Review, “Today’s leaders need to be curious and know how to ask the questions that lead them to consider new ideas.”.
The article describes how to cultivate an attitude of curiosity:
- Apply a beginner’s mind: Be open to and look for new and novel ways of doing things.
- Ask questions, listen, and observe: Seek first to understand, not to explain.
- Try something new: Take a different route to work, read a book in a genre you usually avoid, or go to an art gallery you wouldn’t normally go to. Each of these activities opens your mind to new points of view.
- Be inquisitive: Ask others their opinions, perspectives, and approaches to certain things. Everyone does things differently, and potential new answers and solutions to problems are hidden in other people’s thinking.
Putting it All Together
Looking forward with curiosity can become a practice, just like exercise or meditation. When you feel your mind moving toward re-hashing the past, dwelling in pain, or re-living old wrongs, it’s important to be able to counter those with a positive counterbalance. Keeping bookmarks of articles you’d like to read, a list on Netflix of movies you’ve always wanted to watch, or a go-to list of friends who are available to chat, then making some future plans. Actively shift the focus away from the past and the pain and move toward open doors, discovery, and the future.
3. Communicating Effectively
It’s no mystery that communication is critical to a happy relationship. In fact, lack of communication ranks third in reasons for divorce, money, and infidelity. And one could argue that lack of communication complicates these issues, too.
A communication breakdown often precedes—and predicts—divorce. Lack of communication can snowball, with each side blaming the other, giving them the silent treatment or withholding information, or, alternately, sharing too much on social media, telling friends and family their version of the story. Talk becomes a weapon rather than a tool.
So it’s unsurprising that communication is a real challenge for divorced parents. Raising children, in some ways, requires constant conversation. Developmental stages, changing friends, moods, and needs to keep topics coming at parents fast. Discussing parenting decisions, tackling sensitive personal issues, and even arranging the many logistical details of co-parenting after divorce puts massive stress on an already stressful relationship.
But it doesn’t have to be as hard as it sounds.
Don’t Waste Your Time
Time does not equal effectiveness in communication. Sometimes, going on for too long—providing unnecessary details, spitballing causes, injecting emotional reflections—can uncover old wounds or strike the wrong tone in communication. A summary is your friend. Details aren’t. If you aren’t sure, don’t say it.
Say More with Less
Keep your communications short and sweet. It may feel strange after years of intimacy or even after an amicable split. But learning to communicate about an issue as important as the kids require real care. Starting with small steps and a “just the facts” communication style can help move the relationship forward.
Remember, You’re Modeling
Remember that everything you and your ex do will come under greater scrutiny from your children. They’re looking for cues from the adults about how they should feel about the divorce and the new normal. Try to keep this in mind during your interactions with your ex.
Finding a functional way to communicate with your ex after divorce may seem impossible. But remember that this will be important for how your children get through such a dramatic family change. Put some thought, planning, and even practice into how you will communicate with your ex. It will be time well spent.
4. Honoring Agreements
Divorce sends shockwaves through your sense, not just of yourself. It can rattle your sense of order in the world. If a permanent marriage commitment can fall apart, what else can? In fact, is there anything we can count on?
This sort of ground-shifting feeling is completely normal after a divorce. Let’s face it. Divorce isn’t in anyone’s “plan.”
But that doesn’t mean that everything changes or should change. Commitments still have value. And sometimes, in the face of divorce, doubling down on commitments is exactly the path that brings certainty, strength, and the power to move on.
This is especially true for parents.
Parenting Plan: What is It?
A parenting plan is a blueprint for how you will continue co-parenting after divorce with your ex. It can be as detailed as you like, but it must contain simple information about where the child will be and what days and times. It should include details about whether parental check-in is required (at a class, for example, or if your children are young). It should also contain simple contact information in each section for the location/person in charge and the parent.
The specificity of the plan isn’t just about providing details for an ex (so don’t feel like you’re just taking on your ex’s work—a common complaint for divorcing partners). It’s critical to kids’ sense of security that they know what’s going on ahead of time and can make plans.
What’s important here is that your plan contains all the relevant information without wasting too much time on details that might feel like an attack, gloating, or a passive-aggressive attack on the other parent. You can leave out details about what friends your child may be with or what you do while your child is engaged in that activity. (Even details like “while I’m at the gym” might contain land mines/triggers for your ex.)
Set in Stone, Sort of
One important thing to note is that a parenting plan, while agreed upon and “final,” can also be flexible. What I mean is not that it can change day by day or week to week, but that it’s something you and your ex will revisit over and over again in the course of your ongoing relationship. As a parent, of course, you know that your preschooler’s needs aren’t going to be the same in a few years when they’re in elementary school or a couple of years beyond that when they’re in high school. So it stands to reason that your parenting plan will also change and evolve. So while getting a plan down on paper is critical, don’t worry if you aren’t sure it’s perfect yet.
5. Maintaining Boundaries
Have you ever exited the freeway onto a wide-open city street and had difficulty reaching the speed limit? That strange feeling of deceleration doesn’t feel right after cruising along at a nice clip. But once you exit the highway, the rules change.
After divorce, there’s often a similar sensation. You go from a relationship with no boundaries—for good and bad—to suddenly a relationship of polite distance. Well, hopefully, polite distance.
As humans, we can often be very aware of others infringing on our space and happily oblivious to when we do it to others. But in a divorce with children, it’s imperative that you do not just recognize the other parent’s boundaries but that you respect them without complaint (at least in front of the children). That’s because your child is always watching for cues from you. And if you don’t respect your ex’s boundaries, your child hears that lesson clearly.
Setting Your Own Boundaries After Divorce
Setting boundaries is critical to a successful post-divorce relationship. This is important in big, emotional, and financial issues (like intimacy, investments, and personal space) but also in day-to-day transactions, such as text messages, phone calls, or unannounced visits. You have every right to know who will attend an afterschool soccer game or school play.
Setting boundaries also communicates to your ex: “Negotiations are over.” This is key to turning the page and starting a new life.
Respecting Others’ Boundaries After Divorce
Drawing boundaries and limits around your own interests can be easy. It’s important to remember that you have to respect your ex’s boundaries, too. Yes, it’s a two-way street. Certain day-to-day activities will be left to the parent who is there. That means that what stands in your house may not stand in the other parent’s. They may have different ideas about dinnertime, acceptable words in the house, screen time, or even curfew. Now that you’re no longer married, you are not expected to be in lockstep with your ex. And the same goes for your ex. They no longer get to comment on the minutia of your parenting.
They say fences make great neighbors. Let’s add, “Boundaries make great exes.”
6. Managing Emotions
No matter where you are on the path to divorce, you will deal with many emotions. Anger, frustration, sadness, and relief—we experience them repeatedly in the process of divorce. The path of emotional recovery isn’t necessarily fast or predictable. And managing the emotions you’re feeling may be difficult.
But managing your emotions is critical if you are a parent going through a divorce.
This is especially true if you have children. We can’t put the kids in the middle by having them hear some of our less-than-friendly thoughts about our ex—no matter how true they may be! It’s critical to your parenting to make the sacrifice of not giving in to your feelings. A recent Psychology Today article states, “Divorce doesn’t harm children; parents fighting harms children.”
A recent BBC News story illuminated something we all might have suspected: “What happens at home really does affect children’s long-term mental health and development.” The constant bickering, loud or violent arguments may, in fact, be part of why a couple is seeking a divorce. But it’s also something that can—and should—disappear once the couple is divorced. And if we don’t, we’re risking our children’s well-being.
If you feel like you cannot control your anger alone, knowing that help is out there is important. You can seek counseling, go to support groups, and find other outlets to help you manage your emotions.
The Mayo Clinic has identified 10 tips to help keep your temper in check:
- Think before you speak. Even if you only take a few minutes, try not to respond too quickly when you will most likely be guided by raw emotion.
- Once you’re calm, express your anger. In a divorce situation, you may never get the chance—or feel the need—to express this to your ex. But sharing it with friends or a therapist can help.
- Get some exercise. Physical activity can reduce stress.
- Take a timeout. A quiet moment to breathe can be the break you need if your blood pressure rises.
- Identify possible solutions. Making a list of options can help you feel like you’re proactively working toward resolving a situation.
- Stick with “I” statements. Flinging accusations will only turn into a fight.
- Don’t hold a grudge. This is much easier said than done, but remember that forgiveness is powerful. And when you bestow the forgiveness, you have the power.
- Use humor to release tension. This can be tough, but remember, you primarily interact with your kids. Keep it light, not bitter.
- Practice relaxation skills. Meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can help keep you centered and provide a sanctuary when your blood pressure rises.
- Know when to seek help. You’re not the first person to experience the kind of feelings you’re having. Talk to a counselor or support group when ready for outside help.
Take the Time You Need
Reining in emotions, biting your tongue, and staying cheerful can be a tall order. In fact, it may seem nearly impossible. So take whatever time and resources you need to get yourself there. It’s a piece of the puzzle that absolutely can’t be compromised.
These 6 keys to co-parenting after divorce will help you, and so can we. Contact us today for a confidential and complimentary consultation.