The Great Divide: Making a Successful Transition from Parenting as a Couple to Parenting Apart
by Chris Lewis, EdS, LPC

Parenting is seldom without challenge, change, and reward. Differences and difficulties in parenting styles can destabilize even the most solid marriages and couple relationships. However, when couples decide to separate or divorce, conflict and chaos can become intense and even cause long term harm to the children caught in the middle.

When a marriage ends, it is critical for parents to be able to negotiate the changes to their status as a couple without creating unnecessary pain for their children. Divorce is difficult for every member of a family. However, this difficulty, especially for the children involved, can be lessened by focusing on a few very critical guiding principles for making a successful transition.

The following three guidelines are intended to assist couples who are in the process of coming apart to be able to create a powerful partnership that will provide an environment of safety, security, nurture, and harmony in which their children will not only survive, but thrive.

Principle No. 1 – The Marital Issues End With the Marriage

One of the most frequent and most damaging mistakes a divorcing couple can make is to hold on to the issues, pain, and anger that brought about the failure of the marriage in the first place. Whether there was infidelity, frequent fighting, or just a loss of love interest, there is almost always a history of conflict leading up to a divorce. With this conflict comes pain, heartache, and anger which are hard to simply set aside because of the decision to end the marriage.

However difficult it might be, setting aside these issues is exactly what divorcing couples must do in order to move forward into successful co-parenting. If not, it is that very pain, heartache, and anger that will fuel interactions between the separating couple in front of the children. Rehashing marital hurt and pain over and over again will not resolve what could not be resolved within the marriage and will only increase anger and conflict with a futile purpose. It is a war neither party will ever win.

This is not an easy process, and it may take effort and assistance to do so, but it is critical that the marital issues be ended with the marriage. Often, therapy can help by facilitating a process of grieving, healing, and moving forward. Once marital issues have been successfully set aside, the parents can begin the process of creating an effective co-parenting partnership.

Principle No. 2 – Operate Your Parenting Partnership Like a Business Partnership

Once the marital issues have been set aside, it is time to begin creating a parenting partnership that runs like a business. Successful businesses have a common mission, common goals, and the partners communicate in professional, goal-directed ways.

The first step is to sit down and discuss what your co-parenting “mission statement” will be. Think about what your end goal for parenting is and what your common, core values are in raising children. For example, “We will work together to provide an environment of safety and security for our children and will support and guide them through age appropriate life experiences in order to deliver them to adulthood with effective skills for coping with life, developing intimate relationships, and finding meaning and fulfillment in their own lives.”

Remember that the end goal is about your children. Stay focused on what characteristics you want them to have as adults, and plan together for how you might help them develop those traits while they are growing up. It is beneficial for any parent to think about and know what their goal is for helping their children prepare for adulthood and to allow that mission to guide their everyday decisions.

Another aspect of a business partnership that is critical to a co-parenting partnership is purpose-driven, professional communication. Set up regular phone meetings each week to discuss any needed or requested schedule changes, to share information, and to strategize together any challenges that might be occurring with the children. Don’t wait for pick-up or drop off times to ask for a schedule change, and certainly don’t use these times to bring up difficult issues.

Principle No. 3 – Commit to Supporting The Children’s Relationship with Their Other Parent

Divorce is difficult, and even the most loving parents can find themselves competing for the allegiance of their children. Parenting styles and strengths are seldom exactly alike, and it can become easy to compare those styles and find fault with the other parent’s style. Unfortunately, many times there has been an imbalance in parental responsibilities before the divorce and these can become more exaggerated after the divorce.

Whatever the situation, it can be very difficult for parents to resist the urge to disparage the other parent either in front of or directly to the children. However, making comments about the other parent, no matter how justified they may feel, is always harmful to the children. This is simply unavoidable. Anger and vitriol directed at a child’s parent will be translated by the child as somehow about them or caused by them. It must be considered as absolutely off-limits for a successful outcome for children of divorced parents.

Indeed, the very best scenario for the children, and one that should be included in an effective co-parenting agreement, is that both parents will commit to enhancing and supporting the other parent’s relationship with their children. Offering positive observations of the other parent to the children will not only reinforce the child’s relationship with his/her parent, but improve the child’s view of himself as that parent’s child.

These guidelines are intended to assist parents in building a positive foundation for effective co-parenting during and after divorce. It is critical for parents to be aware that every action they take and every word they utter during this process will impact their children. This impact can strengthen them and provide them with positive coping skills throughout life or wound them and cripple their spirits. Following these principles is not always easy, but it is a sound and important investment in children’s future lives.