Co-parenting occurs when two divorced parents are able to work cooperatively and collaboratively as parents after a divorce. It is the most important gift that divorcing parents can provide their children. Nonetheless, co-parenting is often the exception to the rule. What can people facing divorce do to help them to become co-parents after the divorce is final?
1. Setting a Realistic Co-Parenting Goal
Constance Ahrons, a Psychologist, professor and author of several books on co-parenting, categorizes five types of post-divorce spousal relationships: Perfect Pals, Cooperative Colleagues, Angry Associates, Fiery Foes, and Dissolved Duos. Of these five, only Perfect Pals and Cooperative Colleagues are able to succeed as co-parents. Perfect Pals divorce amicably and remain friends after the divorce, while Cooperative Colleagues are not friends but respect each other as parents. They maintain at least a business like decorum. The first step toward co-parenting is recognizing that co-parenting does not require you to become a “Perfect Pal” with your spouse after the divorce. Although that would be great, it just isn’t a realistic goal for many people in the immediate aftermath of a divorce. For most people, the focus should be on becoming cooperative colleagues, which is a realistic goal.
2. Know the Emotional Obstacles to Becoming Co-Parents
It takes more than setting a goal of course. It takes planning and dedication to become cooperative colleagues after the divorce is final. A good plan will start with an understanding of the emotions conjured by divorce that might present obstacles to becoming effective co-parents.
Divorce involves several emotional stages. When a spouse is made aware of the desire for divorce, the first emotion many people experience is denial, or difficulty believing that it is actually happening. The second stage, anger, involves what the author of Impasses of Divorce, Janet R. Johnston Ph.D., calls “negative reconstruction of the spousal identity”. The angry spouse views his/her spouse in the worst possible light in order to disengage emotionally from the marriage. The final three stages, in order, are remorse, depression and, finally, acceptance. The odds of becoming co-parents after a divorce increase the closer the spouses get to the acceptance stage and the furthest they get from the denial and anger stages.
To complicate things, spouses do not go through these stages together if the divorce is not a mutual decision. While some people are able to process emotions at different speeds, often the spouse who initiates the divorce has an emotional head start. This unbalanced state of emotions makes communication and collaboration – vital cogs of co-parenting - much more challenging.
3. Charting a Course to Navigate the Emotional Obstacles of Divorce
Evening out the emotional balance between the spouses is going to help the couple focus on being co-parents during and after the divorce. If the divorce is final and the two parents are in very different places emotionally, the chances are that they will not be able to work together as co-parents thereafter. What is needed is emotional regulation and coordination between the parents before and during the divorce process.
Think of the divorcing parents as two kayakers on Divorce Lake. Once the parents reach the far shore of Divorce Lake they will be divorced. In order to become good co-parents, the kayakers must arrive on the far shore of Divorce Lake at or near the same time. The parent who is ahead emotionally – the lead boat – will need to allow the trailing parent some time to catch up. The lead parent must wait by floating in place - don’t paddle back to the trailing parent’s lower emotional stage, which will only result in a rocky ride for you and your children. Conversely, the lead parent cannot just forge ahead and reach the far shore when the trailing parent is still far behind emotionally. For the lead parent, floating in place requires patience, maintaining focus on remaining rational and empathetic toward the other parent as he or she struggles to move forward. The lead parent will benefit from the coaching of a counselor to help him or her walk – paddle - this fine line. The trailing parent might also need help paddling forward emotionally through help from a counselor.
Getting both parents to seek counseling individually is a significant challenge. But a new form of counseling - called discernment counseling - offers an avenue for parents to get the counseling they need to move forward together in a coordinated manner. Whereas marriage counseling has the sole objective of saving the marriage, discernment counseling includes divorce as a potential goal. If divorce is the decision, the focus of the counseling is gaining clarity about the reasons for the divorce, which help the spouses move efficiently through the emotional stages of divorce. The table is then set for both a better divorce process and co-parenting after the divorce.
4. Picking a Co-Parenting Friendly Divorce Process
Don’t expect that any form of counseling will alone transform divorcing parents into Cooperative Colleagues. To make the transformation complete the parents must also focus on laying a foundation of rules upon which they can start working together as co-parents after the divorce is final. These ground rules are known as a “co-parenting plan”. A co-parenting plan provides divorcing parents a safe haven in which they can learn from experience how to work together as co-parents after the divorce is final. Eventually the parents might not need to refer to such a plan, but it is always there if things break down.
A good parenting plan is focused on the needs of the children. Carrying out the parenting plan and evolving as effective co-parents requires that parents become effective communicators and collaborators. Only two divorce processes are able to promote a child focused process with an emphasis on helping parents to effectively communicate and collaborate: mediation and collaborative practice. Divorce Court focuses on individual rights and involves taking adversarial positions defended with zealous advocacy of attorneys. Mediation and collaborative practice allow parents to discuss divorce as parents, not as individuals. Rather than being adversarial, both out of court methods encourage parents to look for mutually acceptable positions. And rather than having someone advocate for you, collaborative practice and mediation will help the parents communicate and collaborate directly, which works to avoid inflaming tensions while laying the ground work for effective co-parenting after the divorce.