If you are both single, and a parent, and you are considering entering into a serious new relationship or “blending” your family, you probably have many concerns. One major worry may be how your ex will cope with your new relationship. In many cases, the ex-spouse or biological parent can cause inter-family stress and pain. In the best case you and all the adults in your family share, respect and make raising healthy, emotionally secure children a priority as you foster a safe relationship between households.
A healthy, respectful co-parenting relationship is entirely possible with intention and patience.
This means that all of the adults involved in your child’s life communicate calmly and respectfully, pay and pick up on time, return toys, books, and clothes, do not use kids as conduits for information or scheduling and speak positively about the ex and new partner. Each of you as parents view child rearing as a team effort. You are flexible and help one another on scheduling and child-care.Paying for schools and activities are split as equitably as possible, and you are mindful of not taking advantage of the other parents.
High functioning, secure co-parents are a blessing to your children. Your kids can transition from one house to another without drama. They feel safe having a relationship with both sets of parents. Most importantly the children grow up trusting that the adults in their lives put the children’s emotional well-being and safety ahead of parental anger, jealousy or vindictiveness.
Children should not be exposed to an adult’s negative feelings about their ex’s and the divorce. Children only need to know they are loved and safe.
If you are a secure, high functioning co-parent, then on a scale of 1-10 at, you are a “10”. Your behaviors and intentions are supportive of the team effort of co-parenting.
Furthermore, the biological parents express appreciation for the step-parents help and support to the kids and to one another.
By creating a collaborative, co- parenting inter-family environment, you give your children a far better chance at being emotionally healthy and resilient. You also help your children feel safe taking appropriate and necessary risks that help them grow. Children thrive when they know they have a safe, loving haven at both homes where they are seen, heard and feel a sense of belonging.
Conversely, if you or your ex-spouse, or biological parent does not work as a team and actively sabotages co-parenting efforts, then you or your ex are at the other end of the scale, earning a "1" or "2." If you argue with your ex in front of your kids, threaten harm, or engage in physical pushing or blocking, you are causing emotional distress to your children.
Negative or sabotaging co-parenting is emotionally damaging to your children with long-term effects. It will also negatively impact your new marriage. When one bio parent is angry and vindictive, trashing the ex to the kids, sabotaging the ex’s new spouse and openly saying hurtful things about the kid’s other parent, the children suffer, you suffer and your spouse suffers.
Children need to feel that they are safe to have a relationship with both parents. If one parent demands loyalty over another parent, the children are put in an untenable situation. Each child is ½ of each parent. When you demand your children disavow the other parent, the children struggle with hating/disavowing ½ of themselves, causing deeply conflicting emotional wounds.
If you find you are in a relationship at 1-3 on the co-parenting scale, first ask what you and your spouse could be doing differently to smooth communication across the households. Perhaps ask the bio parent what you all can do to create a safe environment for the kids. I encourage you to seek help with a family therapist to mediate co-parenting issues if necessary.
If you are sure you have made every effort to work collaboratively together, and your ex will not be a team player, then there is a need to erect strong boundaries between the houses.
That may mean pick up and drop offs are at school or public places only. The sabotaging biological parent is not welcomed at your door, or in the house. All communication is done through a text or email. (There are some excellent apps that make this easier). All communication is strictly about scheduling and the well-being of the children.
Another damaging behavior the ex or biological parent may engage in is using the court system to punish or maintain a negative relationship with the biological parent which causes financial and emotional stress. In this situation, you and your spouse need a family lawyer who can help you protect yourselves.
If an ex is especially vindictive and it is aimed at your new spouse, it is your job to protect him or her. If your ex trashes your new spouse, you must put an end to that. Your ex’s opinion of your new partner is immaterial. You may need to block social media, emails, phone numbers on your spouse’s behalf. You, as the biological parent should handle all communication regarding the children with the biological parent.
You can only control what goes on in your house. If you create a safe, emotionally supportive space for your children, you are doing the best you can in a difficult situation. Your children will eventually grow up and understand that you were there for them. You can’t change what happens in the other house, you can only focus on creating a safe securely attached home environment in your home.
If your ex-spouse is doing everything in their power to alienate your children from you, then it is your job to make every effort to maintain a presence in their lives. You may have to use the court system to keep visitation. Mostly, don’t give up. The children need to know and feel that you have fought your best to have a relationship with them. Keep track of your efforts, you may have to show them proof one day when they are grown.
(Caveat: I write this assuming that all parents are safe, no one abuses children sexually or emotionally.)
Co-parent functioning scale (1-10):
10 - the highest functioning blended families
1 - lowest, with fighting, unsafe emotionally, vindictive, sabotaging
Characteristics of high functioning, secure co-parenting:
- Healthy boundaries
- Focus on emotional well-being of kids
- Calm, positive communication style between households
- Adults only make plans, no kids involved
- Adults are respectful about ex and new partner
- Adults communicate to kids it is safe and good to have a relationship with other bio parent and their family
- Biological parents are appreciative of step-parent efforts and express that to kids
The potential result is having children who are emotionally resilient, adaptive and willing to take appropriate risks. They have several adults in their lives willing to drop everything and show up for them. There are more resources available to children: love, money time, and mentorship. They develop strong immune systems and “secure attachment styles” emotionally as they are loved and feel safe.
Characteristics of low functioning, highly anxious and sabotaging co-parenting
- Trashing ex
- Angry, vindictive feeling in house
- Communication style loud, angry, confrontational, condescending
- Physically threatening, they create feeling of danger and instability
- Demands loyalty over ex from children
- Sabotages children’s relationship with new partner of ex
- No flexibility
- Does not pay child support/alimony on time
- Does not pick up kids on time, promises kids activity and doesn’t show up
- Uses court system to punish ex and new partner
- Does not return clothes, toys, and books
- Resentful and angry regarding ex and his or her new relationship
- Uses children to communicate, plan, schedule
- Pumps kids for personal information on ex and new spouse
- Use the children as emotional support for adult feelings
- Intrinsically unsafe emotionally for children
The potential result is having fragile, emotionally anxious, avoidant or chaotic attachment styles developed by children. The children suffer from a lifetime of deep emotional wounds, prone to addiction and many difficulties connecting to future romantic partners. Their immune system tends to be naturally suppressed by anxiety and emotional instability. They may be too insecure to take risks, or they take inappropriate risks that are destructive or dangerous.
You can see how crucial it is to make every attempt to co-parent in a practical way for the sake of your children. It is impossible to control an ex (or another person), but it is fully possible to make these changes yourself. Maybe your ex will follow suit. The critical part to remember is that doing so will help your children thrive, and your new marriage survive.
Purchase from Amazon: Blending Families: Merging Households with Kids 8-18 by Trevor Crow Mullineaux and Maryann Karinch