As a family law mediator and attorney, my hours are filled with former couples who must learn how to communicate for the benefit of their child. In advising clients on how to do this, we have to consider certain situations or feelings that get in the way. Before diving into advice on appropriate communication, I’ll explain a bit more on why it is so important:
Your child deserves the best version of you, and the healthiest parents possible. Only you can provide them with a happy, healthy, and functional you. Your behavior is a model framework, and your child learns more from how you interact with others than from how you instruct them to interact with others. As we know too well, children are observant and smart. In their social skills now and for the future, your child will reference your communication skills (or lack thereof) as guidance for their social interactions. You are very uniquely positioned to help them become functional individuals who can face interpersonal difficulties. Your child will certainly pick up on your own attitude, demeanor, and language about your ex. If you ask adults whose parents were divorced to share a memory of how their parents communicated, they will undoubtedly remember. You don’t want your child to grow and think, “wow, my parent really couldn’t put me first. They hated my other parent more than they loved me.” You want your child to grow and know, “my parent did their best to protect me from the nuance and nastiness of their adult romantic relationship.”
Finally, remember that your child is truly a combination of you and your ex. Regardless of who your child is closer to, resembles, prefers, etc., remember this: they have two parents. Your child could likely internalize at least some of what you’re saying about their other parent, because it’s, well, their parent! And you have a truly special opportunity to show them how to communicate in a healthy way. Caveat: My thoughts apply to standard or high-conflict situations where everyone is physically safe. Anyone dealing with an abusive or violence ex should, of course, put safety first.
Universal guidelines for communication with a co-parent:
- Accept that your relationship with this adult is now primarily transactional. Consider this a business relationship where you are essentially professionals working together raising the child.
Make, keep, and reaffirm boundaries. I highly recommend the book by Nedra Glover Tawwab as described below. Some common examples of boundaries with co parents are:
- Only being available to them for matters related to your child;
- Letting their calls go to voicemail and reviewing the voicemail;
- Answer non-urgent requests within 24 hours; and
- Reminding them as needed of your boundaries.
- Keep it BIFF: Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. As described in the book mentioned below, communication between co parents can and should, in general, be straightforward. Your exchanges should be brief and to the point; informative and useful (no communication “just because…”); friendly without being flirty, and firm without being harsh. Again, you now have primarily a transactional relationship with this person. Behave accordingly.
- Consider shared calendar and family organization apps (Google Calendar, Our Family Wizard, Talking Parents) to limit unnecessary back-and forth. Never use the child as a messenger.
- Consider therapy another source of professional help for handling the massive emotions and changes you’re likely experiencing. You don’t have to do this alone.
When one of you is still in love:
- Accept reality. However you must do this, learn and accept that you are now a solo parent and a single individual. This person is not your spouse, they are not your romantic partner. It is not ok to flirt with them or treat them romantically or “cute.”
- Distance yourself. Refrain from contacting them unnecessarily, or for reasons outside of their new role as co-parent (and not as your romantic interest). Ask some friends to be your assistants in this, and check with them before sending or saying anything that you think may not be best.
- Reframe their role in your life. While you may have once been comfortable calling this person your husband/wife/ spouse, this person has a new role: Teammate on Team Child. I have seen parents save each other's phones as new contacts “Sam Jones- Team Billy!” It’s corny, but maybe it will help. (Side note: if you can’t save them as something nice, save them as their own name. This is not a time for “nicknames.”)
When there’s hate:
- Process it on your own. You are probably going to want a therapist, if only for a short term. How can you move forward if you’re still so angry abo it the past? Your anger may be well-founded and deserved, I get it. You must learn to leave your child out of this as much as possible, and prevent them from becoming collateral damage.
- Keep it away from your child. Regardless of where you are in the healing journey, your child is dealing with enough on their own. Protect them from adult matters by discussing co parenting issues when they aren’t around. Speaking in “code” or just out of their earshot probably doesn’t work as well as you think it does.
- Note: if there is or was abuse or violence in your relationship with your now-coparent, i recommend the following books in particular: “Splitting” and “Why Does He Do That?” These books separately address some of the considerations that you may unfortunately be dealing with.
Regardless of where you are in the coparenting process, I hope you will consider your child above all else. Even the “best” parents struggle sometimes. It is hard! And you can do hard things. Especially ones that are so very worth it for your child.
**Here are the links to the recommended reads mentioned above:**
- Set Boundaries, Find Peace: https://www.semicolonchi.com/humble-design/1du11v25tyoistwttyram0lgrgxvib
- BIFF: https://www.highconflictinstitute.com/bookstores/biff-for-coparents
- Splitting: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/9996542
- Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/224552.Why_Does_He_Do_That_