Co-parenting is a concept where both parents continue parenting the children in much the same way as when the family lived under one roof. When both parents are committed to the process, co-parenting can provide a far more rewarding and enriching life for your children than any scenario a court could choose for your family.
In this episode, your host and guide, Attorney Leigh Sellers, discusses tips for successful co-parenting gleaned over three decades of divorce and child custody experience.
Key insights from the episode:
The insights and views presented in “Welcome to Splitsville” are for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Nor does tuning in to this podcast constitute an attorney-client relationship of any kind. If you’re ready for compassionate and reliable legal guidance on your journey through divorce, contact Leigh Sellers and her team (NC & SC) at http://www.TouchstoneFamilyLaw.com
Hello there. Going through a divorce? Considering one? Sorry to hear that, but here you are. Welcome to Splitsville. You’ll find Splitsville to be a pretty unique place. A new world really, with its own rules, its own expectations and in many ways, its own language. But don’t worry, you have a knowledgeable guide along the way, a family law attorney with three decades of experience under her belt.
And now, here she is. Your host and guide, Leigh Sellers.
Hi everyone, and thanks for tuning into another episode of Welcome to Splitsville. I’m your host and guide, Leigh Sellers, founder of Touchstone Family Law. And, in this episode, I’ll be answering another question that many newcomers to Splitsville have, “Co-parenting. What is it and how do you achieve it?” So let’s dive in.
So, co-parenting is a concept that has emerged in the last decade or so, where the courts and the lawyers in the field focus on helping parents engineer a situation where the children as still experiencing both parents. So whereas traditional and historical custody battles and custody contest really focused more on a, “Are the children gonna be with mom or are the children gonna be with dad?” The more prevailing logic, and some of this is based on some psychological studies and reports and profiles, but the more current trend is that just because a marriage falls apart and there’s no longer this pair of husband and wife, shouldn’t translate into that the children no long have both mother and father.
So co-parenting is a concept where you’re expecting both parents to continue parenting the children in very much the same way that they did when the family was living under one roof. And I think it’s more an ideal in most cases, an aspiration in most cases, than it is a concrete objective to be obtained, if I was gonna be realistic about it. It is difficult, and the parents that know how to do it where it’s gonna be easy, they’re not really the ones that come in my office and spend a lot of time because they’ve already naturally come to that conclusion and they’re already agreeing to co-parent, and they’ve already come up with a solution of how they’re going to continue to raise their children under two separate roofs. And they’ll come in and they’ll say, this is our plan, this is what we’re gonna do for our children, please make this a legally enforcement document and deal with all of the other relationship issues and marital issues and property issues and everything else in the same document.
But they come in and they have a plan in place. And we don’t really hear them or get to work with them a great deal. So those people that are kind of easily fitting into that ideal scenario are not really in the court system, so I think the challenge is is that courts want to teach people this concept of co-parenting, they want litigants to accept this concept of co-parenting, and they want children to experience co-parenting. So what I see in my practice is that there’s a need for education on what it is, and a need of acceptance, and a need to understand that some of the judges are going to try hard to make this happen up until the last gasp of a case. And that they’re only going to make parenting decisions for the litigants when they’re absolutely forced to with a trial. That they’re going to try, at every preliminary stage that they have, to turn the ship back around and get parents to accept the responsibility to continue parenting their children together.
So co-parenting requires some effort. It requires communication, it requires trust, and it requires a philosophy of children first, or child centered thinking and problem solving. So with co-parenting you’re going to have two parents that continue to have equal legal rights in terms of the decision making with their children. There’s no trump card. There’s no, “If the parents don’t agree, mom or dad will make the final decision.” So you’re both going to continue to have the same autonomous control over your children that you had when you were together.
So think about a family living under one roof where mom may have a strict bedtime rule, but if mom goes out with her friends or works late, dad lets it slip a little bit, because dad’s not really as committed to the [8:00] bedtime, he thinks [8:30] is sufficient. So when mom’s away, the kids go to bed at [8:30]. And that happens in every family. Somebody has a different take on snacks or nap time or really doesn’t care whether or not the child has a hair bow when they leave the house, or whether or not their shoes match, the clothes they’re on, and it’s not always gender oriented, but there’s generally one parent that’s very detailed focused about the children, and one that’s got a more laissez-faire approach. And as long as there’s trust and love in the relationship, most people accept those things reasonably well.
But what happens when the marriage breaks up and you don’t have the same level of love and trust with the other parent? Those differences can be something that people fight a lot about, but in a co-parenting situation what you have is both parents embracing and accepting the fact that the other parent is largely gonna continue to be exactly the same parent outside the house as they were inside of the house. And there’s this acceptance that there maybe different styles and focuses in the different households, but what they are going to do is not focus on the minutia, such as how often a child may have a Happy Meal when they’re with one parent versus a fresh-cooked, vegetable only meal from Whole Foods or organic farm in the other house.
But they’re really gonna look at, “Who do we want our children to be? What philosophically are we gonna teach them? What are the discipline methods that we’re going to use? What are the values that we’re going to teach? What are the focuses that we wanna make sure that we both treat with equal seriousness in both of our houses? What is the sort of framework of raising our children, and do we have those same goals and focuses? And are we both comfortable implementing them in different ways but just making sure that we’re headed to the same destination with our children?”
And so in a co-parenting situation, you’re not really talking about having exactly the same parenting experience in two households, you’re just talking about parents that have the same goals for their children and are willing to discuss those goals and talk about how they’re going to achieve those goals together. And discuss how they are working towards those goals in their respective homes. So there’s gonna be a shared understanding of what’s happening in each home.
And it can really be a very empowering way to parent children, and I think children really can benefit from it. I’ve seen those experiences work quite well, and I think that the psychological studies that are out there back it up. And I know that the court system sees that when you don’t have that sort of collective mentality with the parents, we see the parents come back to court more. But when you do have parents that are at least able to achieve some understanding that they’re going to try to get the children to the same places and accept the fact they may not do it the same way, we almost never see those parents back in court again.
And we look at court conflict as meaning that the children are not experiencing the most thriving environment that they can. So the more the parents come back to court, the more we understand that the children are suffering. Because when there’s conflict in the home, children suffer. And we just look at is as a symptom of the conflict that everybody’s experiencing. And for the children it is their home, whether they’re at mom’s house or dad’s house, that is collectively their home. So when those two places are at war with one another, the children are basically living on a battlefield. And that’s what we try to prevent form happening, as divorce attorneys. That’s what divorce coaches attempt to prevent. It’s what co-parenting therapists or specialists try to prevent, and it is what our court system by and large tries to prevent.
So let’s talk a little bit about how you can achieve these results now that you kind of understand what the goal of co-parenting is.
One thing that will help facilitate a co-parenting relationship, first of all, is some trust. And what is it? It’s just a trust that the other parent also loves the children and wants what’s best for them. At the core, the fact that you do trust that the other parent loves their children as much as you love them. And that’s central to the theme. It doesn’t mean that you have to trust them because they never lied to you. Maybe they weren’t trustworthy as a spouse, but it’s just really trusting in what you know about them as a parent. And that can be difficult and challenging, but it is a really important element.
The other thing it requires is some open communication. So co-parents need to have the ability to listen to one another, process the information they’re given, and respond in a productive manner. Some people already have that skill, the breakdown of the marriage wasn’t a communication based problem. A lot of people, their marriage is breaking down because of a lack of communication, so they have a desire to co-parent, they have a desire to raise their children well, and they’re actually both accepted as good parents in the other parent’s eyes. But they don’t really have the communication skills that they need to do it in a different house, where you don’t, in addition to verbal communication, you have just the other sense telling you what’s going on with the children and what’s going on with the other parent. You see them coming in and out, you see them interacting, you see the way they’re handling a situation. You don’t have to be told about it.
So when you’re in different houses and you’re missing some of the visual cues, or you’re not in a position to overhear actual interactions and how things are being handled, you really are gonna have to rely on communication. And if you’re not really great at communicating with the other spouse for whatever reason it is, it maybe be a really good opportunity to work with a co-parenting coach. And there are therapist and counselors who specialize in simply working on communication styles. Maybe not just with parents, but they definitely have developed a niche of where they’ll work with parents and just help coach them on how to listen to one another and hear what’s being said and how to respond in a way that your response is heard and understood by the other side. And if you can master those skills, you’re gonna have a better co-parenting relationship, which means you’re gonna have a lot less misunderstandings and miscues as the children are traveling from one environment to another. And that’s important, and there are lots of options to improve that if you don’t have it.
So just because you can’t do it at the time your marriage is breaking up, doesn’t mean that if you have a sincere interest in improving that that it can’t be done. So to the people that come in that are kinda fatalistic from the beginning going, “We just can’t talk, that’ll never work. He or she never listens to me,” or, “They don’t care what I think, they’re gonna do what they want anyway.” You may wanna actually see if that could be improved or fixed in some manner, before you completely walk away from the concept of co-parenting.
Another thing that co-parenting does require another tool that is gonna make it very productive is just respect for the other parent. That you respect that they have an important role in the child’s life, and that you aren’t gonna be diminishing or discounting their importance in the child’s life, even if you realize that they no longer have any importance in your life. So it does require that you truly have a sense of respect for the role of the other parent, and that you’re not just going through the motions because it’s very difficult to co-parent with somebody when your heart’s not in it. So I do think you kinda have to align yourself to viewing the other person as a valid part of your child’s existence and life, at the core, in order to be super successful with it.
One of the things that is real helpful with co-parenting is som proximity. So having some physical proximity in the households to where you’re actually still living in the same community that your children are, so that you’re not having your children leave their community and be in a different community every time they switch houses, that can be very helpful. So one thing that can truly make co-parenting very successful is if you continue to live in enough of a proximity to where your children can enjoy the same friendships regardless of which house they’re at. Where the same other parents are involved in your child’s life, regardless of whether they’re with mom or dad that week. Where if you remarry and have step-siblings, those children are going to the same schools as your children. Where you’re really trying to make sure that you’re experiencing the same environment. That you’re very participatory and you have the ability to go to the children’s soccer games and festivals at the school, whether or not it’s your parenting time.
So when you’re naturally, organically living the same life with your children, it’s not always gonna be so dependent on communication from the other spouse. So if you’re very involved in the school community, you’re going to know of your own volition, what’s happening at the school and what’s happening with your children. You’re not gonna be so dependent on adding the stressor of communicating with one another.
Those are some of the ideal ways that co-parenting can be super successful. You can make it work in other situations, as long as you actually have those three goals we talked about in the beginning, which is a trust that the other parent loves the children and wants what’s best for them, some respect that the other parent is a valid, significant figure in their child’s life. If you’ve got those goals, even with less than stellar communication and even with some distance between the household, you can still make sure that you are working on achieving the same goals for your children.
It just requires more creative communication, and you can do it by sending a short email every week back and forth, you can switch who sends it each week. You can make a decision to meet in a public place once a week or once every other week where you literally sit down and you take that one opportunity to say, “Okay, these are some things I wanna discuss about the children.” And then you listen to what the other person wants and you have a more formal set of communication exchanges, but you’re still having them. And if you can talk by phone that’s great, too. If you can so a Skype call, but just making sure that there is some touch base happening between your households will make it easier to co-parent and maybe you’re both just more hands off, and you’re willing to just accept the fact you know your children are safe and loved in the other household, and you don’t really need to know what their bedtime is and what their diet is, you just both trust that the children are gonna be well cared for and loved.
And you don’t really wanna know the ins and outs of that household? That’s fine, too. So it doesn’t have to really hit this ideal that has been set forth by judges and by counselors, but it does require some level of interaction with your ex spouse.
There is another system of parenting which you will hear sometimes, it’s called parallel parenting. So there is a school of thought that treats it as lesser than co-parenting. And it’s where they say, look, children, to be whole, need a lot of exposure to both parents, because this is the DNA mix that created them. And in order to understand themselves and fully and be able to understand their lives, they have to have some understanding of their parents and you can only achieve that by having a great deal of exposure to both of them. And so we’re gonna make this happen no matter how badly the two parents treat one another. And no matter how much they dislike each other or hate each other, we still think that it’s valuable for children to go consistently between these two households.
And the reason we call it parallel parenting is because what’s happening is the children are actually living in parallel universes. So they’re going to between two parents’ houses where there’s no communication, or very little communication. And they’re gonna live Parent A’s life in Parent A’s house and Parent B’s life in Parent B’s house. The reason that most practitioners and judges realize that this is not the ideal, although it may be better than the worst case scenario, the reason it’s not ideal is because what we see from where we are is we see that the children don’t have a life. They live mom’s life and they live dad’s life, but they don’t really have a life. They live at mom’s house and then dad’s house, but they don’t have a house.
So what we find in these parallel situations is is that you have children basically living two different lives, and it makes them be two different people. And we know that it’s a problem is school teachers can tell readily which house the child has been at, by the way the child is prepared, by their demeanor, by just everything about them. It’s really sad when you’ve got a teacher saying, “Well, yeah, we know it’s mom’s week because of A, B, C, we know it’s dad’s week because of E, F, G.” And it’s not because anybody’s given them a copy of a court ordered schedule, they just can tell because it’s so vastly different.
The most fluid ones that we like to see is when I have a teacher come in and, I’m asking them what their observations are, of a child of one of my clients. And they just don’t have any idea what the parenting schedule is. And they have no clue who the child’s with from day to day, because they basically see the same child in their classroom every day. And that’s when I know I’ve got some really successful co-parents involved in this situation, and that’s always really rewarding to see, just to know that it’s happening. Cause obviously, in my experience I’m seeing a lot of the situations that don’t work.
But when I see neighbors that basically are parents, where they have a child who’s a friend of the children of one of my clients, and it’s like the children disappear into a black hole when they go to the other parent’s house, when I have grandparents and extended family that basically, they only have contact with these children on the parenting schedule, that’s where we have parallel parenting. And unfortunately, the court systems still prefer it to the worst case situation, which is where you really exclude one parent pretty significantly. So they still prefer parallel parenting over having a super primary parent and then a Disney parent, which is kind of the worst case scenario that they see. But it really isn’t something I think anybody should ascribe to.
It’s really sad when one parent very much wants a collaborative co-parenting experience, and the other parent is strictly of the opinion that they don’t want anything more to do with the other parent than is absolutely essential, and they really do want to create this line in the sand where, when the children are with them it’s as if the other parent doesn’t exist. That’s always a very sad situation, and it’s difficult for the parent that wants to be a co-parent and they really struggle with trying to change the other parent and get them to come more in alignment with their philosophy.
But I rarely see it happen, if one parent is very fixated on just blocking off the other parent, it’s generally a lot of really residual, hardened feelings that have occurred over the course of the breakdown of the marriage. And they simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with that other parent in any pleasant capacity. And so their choice to just say, “I’d rather not deal with them at all,” rather than deal with them unpleasantly, may actually be the best that you can expect from that person. And so sometimes the person who desperately wants a different life for their children, and a different relationship with the other parent just has to have a lot of work accepting the fact that it’s just not gonna happen. But there may be reasons for it to happen.
And they may need some coaching on how do they deal with that. When they let the children talk about the other parent at their house, and they’re not allowed to talk about them when they leave. But there are some therapists that can help you work through that to make sure that you can make that arrangement as successful and healthy for your children as possible.
The last thing I would say to remember is the structure of co-parenting or parallel parenting is not dependent on the amount of days that you have with the other parent. So you don’t have to have 50/50 day split in order to be a co-parent or a parallel parent. This is more a philosophy of parenting, and it follows whether or not the children are with you three days out of a week, four days out of a week, five days out of a week, or you’re doing a week on week off switch. The philosophy of co-parenting is something that’s really important regardless of your schedule.
So you don’t ever wanna confuse co-parenting with the concept of, “What is my parenting schedule going to be with the children?” It’s more of a manner of which you parent, a manner in which you approach parenting. Certainly the schedule and the amount of time the children are spending with each parent and what the particular physical elements of it are important to it, but it’s not what drives it, and it’s important to remember those are two distinct situations and you want to not confuse the two. Equal time is not necessarily equal parenting. They’re two different things entirely.
But if you’re interested in creating the most healthy environment you can for your children as you go through a divorce, you really wanna spend some time thinking about your children and their personalities and your spouse, and your ability to work with them, and I always say it’s very important to go ahead and work with a therapist or a counselor. Not necessarily getting one for your children, although that may be necessary, but get one for yourself because understand that for you to be able to provide healthy parenting for your children, you’ve got to be able to have a healthy parenting relationship with the other parent. And so even if the marriage is not going to be successful, you may find that some sort of counseling between you and your soon-to-be ex spouse or ex partner is going to be an important part of your being able to continue parenting. So I would encourage anyone who’s interested in co-parenting and parenting collaboratively with the other parent to engage some sort of counselor to make sure that you’re in the right spot to do it, to the best of your ability.
And it could be a much more rewarding and enriching life for your children post-divorce than any scenario, than any court, could possibly choose for you. And I hope that anyone who’s listening to this will really put some time and research into this, and talk to your attorney, and talk to your counselor, talk to your pastors, and talk to your friends and family. That this is the life you want to create for your children post-divorce.
So, there you have it, another neighborhood of Splitsville explored. There’s still so much to learn here, so I hope you’ll tune into the next episode. While Splitsville is not a fun place to be, thankfully it is full of helpful people, valuable resources and sound advice, if you know where to look. See you next time.
The insights and presented in Welcome to Splitsville are for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Nor does tuning into this podcast constitute an attorney/client relationship of any kind. If you’re ready for compassionate and reliable legal guidance on your journey, contact Leigh Sellers and her team at touchstonefamilylaw.com.