The rules of successfully co-parenting with your ex
From breaking the news, to moving on with a new partner
At a boarding school, where you are allowed only one call a month from home on a Sunday, being called out of a class for a phone call sent my heart racing.
On the other end, I could hear her crying.
Before I could get another word out, I started shaking and threw up instantly. It was my first panic attack.
“Is he ok.”?
“Yes. He is doing well. But us.”
That was the first day of many years of bad days. My parents did not have a healthy relationship — my mother stayed in the marriage for my sister and me — and they only divorced a decade ago after years of unhappiness and a toxic home environment.
Co-parenting in our case did not work, and my mom had to take on more responsibilities.
What is co-parenting?
Co-parenting, also known as joint parenting or shared parenting, is the experience of raising children as a single parent when separation or divorce occurs.
A concept slowing coming to the fore in India, where historically unhappy couples tend to stay together due to societal constraints, perceptions, and for the sake of their children.
“I have seen that parents who live with each other for the child’s sake often end up doing more harm than good. The child starts witnessing constant conflicts, and badgering of one parent by the other. The house environment becomes extremely toxic for the child,” says Dr. Kritika Dharia, clinical psychologist, Mpower.
Forty three-year-old Pooja Mehta* divorced her husband after 12 years of marriage. “Our home environment was terrible. He was always yelling, breaking things every time we fought and his unruly behaviour got worse with time,” says Mehta.
Every time they fought, her eight-year-old daughter would pick up her toys, run to her room and start singing loudly in an attempt to drown out the noise.
She became an introvert, her grades dropped, and Mehta could see that staying in the marriage was not a wise decision. She called it quits after finding out that her husband was seeing someone else.
“My daughter is 19 now, and we have been co-parenting since she was 9. If you want co-parenting to work, please do not put the other parent down in front of the child. Show a united front,” she says.
“Making children choose sides is unhealthy for their mental wellbeing,” says Dharia, advising therapy for estranged couples who want to co-parent.
“If you’re too busy with your internal struggles, you won’t have the energy, or brain space to focus on the child.”
Figure out finances, facilitate regular open and friendly discussions with the child and take them to therapy as well. And never stop the child from talking to the other parent when he or she wants to.
The co-parenting handbook
Prerna Inamdar* and her ex-husband were married for 6 years before they decided to go their separate ways. They knew they had many challenges ahead of them — the biggest one being talking to their 5-year-old about the split.
“We spoke to our daughter after consulting a counsellor,” adds Inamdar, who’s been co-parenting for the last two years. “It’s a work in progress but we are all in a better place today than when we were living together.”
Broaching the subject of co-parenting with your child, according to a psychologist
- Both parents should talk to the child together
- Try to give the child a gist of why you have decided to part ways, without placing blame.
- Make sure to tell the child that the decision has nothing to do with him/her.
- Be honest and remind the child that both parents love them and that won’t change.
- Explain to the child which parent will be leaving and who the child is going to live with.
Key steps for heathy co-parenting
- Healthy communication with your ex, working out a few strategies to effectively manage your child.
- Avoid negativity towards your ex-spouse (especially in front of the child).
- Reflect on your role in ending the relationship, and work on yourself. Co-parenting is easier for a happier, more balanced individual.
- Be accommodating towards your ex-spouse
Effective co-parenting communication methods
- Talk to your ex-spouse like he is your colleague/ business partner.
- Listen to their perspective, ask for permission if required or make requests.
- Let the conversation be kid-centric.
- Focus on the present and future, let bygones be bygones.
- If you are angry, take time to cool off and respond objectively.
- You are in this for the child, so try to come up with a compromise for the child’s sake.
- Seek professional help, if required.
Dharia has seen couples in India struggling with co-parenting, but observes that many are seeking professional help.
“One couple came to me for therapy because their child had gone into a shell and was going through behavioural changes.The parents started off with abusing each other and saying negative things about the other in front of the child.
“On certain occasions, both parents would tell the child he has started behaving like the other parent. The lack of communication and respect, coupled with physical abuse, made things worse.”
You’re not necessarily guaranteed a smooth road even after you’ve made the long journey to co-parenting — juggling grown-ups, kids, conflicting schedules and viewpoints can lead to bumps along the road.
Common co-parenting struggles
- Constant changes in schedule, dealing with an uncooperative parent.
- Difference of opinions, which leads to arguments in front of the child.
- Inconsistency in communication.
- The child’s lack of interest in meeting one parent.
- Fighting, resentment, power play, insecurity because of a new love interest in the parent’s life.
- Financial concerns/ disagreements.
When co-parenting is not an option
Heena and her ex-husband started having problems very early into their marriage and it continued for four years. She thought that having a child would change him, but things only got worse.
“After the child, I had more on my plate – a job, my son and handling the house. I could not do it anymore. With zero emotional support from him, I had really reached the brink of a nervous breakdown and decided to call it quits.”
Co-parenting was not an option for them as her ex-husband had no interest in doing so. Heena’s father stepped in to fill in the position of a father to her kid.
“When we were together, I felt my child was angry and withdrawn all the time and maybe we did not give him the attention or the time to voice his opinions and grieve. We were too self-involved,” adds Heena.
“I’m co-parenting with my parents, rather than my ex, and today, both my child and I are mentally healthier and happier.”
The next chapter
Moving on is inevitable. After a divorce, when one or both parents have a new partner, encourage the child to talk about their feelings and give them time. It may take time for the child to love, respect and make space for the step-parent.
Rakhi Bhalla, mother to an 18-year-old, remarried when her daughter was 11. “My daughter (then 11 years old) and I moved to Delhi with my new husband. She struggled to adjust to the new place and this new situation,” says Bhalla.
Today, she shares a healthy father-daughter relationship with him, while Rakhi’s ex-husband is still a part of her daughter’s life.
Assimilating a new partner into the family
- Inform the ex about the stepmom/ dad
- Both parents should talk to the child about it
- Don’t discourage your child’s affection towards the new partner.
- Be respectful to your ex-spouse and his/her partner.
Divorces are difficult, and get even more complicated when there are children involved. Co-parenting, is just like parenting, in the sense that your child still comes above all.
You may have taken a different route, but the end goal, is still your child’s happiness.
Don’t try to race through this, apply the brakes when the road gets messy. Be patient, and hopefully everyone gets out of it unscathed.
*Names changed on request
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