I recently finished divorcing one of my clients from her husband. She is, as far I’m concerned, a lovely woman who has her children’s best interests deeply embedded in her heart.
As I was her collaborative lawyer, I also happen to know her husband much better than I would have had her divorce been accomplished in the conventional courtroom style. He, too, is an admirable person and a good dad, but has been deeply hurt by her decision to separate their households and to establish her independence from him.
They were married during college, and both went on to graduate school, one in business and one in medicine. They are both very successful in their chosen careers.
Six years ago, they decided to have children. They had a boy and a girl in rapid succession. Both are great parents and deeply committed to nurturing their children in a healthy and happy environment in which they can mature to adulthood.
All that said, in her own mind, my client (let’s call her “Sally”) has been divorced for some time. She moved out of the marital home over a year ago and bought a house three blocks away. He, on the other hand, hasn’t yet accepted his new status as her former husband.
I met with Sally recently for a glass of wine. We became friends during the divorce process, and still are, despite that our business relationship has terminated. So I thought nothing of her invitation to get together.
We first exchanged pleasantries about how her practice has taken off since the divorce, i.e. since she’s been able to focus on it. We also, of course, chatted about our children; mine is 20 years older than hers. Perhaps because of that, she asked me for my advice on a number of child-rearing topics. Of course, my first tip is always the same: “trust your instincts. Everyone’s a parent for the first time at some point.”
Eventually, however, it became clear that the conversation had morphed into an interview for my tips on how to bolster her parenting relationship with her ex, without sending him the wrong message about her intent, i.e. that she was not looking to reinvigorate their romance. Here’s the list of the points I made; perhaps they will work for you, as well.
1. You can’t really co-parent until you’re done getting divorced. People don’t always decide at exactly the same time to get divorced. If you’re both done before you get that final decree, fine; you might start co-parenting then. But it’s not unusual that one is ready to divorce and the other is not. When that happens, if the final judgment is entered and he is still not acclimated to the idea, co-parenting will be difficult. The one who wanted the divorce has to wait for the other one to adjust. If you’re too nice, you send the wrong signal. So be patient, and be nice, but be firm. Don’t talk about “what went wrong,” don’t answer what he “might have done to fix things,” and don’t reminisce. In fact, until he’s over it, don’t talk about anything except issues involving your kids.
2. Understand that a parenting relationship is hard work. Just as you should commence your marriage with the idea that you will both work together on “being married” every day, so, too, you should commence your divorce the same way, committed to working on parenting your children together. As I’ve said about readying yourselves to marry, the same holds true post-divorce. Being parents together is not a state of being; it is a work in progress. And it is work. So don’t ignore problems when you first notice them. Work on them before they explode. Enlist the aid of a counselor. (A family or mental health counselor who specializes in divorce or parenting issues, or consider a parent coordinator, who specifically focuses on co-parenting issues). Getting counseling is not an admission of failure; it should be like signing up for guitar lessons or karate. If you can’t think of a good reason to go, go to work on your communication, problem-solving, and other co-parenting skills.
3. Decide to parent together. People often marry before they know their views on many parenting issues, much less each other’s. So take classes together on child rearing and on co-parenting. There’s a reason such classes are now offered. Get educated together. Read books. (Try Mom’s House, Dad’s House, by Isolina Ricci, or Mindful Co-Parenting, by Gaies & Morris.) Ensure that you both have the same information. Then decide together how you will handle complex issues, before they arise and become emotional. If both of you write the rulebook ahead of time, it’s easier to stick to it when problems crop up.
4. Eat a meal together occasionally. Let’s talk about “parenting together” again. Parenting is not easy, even when you’re happily married. When my daughter was still at home, my husband and I purposely scheduled dinner with each other, once a week, to talk about parenting issues. (Obviously, she wasn’t present for those meals. We pretended it was “date night” but you won’t need to do that; it’s “parenting night.”) Once you’ve both acclimated, breaking bread is a great way to make peace; it’s hard to yell at someone in a restaurant. And you’ve got to eat anyway, right? If you’ve remarried, include your children’s new stepparent, as well, in order to ensure that he, too, is on the same page.
He’s your children’s father; she’s your children’s mother. Be polite and be respectful. What were the qualities in him that attracted you to begin with? Now that you aren’t getting on each other’s nerves on a daily basis, take the time to appreciate those characteristics again.
5. Understand that your ex will not change. He didn’t change during the marriage and he won’t change after it, either. Now you know that you can’t live with his character flaws, but you do have to accept that they exist and work around them if you want to co-parent your children successfully.
6. Be nice. You’re not married to him anymore. You’re not even related (I hope), so treat your ex like you would a friend, or, if not that, then someone from work. He’s your children’s father; she’s your children’s mother. Be polite and be respectful. What were the qualities in him that attracted you to begin with? Now that you aren’t getting on each other’s nerves on a daily basis, take the time to appreciate those characteristics again.
7. Understand that you will disagree on something. Remember, you both want what’s best for your children. Hopefully, you share most of your views on parenting. But every once in a while, you won’t. What then? Is it a life or death decision? Generally, it is not. (If it is, the doctor may have to be the tiebreaker.) If not, pick your battles. Basically, you have two choices. You can agree to disagree, and one of you will decide. Does one of you have a background in medicine or education or religion? If so, you can agree that, regardless of what the specific issue is, if it falls into that category, that person decides it. Or you can try to address each one, working through your disagreements with solid communication and problem solving skills, or the help of a specialist or a counselor. And always, always, empathize; how would you feel in his shoes?
8. Don’t make assumptions. And, especially, don’t assume the worst. You’re not married anymore, so you don’t know what’s going on in his life. You have no context in which to make assumptions, even if that was a smart thing to do in the first place. Which we know it’s not. If something the kids say or do bothers you, don’t assume they saw or heard correctly; go to the source and ask him.
9. Don’t take it personally. You’ll be tempted to translate everything he says or does as criticism of you. Remember, his world no longer revolves around you; it’s therefore quite possible that his comment, as critical as it may sound, or his action, as painful as it may feel, has nothing to do with you. If you want to know for sure, again, you can always ask him. But don’t think it’s “about you”; it’s about him, about what’s going on in his mind. Don’t let his opinion rule you; don’t let it rattle your confidence in your ability to parent.
10. Bite your tongue. Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not always wise to speak your mind. When you want to say something that may be offensive or hurtful, unless you can achieve a greater good in saying it, why do that? Especially when you know that it’s not about what you say; it’s about what he hears. (And even if there is a greater good, there may be a better way to say it. Right?) Sometimes it’s best for your co-parenting relationship to say nothing. Let’s face it; you have to nurture this relationship more than you do most of your friendships. So take especially good care of it. And bite your tongue.
11. Life’s not fair, nor is it black-and-white. I’ve told my daughter this for years. You’ve probably told your kids the same thing. “Black and white” means there’s just one rule. All the rules apply to everybody. There are no exceptions. There is just one way to do things. It also means that life is predictable, that it’s fair and clear. But it’s not. Our lives are filled with “gray areas.” Sometimes different rules apply to different people, or at different times, or at different ages. Sometimes a situation is too complex and there’s no clear-cut right or wrong answer. Know this and accept that some things are gray. And sometimes life’s not fair. Live with it; take a deep breath and move on.
12. You can be each other’s best friends or worst enemies. This is the most important advice I can give you. If you realize this, then you can make being best friends (and ideal co-parents) your goal. Envision that as a reality and you can make it happen. Don’t allow the latter to happen by accident.
All of this advice, of course, ignores the questions and potential problems that arise when you stumble into that remarkable new relationship that assumes astonishing significance in your life, and therefore that of your children. But we can talk about all of that another time! J
About this week’s author: Joryn Jenkins.
Joryn, attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law while also serving as a full-time professor in law at Stetson University. She is a recipient of the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen award, an honor bestowed upon those who have provided exceptional leadership to The American Inns of Court Movement. For more information on Joryn’s professional experience, take a look at her resume.