When you separate from your partner, how can you transition most effectively from your formerly “romantic” relationship, to a reasonable and functioning relationship as co-parents of your children?
Although for a minority of separating families, this will not be possible (or appropriate), for the majority it will. The caveat, though, is that you’ll undoubtedly need to be prepared to put in some time and hard work to build a vision of what you want your children’s day-to-day experience to be like now that you have separated. You’ll also need to accept that each of you needs to work through the emotional stages that occur when a relationship ends, often on different timeframes. Approaching things in this way, well-informed and knowing what children really need in order to thrive, can help you to lay solid foundations for a co-parenting relationship that will serve your children well for the remainder of their lifetimes. It turns out that your children are affected not only by the quality of your individual relationship with them, but also by the quality of the parenting relationship you maintain with your child’s other parent. Investing in both relationships is key.
With the inevitable build up and ill-feeling a separation so often entails, it is understandable that you might initially consider it inconceivable that you can build a healthy post-separation parenting relationship with your child’s other parent – this feeling is completely normal and understandable. Perhaps you didn’t want the relationship to end, or perhaps you feel deeply wounded by the other’s actions and feel both you and your children have been badly let down. Perhaps you feel angry, or just plain relieved. Whatever you feel, it is likely your child’s other parent doesn’t mirror exactly the feelings you have about the separation. Whatever has happened that led to the end of your relationship, it is helpful to remember that:
• your child’s relationship with their other parent is independent of your feelings and needs;
• your child’s thoughts and feelings about their other parent, and their emotional needs, differ from yours.
In this blog, we consider a number of points to keep in mind as you work towards creating a parenting relationship that will provide your children with what they need to be “okay”. This will help them to continue thriving in childhood and just to be able to be kids, unburdened by the adult challenges surrounding them.
• When you separate, try to think about your perspective as well the perspective of your child’s parent. You may be the driver for the separation and may have been thinking about it for months or even more. When you share your desire to separate with your partner, it may be more recent news to them and understandably takes time to get used to and eventually accept. Considering one another’s roles and where you might be on the journey to acceptance and planning for the future can help you to show patience or tolerance, for example. Whether you initiate it or not, coming to terms with a separation isn’t a linear process, and parents tend to take a couple of steps forward with a step back here and there. Both being emotionally ready to talk about arrangements is the best place to be when you talk about children’s future living arrangements. Sometimes it’s helpful to look at an interim arrangement, let some time pass and then revisit the more permanent type arrangements once you’re both emotionally ready to do so.
• It is so important when you separate to protect your own well-being. You will often hear medical and other professionals using an aeroplane safety metaphor – put your own safety mask on first. If you are emotionally well, you can make calm and considered decisions about the future, support your children while they come to terms with the separation and attune much more effectively to their needs. Your support may come from family, a network of friends, a counsellor or a therapist. Investing in your wellbeing helps both you and your children and is to be encouraged.
• Take time to consider what you think a healthy post separation relationship should look like – actively create a vision. Consider and reflect on the values that were important to you as a family and those which you feel should encircle your children as they transition to a new life experience within two homes. Really thinking about this from a short, medium and longer term standpoint can help you both to focus on what is going to be the healthiest form of experience for your children. It can also help you optimise your own health, the wellbeing of the wider family and enhance the quality and success of your own future relationships, etc. Having this type of discussion in a professional setting with good quality professional support can help you both to begin communicating in a new way in your now exclusive role as co-parents.
• Imagine what the experience might be like for your children. While you will live in one home, children will shift between you both. What children can find difficult is having to live a parallel type existence in which they inhabit two worlds that are essentially independent and don’t overlap at all. For example, if a child senses one parent is struggling, they may not mention life with the other, may not give an honest account of it and may even say very different things to each parent about life in their other household. Children’s mental health and well-being is much enhanced if they are able to continue in one world that incorporates two homes, rather than feeling as though they are split in two. Allowing children to talk positively about their other parent and experience in each home, and being positive and constructive about the child’s other parent enables children to live unburdened by any adult issues. Approaching things in this way has been shown in studies to lead to better outcomes for children in the longer term.
• Setting appropriate boundaries in your relationship as co-parents is a really difficult transition and requires careful consideration and most likely some adjustments as you go. It is often helpful to think about a parenting relationship in terms of behaving to one another professionally as you may do to a colleague in the workplace. Generally, this involves sticking to polite, cordial, interested but not over-familiar exchanges. It is helpful if you can agree together what appropriate boundaries you can put in place in terms of your co-parenting relationship? It is also helpful to bear in mind what the other parent might need from you in order to best relax and ensure life in two homes for children is relatively unburdened. For example, if your former partner is very risk averse and you’re more laissez-faire or adventurous, try to think about what reassurances can help your child’s other parent, and in turn your children? This isn’t necessarily about control and it is more just about acknowledging our natural differences and working together to provide all round reassurances.
• When you are separating, place you, your former partner and your children’s well-being first and plan, where necessary with professional support, for the future. All parents are motivated to do the best for their children and invest a great deal of time, energy and financial resource into helping educationally, with activities, experiences and so on. If children are feeling compromised, however, they won’t be able to settle into any of those things to the best of their usual ability. If you are not able to work together directly to look at how to build a cooperative future, choose together to seek the right professional help to help you realise an outcome that reflects the experience you want your separated family to benefit from.
None of this is easy. Making a relationship that has broken work in another way whilst staying well yourself, attuned to children, re-grouping and rebuilding yourself is a great challenge. Break it down into manageable steps by looking at one thing at a time, acknowledging thoughts, feelings, small achievements and set-backs and find space to get the help you need. A great thing to bear in mind is Jack Canfield’s famous formula: event plus reaction = outcome. If there are events brought about by your former partner that you don’t appreciate during the course of your relationship breakdown or early co-operative parenting days, the events themselves may be out of your control. However, your reaction to them is not, and your own reaction can determine to a certain extent the ultimate outcome as well as the overall experience of the event for the children. Small changes you make in terms of your reaction to the event can in the end help shape positive changes in your parenting relationship for the future.