When it comes to reshaping a family through divorce, legal advice isn’t enough. People need to remain effective parents living apart too. There are many future hurdles to navigate: schooling choices, introduction of new partners and maintaining, above all, the integrity of your new family structure.
As a result, separating parents are often directed to many different professionals: Lawyers, Co-parenting experts, Mediators and Counsellors. But if these services aren’t carefully calibrated, they can undermine each other. What you need is a coordinated approach.
At The Divorce Surgery you won’t be surprised to hear we see a lot of separating families. It is obvious to us that there continues to be an unnecessary and outdated stigma surrounding divorce, and an assumption that it’s inevitably going to be acrimonious and awful for children in particular. But it really doesn’t have to be that way.
For most couples, the overwhelming priority will be to make sure that children are protected from any fallout, although of course this is easier said than done. ‘Co-parenting’ is the process by which separating couples agree to put the needs of their children first, by each parent playing an active role in their upbringing. The research suggests a clear link between the quality of the relationship between co-parents and the emotional wellbeing of their children. There really are tangible benefits to doing this well.
Of course every family is different, but we hope you might find some of these practical tips helpful in turning theory into practice.
Move on from resentment
It is perfectly normal to feel confused, angry or upset during divorce. But it is not ultimately useful. And it is crucial to remember that your own hurt feelings do not have to dictate your behaviour to your ex. It is perfectly possible to leave grievances at the door when it comes to making suitable arrangements for the children, indeed the Family Court will expect nothing less.
Keep in mind what you are actually trying to achieve from your separation. If your priority is maintaining stability for the children then by definition there is no room for other ‘priorities’, such as ‘not being walked all over’, or worse still, ‘getting even’. Above all, don’t involve the children in the adult dispute by, for example, getting your 10 yr old to ask your ex why he/she can’t come on that holiday you’ve been arguing about. Family Court judges take a very dim view of children being used in this way.
Divorcing couples rarely communicate brilliantly prior to separation, but it can get much harder afterwards. It is totally understandable that the emotional toll can make couples clam up. This can be exacerbated very quickly if you get into separate legal camps, speaking to your individual lawyers rather than each other. But at the end of the legal process the lawyers will go away, and you’ll be left alone to face the challenges ahead. If you have children, co-parenting is life-long. So get support early on to help you process the emotion – counsellors and life coaches can be fantastic, and use options which keep you talking, such as joint legal advice or mediation.
On a day to day practical level try to put in place some ground rules – how are you going to exchange information about the children, and how often? There are some excellent online tools that can help remove the friction that will inevitably arise between two households from time to time. Consider running shared diary software, so each of you can be in the loop about day to day arrangements, whilst minimising the chances of diary clashes.
Consider also what you don’t need to be in communication about. Depending on the circumstances, a full rundown of what your son and daughter had for breakfast every morning over half-term is probably overkill, likewise a blow by blow account of that graze on the knee. Of course it can be hard adjusting to the reality that your children will have two homes, but once you’ve taken the plunge the chances are it will soon get much easier!
Aim for consistency of approach between households. As any parent knows, children (and older ones in particular) can be masters at exploiting inconsistent boundaries (“But Dad said it was fine…”). Be vigilant that the broad messages they are getting are the same in each household. Again, keeping open lines of communication is key. Consider a parenting plan, in which the co-parenting principles you agree to abide by are recorded in a single document, with a copy kept by each of you.
But also be realistic enough to realise that part of working together is to accept that you and your ex will inevitably have some differences in parenting style: you are not the same human beings after all. Try to be accommodating and flexible about small differences of opinion about things that really don’t matter all that much. If you must disagree, keep your energy for more consequential things. Your relationship with your ex will be more respectful if you can manage this.
Anticipate how to make life easier for your children
Consider how all this works from the perspective of your children. What do they need to know, and what is it best they don’t know about your discussions with your ex? Handing children over between households can prove very problematic if not handled sensitively. Must you really resolve questions about parents’ evenings / who’s taking them to football at the weekend on the doorstep, or can you instead manage to deal with all those sorts of things beforehand, so that all that is needed at handover is a pleasant greeting. Children – any children – will want to see their parents co-operating when they see each other. Keep things simple, and plan how to do so.
Even the best-laid plans will need changing from time to time, as life moves in unexpected directions: perhaps an inconveniently timed job interview, or medical appointment. When this happens, it is rarely a disaster. Recognise how much you and your ex have got right by putting in place consistent and reliable child arrangements. Minor changes from time to time will not undermine that achievement, or the emotional stability you have given your children. Cut each other some slack, even if this comes at the cost of some personal inconvenience. Co-parenting isn’t the easy option. If you can provide practical support to your ex when he / she needs it, then you are investing in the strength of your parenting model for the future. And you can expect the same flexibility in return.
At The Divorce Surgery we always advise our couples to get not only shared legal advice, but also shared co-parenting advice, which is why we launched a Living Apart Parenting Together service. Whatever route you take, always consider getting some co-parenting advice alongside any other professional support you seek, as co-parenting is a lifelong commitment and the earlier you can up-skill and get effective strategies in place, the better.