Raising children is tough. Now, add to that co-parenting dynamics and trying to raise children with someone you might not trust, respect, or otherwise be on the best terms with. Even in the most cooperative situation, co-parenting challenges arise.
Co-parenting conflict can result from several things, including different parenting abilities, parenting philosophies, logistics, leftover relationship baggage, and onward.
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The Invitation to Fight
When you and your co-parent do not see eye to eye on issues, you may find yourself getting worked up. From there you can easily fall into the trap of attending every fight your co-parent invites you to.
At times your co-parent might deliberately try to provoke you into a tussle. Goading can happen during verbal conversations or over email and text. When it does, you can feel attacked and criticized. It can feel very personal, and it can be hard to see the situation objectively.
Your mind might see it as a threat, which activates your body’s fight or flight response. This releases stress hormones that might affect your reasoning and it is a normal response. It can be difficult to stay calm and not take the bait.
However, reacting when emotionally activated is a bad idea.
Risks of Responding Negatively to Conflict With Your Co-Parent
When your co-parent has been successful at getting under your skin, your reaction is at risk of arising from your negative emotions, not logic, reason, or love.
The focus can slip to the dark side and become trying to “win” the argument or get a good dig in at your ex rather than finding solutions that are in your child’s best interest.
You rarely accomplish what you really want when angry, frustrated, anxious, scared, or resentful.
Negative emotions can blind you. They can make it impossible to see the big picture, the future and they do not help you make wise choices about how you should respond or what you should do.
When you are emotionally reactive and triggered, single-mindedness can take over. Your brain tells you not to waste energy considering options. Instead, it invites you to make a critical error, to take immediate action, even if that action might work against you.
Here is what your reactive brain might be thinking when faced with a routinely provocative, stubborn, uncooperative co-parent or conversations that heat up regularly and go in circles:
“I’m done. It’s time these kids knew the truth about their mother (or father).”
“That is the last time I will ever agree to anything they want.”
“I’m going to go for full custody. This is ridiculous.”
“Next time you need a favor, you can forget it.”
“These kids need way less time with them.”
Feeling triggered and emotionally reactive puts you in danger of doing something that counteracts your goals. This includes attacking back or taking impulsive action.
More specifically, when co-parenting conflicts escalate, your children risk being triangulated.
Triangulation in co-parenting refers to involving a child in disputes or communication between two parents and using the child as a pawn to try to get one parent to change their behaviour.
Triangulation can be highly damaging to kids as it puts them in the middle of their parent’s disagreements and creates loyalty conflicts.
If you need another reason why it is crucial to find a way to keep your cool and work through conflicts calmly and constructively wherever possible, here it is. Engaging in a fight or losing your temper allows your co-parent to use this as ammunition in court if there are ongoing legal proceedings.
Tips for handling emotions during conflicts
Here are some tips on how to make co-parenting easier and stay calm and not react to your co-parent’s invitations to fight:
Stay a step ahead
Recognize your co-parent’s provocation and do not accept it as personal. You know your co-parent well enough to recognize when they say something designed to get a rise out of you. Use that to your advantage to see the issue.
Stay grounded, and don’t take the bait. Make a conscious decision not to react. You are not obligated to argue and can always come back to the conversation later, ideally when both parties have a better head space.
Shut it down
If you feel yourself preparing for battle, end the conversation and give your nervous system a break.
“Taking the high road”, or trying to be the best cooperative co-parent you can, does not mean that you must stay in the ring and tolerate criticism, rudeness, and disrespect.
Continuing unproductive or destructive conversations will not serve any purpose and will only harm the relationship and your children.
Here are some words to try…
“I don’t think we will find common ground on this topic right now. Let’s take a break and continue this conversation when we’re both in a better state of mind.”
“Let’s take some time to cool down and come back to this later.”
“This isn’t productive. Let’s come back to this at a later time?”
“I’m going to step away from this conversation. I will get back to you.”
The key is to remain calm and composed and to be clear and direct in your communication.
Focus On Your Kids
Think hard about your children’s needs before attempting to re-enter the discussion with your co-parent.
Lead with your children’s needs and frame your communication focused on finding a child-centered, best-interest solution.
It takes both calm and wisdom to separate what you might want from what might be suitable for your child(ren).
Consult your “Yoda”
Seek the thoughts of someone you trust who will offer you a listening ear, support, and a grounded, objective perspective.
Bounce your potential response to your co-parent off them. Have them read your draft and invite their reasoned response.
Attempt to Understand Your Co-Parent’s View
Your co-parent is coming from a different perspective than you are.
This does not mean that you must agree with them, cave in, give up or accept disrespect, but it means that you at least try to wrap your head around why your co-parent sees things and behaves the way they do.
Doing so might help you to understand their perspective and communicate more effectively.
Doing this from a compassionate perspective rather than a judgemental one can be profoundly beneficial to your children.
Your children need to make sense of their other parent’s behaviour too, and cultivating compassion for others contributes to emotional stability and happiness.
However, if your co-parent’s behaviour is abusive to you or your children, cultivating empathy and rationalizing their behaviour is generally not in your or your children’s best interest. Seek guidance, as dealing with someone abusive requires caution.
Set some boundaries that serve to protect your well-being. For example, you could advise your co-parent that you will only discuss parenting-related issues during designated times and not during exchanges of the kids or at shared events. You could notify your co-parent that you are willing to discuss parenting issues in writing only.
Make a deal with yourself that you will avoid discussing sensitive topics or making major decisions when you are feeling upset and stressed.
Remind yourself that this conflict might not be as important as you initially thought in the grand scheme of things and that it won’t last forever.
One way to get some perspective is to ask yourself if the issue you and your co-parent are in conflict about and the resulting decision will matter one day from now, one week from now, one year from now, etc.
Work hard to avoid being pulled into the negativity that can bleed into other areas of your life. Prioritize self-care.
Make sure to take time to do things that make you feel good and are good for you.
Try to focus on the positive aspects of your life rather than the pinch points with your co-parent.
If you’re constantly arguing with your co-parent and struggling to stay calm, it may be helpful to seek professional help.
A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help you to deal with the situation and find ways to cope.
Model Healthy Communication and Problem-Solving Skills for Your Children
While it might relieve stress momentarily to blast your co-parent with what you think about them and their ideas, it does not serve you or your children.
When you can stay calm and non-reactive, you’re modelling healthy communication and problem-solving skills for your child(ren) even if, hopefully (🤞), they are not directly listening to these conversations between you and your co-parent. They will however hear conversations you have with other people where you show off those calm, productive, respectful problem-solving skills you have aquired. After all, you are bound to be a champ, given the practice you have with your co-parent.
Children learn how to handle difficult situations by observing how their parents handle them making them more likely to develop similar skills.
Co-parenting can be challenging.
If you feel like your co-parent is constantly trying to start arguments with you, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of the moment and accept your co-parent’s invitations to fight.
When you feel triggered and emotionally reactive, the draw to relieve your discomfort in ill-mannered and impulsive ways will be strong.
Taking your co-parent’s bait is a set-up to lose sight of everyone’s well-being and work against your separated family’s best interests. That means it’s crucial to find ways to stay calm, think clearly and not react to your co-parent’s provocations.
If you’re struggling to resist your co-parent’s goading, seek professional help. A licensed mental health professional can assist you in learning how to better deal with your emotions and cope with these truly difficult situations.
Glenda Lux. M.A. R. Psych.
If you are the recipient of threatening texts, are in fear, or feel unsafe in general, seek help immediately. Abuse is not the same as an argument or disagreement. Contact your local domestic violence support center or online resource. Domestic abuse does not end just because the intimate relationship has ended. Domestic violence is much more than physical. Educate yourself about intimate partner violence, post-separation abuse, and coercive control.