ABCs of Co-Parent Communication
Communicating peaceably with a co-parent who has lost your trust or rejected you may be one of the most difficult things you ever have to do. After all, your differences with them were deep enough to dissolve the relationship. Now, they may be living by values you disapprove of (they might even have completely changed their values from something you used to agree on). Maybe they are exposing your children to things you wish they wouldn’t or treating them in ways that make you really uncomfortable. Perhaps you feel betrayed. Your children need them to be better and they refuse. Isn’t that a good enough reason to fight?
Actually, your kids are a good enough reason NOT to fight.
The truth is, when you attack your co-parent, you hurt your kids. Even if you're in the right and your co-parent is a washed-up mess. Even if your kids are so frustrated right now that they act like they hate the other parent, their personal sense of identity and confidence in adulthood will depend to some degree on their ability to make peace in that relationship. Ample research shows that parental conflict does damage to kids.
Additionally, the more energy you spend on fighting, the less either one of you has to give to them. That’s why it’s worth the effort to find a way to get along.
We’ve been there too, so we know how hard it can be to change habits of negative communication and even to recognize what might not be helpful. For that reason, we’ve created this guide explaining our reasons for filtering certain content and offering alternatives that you might find helpful for replacing contention with respect. Please click on the problematic expressions illustrated below to read tips for managing the situation productively.
Category A: Assumptions
Category B: Blaming
Category C: Criticism
Category D: Dictating
Category F: Flooding
Category K: Kids As Weapon
Category P: Punishing
Category H: History
Category N: Namecalling
Category R: Romance
Category S: Shaming
Category T: Threats
Category U: Unsolicited Advice
Changing the communication patterns between you and your co-parent might be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. It was for us, and it took years. So congratulations for even being here and reading these tips all the way to the end. Please don’t expect yourself to get it all right, right away. It will take time and we’re here to help. So cut yourself some slack if your messages are getting filtered and know that it’s going to get better as long as you’re committed to building a healthy relationship with your co-parent. We’re honoured to be on this journey with you.
Category A: Assumptions
When somebody does something that causes a problem for us, it’s tempting to assume that they did it negligently or maliciously. We think they either intended to cause us pain or inconvenience, or that they’re so self-absorbed they didn’t even consider the impact of their actions on us or the kids. If their behaviour patterns fit with our assumptions about their motives, we can pretty thoroughly convince ourselves that we have their motives nailed. Here’s the problem: we don’t actually know why they did what they did, and reflecting to them their worst possible motive actually makes things worse. The truth is, we all do harm in relationships, and the vast majority of the time, we tell ourselves a story that justifies our actions and casts ourselves as the hero. So, when we assume the worst about somebody else’s motives, we appear to them to be persecuting them and not giving them the credit they deserve. That invites them to see us as an enemy and react in kind.
Alternative Strategy: Responding to Better Intentions
Instead of assuming and implying ill intent, try hunting for better intentions that may have influenced your co-parent, or even imagine a scenario in which they might have been trying their best. Here are a couple of examples: Maybe the reason they keep trying to reduce your parenting time is not because they want to block you out of the kids’ lives, but because they actually believe you are trying to turn the kids against them. Or, maybe the reason they showed up late for pickup was not just to interfere with your plans. Maybe they had an anxiety attack just when it was time to leave, and they got there as quickly as they could get themself calm enough to drive. Try imagining a scenario that activates your compassion instead of your anger. Then communicate in a way that would be supportive if that compassion-building scenario (however unlikely you think it actually is) were true. It won’t change what’s happened, but it will change how you respond to it. And, over time, your compassion might actually reduce your co-parent’s defensiveness and make it easier to problem-solve together.
Category B: Blaming
When something unfortunate happens, most of us tend to do two things: we want to make it clear that it’s not our fault, and we look for somebody else to blame. That’s especially tempting when the somebody else is someone we already wish would change. So, for example, when Johnny gets in trouble at school for bullying his classmates, it’s natural to want to tell his other parent that their harsh disciplinary tactics are the cause of the problem. Maybe they’ll finally listen. But this tactic doesn’t work and just makes things worse. Rather than admit to contributing to the problem, the other parent is likely to blame Johnny’s behaviour on the “permissive” parenting he gets at home. Everybody is pointing a finger at somebody else, and nobody’s taking responsibility to help solve the problem.
Alternative Strategy: Solution Seeking
Instead of blaming your co-parent for what happened, try putting aside questions of fault and inviting your co-parent to be a part of finding a solution. In Johnny’s case, for example, you could say something like, “I noticed Johnny’s report card mentioned some bullying behaviours. I’d like to meet with the school counselor and make a plan for helping him. Would you like to be there as well?” Once your co-parent has been invited to become part of the solution, they’re much more likely to take the situation seriously and to actually take action to improve the situation.
Category C: Criticism
Maybe your co-parent has done some really stupid, irresponsible, unfair or even dangerous things. It’s driving you nuts. You feel like you need to point it out and tell them exactly how they were wrong and what they should have done instead. Or maybe you feel like making a sarcastic comment that looks appropriate on the surface, but that you know is going to sting. Here’s the problem: when you criticize or engage in sarcasm, they just start arguing and defending themselves. Maybe they start criticizing you and pretty soon, you’re worse off than when you started.
Alternative Strategy: Appreciation and Non-Judgemental Requests
It’s a truism that what we focus on, expands. If you focus on your co-parent’s irritating behaviours, pretty soon, irritating behaviours are all they seem to give you. If, instead, you acknowledge the good they’re doing, pretty soon, you’ll be noticing more and more good. And there’s a good chance that it won’t be just because you’ve changed what you’re focusing on – that they will actually grow in confidence and capacity and be doing more of the things you appreciate. So, when you’re tempted to send an angry email, criticizing all those things they did when the kids were with them, you might try a life-changing experiment instead. Try digging deep and telling them you appreciate something they’re doing right. Don’t say anything else right now. Just let them know that their strengths are being seen. And if they bristle in response, thinking you’re being sarcastic or there’s a hidden message, be patient. It might take a little while before they believe that you mean it.
That’s not to say you can’t address genuine problems when they arise. It just means that problems need to be addressed in a way that isn’t judgmental and that focuses on solutions. Here is a proven formula called Nonviolent Communication for addressing difficult issues:
Make a neutral observation about what happened (you’re just stating the facts of what happened without any language that attaches blame or judgment);
Identify your emotions when that happened (use raw emotions instead of victim statements, for example “hurt, scared and disoriented” instead of “betrayed”; or “sad and defensive” instead of “attacked”);
Identify your unmet need that caused you to feel those emotions; and
Make a forward-focused request that would meet your need.
When you dropped Ashleigh off early without notice,
I felt distressed and worried
because I feel a need to really be there for her emotionally, but I wasn’t home when she might have been feeling sad.
Would you be willing to give me an hour’s notice if you ever have to drop her off early again?”
Note: Nonviolent Communication has been used effectively in war zones and prisons. Here are some resources that provide more information and can help you put it into practice.
Category D: Dictating
It’s easy to play the dictator when we’re worried about our kids. We wind up trying to control each other by making demands or dictating how things will be. This doesn’t work because it ignores the fact that you and your co-parent are equals. Even if you have sole custody, that doesn’t give you control of the other parent. Any effort to force them to do what you want is probably going to turn into a power struggle. And then, you’re likely to both lose perspective, focusing on the demands of your offended egos instead of on the best interests of your kids.
Alternative Tactic: Equality
Instead of dictating to the other parent, try treating them as your equal. Remember, it’s the parenting order, not either one of you, that’s in charge. And it’s possible for intelligent people to understand the same parenting order differently. So, instead of saying, “According to the order, you have to….” try saying, “I understand the parenting order to require …” Instead of saying, “You can’t have the kids until 6:00,” try saying, “I will be able to bring the kids at 6:00.” Focus on what you can or will do, that’s within your role as their equal, rather than telling them what they can or cannot do.
Category F: Flooding
Sending repeated requests for the same thing, over and over, when your co-parent hasn’t responded or has said no, can be harassing. It’s hard when the reason you’re repeating yourself is because they haven’t responded and you’re trying to plan. But respect for them as an equal means allowing them time to respond on their schedule
Alternative Tactic: Share Your Timeline and Offer Your Plan
What you can do instead is fill your co-parent in on why you need their response in a timely manner. If they don’t reply, check in one more time and fill them in on what you plan to do (in the best interests of the kids) if you don’t hear back in time. Then, if they still don’t reply, do that thing you said you would that does not infringe on their parenting. For example, “Taren’s been invited to his best friend’s birthday party on Friday after school. The party ends at 7, but you normally pick him up at 5:00. I need to RSVP by tomorrow, and I’m thinking maybe you could pick him up at his friend's place instead of at our normal meeting spot?” Then, if the co-parent doesn’t respond, a follow-up message could be, “Just checking in again about the birthday party. I’m about to RSVP and assume it will be okay for you to pick him up at his friend’s place.” In this case, the other parent is free to pick Taren up at the regular time or when the party ends, so you aren’t infringing on parenting time.
Category H: History
We’ve all made mistakes and need to be able to move forward from them. That’s hard to do when somebody keeps rehashing them. So bringing up negative history is generally not a helpful move. But sometimes, your current position is heavily affected by something that happened in the past. So how do you address that?
Alternative Tactic: Express Current Concern
Generally, you can express the thing you’re worried about without needing to remind your co-parent about the big mistakes they made in the past that contribute to your anxiety. For example, rather than saying, “Are you kidding? The last time you took Tilney to Vegas, you got stupid drunk, stole the money I sent with her, and left her alone in the hotel while you partied!” you could say, “I’m not comfortable giving permission for you to take Tilney to Vegas for New Year’s. That’s a big party time and I’m not sure that she’ll feel safe.” If your co-parent asks why you’re not sure she’ll feel safe, then you could bring up what happened last time. But even then, you’ll want to communicate what happened in a manner that focuses on Tilney’s needs rather than on your co-parent’s bad behaviour (“Last time Tilney was in Vegas, she wound up stuck alone in a hotel room, without money or any way of getting help in a strange city.") You will also want to avoid mentioning the many other mistakes they’ve made that really have little to no bearing on the current situation.
Category K: Kids As A Weapon
Kids of divorce tend to feel torn between their parents at the best of times. When their parents use them as a weapon against each other, they can feel like they’re being torn to pieces. Even if it’s true, telling your co-parent that their children are mad at them (or will be if they do that clueless thing they’re considering), is using your kids as a weapon against them. So is withholding parenting time because they are behind on child support, telling them their kids don’t want to see them, or milking your kids for negative information that you can confront your co-parent about. Anytime you try to manage your kids' relationship with their other parent, you’re trespassing on territory that is not yours and it will cause problems. Even if your motives are good, even if you’re trying to protect your kids by voicing the difficult emotions they are afraid to tell your co-parent, your co-parent will probably see it as an attack from the enemy. If your kids don’t want to see them, they will assume it’s because you’ve been actively inflaming their anxieties or encouraging them to tell you no. The more you try to manage that relationship, the worse it’s likely to become.
Alternative Strategies: Teach Relationship Skills to Your Kids; Involve Third Parties As Needed
Your kids and your co-parent have a better chance of building a healthy and working relationship with each other if you back out of it completely. If they are having a problem with their other parent, that communication needs to happen between them and their other parent, without you being in the middle.
What you can do is teach your children the skills to practice boundaries and communicate their concerns in their relationship with you. If you empower them with the ability to practice these skills with you, informing you when they are uncomfortable with something you're asking of them, they will be better able to apply them with their other parent. The nonviolent communication techniques mentioned under Category C: Criticism can be helpful here. These additional videos give tips for practicing nonviolent communication with young children.
If your children need adult support to communicate their needs and feelings to their other parent, you can say something like, “I’ve got some concerns about whether the kids are being heard, but I realize it isn’t fair for me to get in the middle between you and them. Is there somebody you would trust to talk with the kids and find out what it is they’re wanting?”
Category N: Name-Calling
Name-calling is like criticism. It makes troubling behaviours more instead of less likely to continue. And it puts your co-parent on the defensive, so cooperation becomes next to impossible. That may be hard to remember because we live in a society that encourages calling out offensive behaviors or attitudes. But putting a racist, sexist, irresponsible, or other label on your co-parent does nothing to improve their attitude or the situation. It just ensures that your communication won’t be productive.
Alternative Strategy: Non-Violent Communication
The nonviolent communication techniques mentioned in Category C: Criticism work equally well here. Remember to be non-judgmental and to follow the four steps of NVC when communicating about the issue:
Make a neutral observation about what happened – “When you said Livvy can do the dishes because she’s the girl,”
Identify how you felt or feel – “I felt concerned and deflated”
Identify your unmet need that caused those feelings – “because I feel a need for Livvy to understand that her time is just as valuable as anybody else’s and she can pursue whatever career she might want.”
Make a forward-focused request – “Would you be willing to give the kids equal responsibility for the chores, without making a distinction between boys’ work and girls’ work?”
Category P: Punishing
When your co-parent does something that distresses you, it’s pretty normal to feel an urge to punish them for it. Maybe they’ll learn not to do that if you give them a consequence everytime it happens, like reducing their parenting time or delaying support for a few days or something else that really gets to them. But this doesn’t work. Punishing your co-parent is a way of trying to dominate the relationship. It says you are in charge of them, instead of acknowledging them as an equal. And it takes a remarkably mature co-parent not to feel like the only way they can resist your domination is by punishing you in return.
Alternative Strategies: Equality and Healthy Boundaries
Remember that your co-parent is your equal and it’s not your job to teach them anything. They will be who they choose to be. Your job is to facilitate your children developing a healthy relationship with them. And it’s to take care of your own resources and responsibilities. Instead of saying, “I’m holding onto support for an extra week this month so you can learn some responsibility. I can’t believe you washed Jordan’s white Gucci T-shirt with your red socks!” you might choose not to send expensive items of clothing to the other household. If asked about it, you could say, “That favourite piece of clothing needs special care and I’m more comfortable keeping it here.”
Category R: Romance
Maybe you aren’t on board for the separation between you and you would like your co-parent back. Maybe if you remind them about all the good times and tell them how much you long for them, they’ll give you another chance. Whether or not that will ever be possible in the future, it's not right now. They’re not willing as evidenced by the fact that they’ve signed up for this service, and unwelcome romantic overtures would be inappropriate. So would any discussion of your sexual history or your experiences with somebody new. Those are intimate issues that don’t belong in conversation with someone who isn’t willing to talk without an intermediary.
Alternative Strategy: Respect
Even if you are prepared to go to the ends of the earth to change your co-parent’s mind, there is nothing you could say right now that would heal a relationship that they have rejected and bring them back. What you can do is forget about reclaiming the old relationship and start working on building a healthy new one. That means respecting your co-parent’s boundaries. It means studying all these alternative strategies and putting them into practice. When your co-parent knows you respect them, because you’ve proven it over time, they might be able to take down the filters and become ready to interact with you face-to-face in a productive co-parenting relationship.
Category S: Shaming
When you are disappointed by something your co-parent just did, and they don’t seem to recognize or admit that it’s even a problem, it can be tempting to rub their noses in it. For example, you might feel like saying, “I can’t believe you didn’t care enough to come to the kids’ Christmas concert after you promised that you would. Every other kid in their class had both parents there. Your kids were the only ones who only had one. If you ask me, that’s pretty pathetic.” This might relieve your feelings, but it doesn’t fix the disappointing behaviour. Instead, your co-parent is likely to get defensive and either deny their behaviour, blame it on somebody else (“I’d have been glad to be there if it didn’t mean I had to be in the same room with you”), or insist there was no harm in it.
Alternative Strategy: Non-Violent Communication.
The nonviolent communication techniques mentioned in Category C: Criticism work equally well here. You can get a brief written summary of them here and/or watch these videos. Remember to be non-judgmental and to follow the four steps of NVC when communicating about the issue:
Make a neutral observation about what happened – “When the Christmas concert ended and you had not arrived,”
Identify how you felt – “I felt disappointed and angry”
Identify your unmet need that caused your feeling – “because I feel a need for our kids to know that you care about them.”
Make a forward-focused request. For example, “When you can’t make an important event, would you be willing to give them advance notice and arrange some other special outing as an alternative?”
Category T: Threats
This section is not about threats of violence. Those go straight to the police. But this category is about the kinds of threats you might find yourself making when your co-parent has been doing something or plans to do something that must not happen or that has to stop. That’s when you’re tempted to pull out the big guns and threaten them into submission. You might want to say, “I don’t care how ‘sick’ you say Trenton is. If you don’t put him in the car right now and bring him for my weekend, I’m calling my lawyer and I’m going to get sole custody.” That threat might be enough to get you the care of your son for the weekend, but it entrenches your relationship with your co-parent in a war zone, with your kids caught in the cross-fire.
Alternative Strategy: Invite Cooperation to Avoid Escalation
There are times when it’s totally appropriate to go to the police for enforcement or to launch legal action. But those sorts of actions need to be a last resort, after you’ve tried to resolve a situation collaboratively. So you want to lead with your desire to sort this out between the two of you, instead of resorting to the big guns. You might say, “I’m not okay with the way my parenting time with Trenton has been canceled for the last three weekends. It’s important for him to have the time with me that he’s entitled to under the parenting order. And I am happy to adjust my weekend plans so that I can take care of him while he’s sick. Can we work this out between the two of us, so that it doesn’t have to become a legal issue?” This signals that you want to work out a solution collaboratively, but if your co-parent is not, you are willing to resort to a legal challenge.
Category U: Unsolicited Advice
Maybe you’ve noticed that your co-parent is a little clueless about some things. Maybe you have some hacks that would help them with their housekeeping, financial management, disciplinary tactics or something else. You might just want to help. But all your co-parent hears when you try to share is criticism. They probably think you’re saying “You’re not very good at this and I’m better, so you should take lessons from me.” So those cool tips you were trying to share don’t even register. For example, if you say, “I’ve noticed the kids’ stuff is all over the house whenever I come to pick them up. When they’re with me, I have them play with one thing at a time and put it away before they can play with something new. It works really well” all they hear is “Your house is a wreck and you’re a lousy housekeeper. Too bad you’re not as good as me.”
Alternative Strategy: Appreciation
Appreciation: As with Category C: Criticism, this is a good time to practice reflecting to your co-parent the things they are doing well. For example, instead of commenting on the disorganized house, you could say, “You seem to be really flexible and able to adjust to whatever the day throws at you. I think that’s a big bonus in Riley’s life.” Letting your co-parent know you appreciate their strengths (especially areas where they may be stronger than you) reassures them that you’re not trying to cut them out with their kids, so they can feel like you’re on the same team instead of in competition with each other. The truth is, they probably already know where their weaknesses are, and where you’re stronger than them. And if you ask for tips about what they do well, they might even arrive at a place where they ask you for tips about your areas of strength.