Cultivating a Relationship as Co-parents After Separation*
A couple years ago, the garden in front of the building where I live had to be dug up. The rock wall was crumbling, and was no longer safe. The construction destroyed flowering bushes that had been there for years, and wildflowers that attracted bees and butterflies. It was really sad. The work took longer than expected, and that winter, the mice that had lived in the garden wall found their way into our home, ate our food, and nested in our walls. I felt like I was at war with rodents, which made it harder to accept the end of the garden that was. Two years later, new plants are growing, and the mice are gone. The transition was hard, and I still sometimes miss the plants that were there before, but I’m excited to see what will grow out of what has been cultivated.
The transition to a co-parenting relationship after separation isn’t that different.
When a relationship is coming to an end, many people wish they could walk away. But when there are children involved, this is not an option. A relationship with children is a relationship for life. When the romantic relationship can no longer grow, it will either grow weeds and wither, or it has to be dug up and replanted with something new. This is not a nice process. It’s heavy work, it looks messy, there's dirt everywhere and you find all sorts of things buried under the surface - roots, weeds, stones, bugs, garbage, maybe mice. It's uncomfortable and chaotic.
But it's also the perfect time to plant some new seeds - once the soil is turned over, stirred up and aired out, there's room for new life to grow: something different than expected but still worth tending to and hoping for.
The transition of separation is not an easy process. For parents, there are practical issues – where everyone will live; who will pay for school trips, clothes, and daycare; how to make decisions together. Even harder are the emotional issues – feelings of betrayal, loss of trust, hopelessness that you will ever communicate without yelling. It takes time, and lots of support. It’s also not linear. No matter how dedicated you are to growing more peace, there will be days (possibly months or years) when there is nothing but bitterness to plant.
But there is good news. When you start to get your hands dirty and into the muck, you can really begin to sort out what kind of relationship you want to grow. Sometimes you have to unearth what’s there to be able to have the conversations that are needed to make transition possible. Other times you have to let the ground sit empty until the toxins have cleared out enough to plant something new.
The following are some questions it might be helpful to ask yourself as you go through this transition.
Are you planting (at least some of) the seeds you want to be planting?
The anger and loss of separation often lead people to feel that it is easier to remember only all of the horrible things about their relationship. We tend to want to lash out when hurt, and so conflict often escalates. It’s a natural part of the process that most people need to go through, but sometimes it becomes entrenched and gets in the way of the possibility of something better. These are often the situations that end up in court, or lead to years of conflict and resentment. At each stage of the process of separation, ask yourself what you are planting. Are you growing more bitterness and conflict, or are you planting at least a few seeds that might grow into something better?
What do you appreciate about how you parented together in the past that you want to encourage to keep growing?
The end of a relationship doesn’t mean that everything you shared as parents has to end. Maybe there are aspects of parenting that you and your ex have generally been able to agree about. Maybe you both value the involvement of extended family, or agree that it’s important for your kids not to be overscheduled. Maybe you and your ex have always been good at being flexible when the other one needs a break, or has an unexpected commitment. Sometimes, there are family rituals or traditions that are important enough to find a way to continue them together, for example, trick-or-treating together, celebrating special holidays or birthdays, or going out for pizza after the school concert.
What new seeds do you want to plant?
Sometimes it’s easier to think about what you would prefer to be different, rather than the things you appreciate about how you parented together. This is not an invitation to complain about all the things that are wrong with your ex. That venting is very important and needs to happen, but is a different part of this process than what I am talking about. This is a question about what you would prefer to see in the future. How have you traditionally interacted in ways that don’t feel good, and how would you prefer those interactions to go in the future? What are some small steps you could take, or agreements you could put in place that would help those changes happen? If you feel stuck, can be helpful to think about this question with the support of a mediator, therapist, or coach.
What do you want your garden to look like in five, ten, or twenty years?
Think of your kids as the fruit of your co-parenting relationship. What do they need from their parents to be able to thrive? I often ask people to think about what they want their kids to say about how their parents got along after the separation, and what they think their kids need from both parents to be able to be happy and well in adulthood. Remember that this garden you are growing has a profound impact on their wellbeing. In five years, what will your children say about how successful you have been at keeping them out of the middle? How confident will they feel that they are loved enough to be prioritized over the conflict? When they have grown up and are living their own lives, how comfortable will they be to tell you about aspects of their lives that involve the other parent? Will they trust that they can invite both of you to their wedding or the birth of your grandchild, without worrying it will be tense or worse? Will they look back and feel you have taught them to have positive adult relationships, including how to end them respectfully when necessary? What do you want your kids to be able to appreciate about how they were parented? And what are the things you and your ex need to do now to get to that point?
Who are the people who will support you to grow the co-parenting relationship you want?
Transforming a painful relationship into something different is not an easy task. It takes persistence, planning, and a willingness to trust and take risks even when it doesn’t feel worth it. If you want to plant the seeds of a positive co-parenting relationship, but you feel you may be too lost in conflict, distrust, or difficult emotions, that’s when it might be helpful to bring in some support. Some separating couples see a therapist to help them sort out the pain of a relationship that is not what was hoped for, and to envision a future that feels positive for their family. Many co-parents go to a mediator to help them sort through the details to develop a parenting plan that helps them communicate and parent with respect. People who find ways to support each other as co-parents often made a commitment early in the separation to seek out the family or community members who would be steadfast in their support of a better co-parenting relationship.
What if the ground is too toxic to grow something better?
Then there are some relationships that are too toxic to grow things safely. Sometimes it might be necessary to take as much space as possible, and to establish parenting arrangements that minimize interaction, or are mediated by a parenting coordinator. In these cases, it might take longer to grow a better co-parenting relationship, or it might never happen, but there are often still ways to make it less terrible. Get the support you need to help you to avoid dumping more toxins into the soil while you wait for what's there to get to safe levels. Even that is a huge step in situations where conflict has gotten out of control.
Finally, as with gardens, relationships are living and dynamic things, and often have surprises waiting under the surface - a weed that turns out to have beautiful flowers, or a tree you don’t love that grows into a source of needed shade. Keep an eye out for unexpected overtures, or small signs that your co-parent may be open to a less stressful interaction. Sometimes it’s when we let go of our expectations and accept what’s there that the best things grow.
*Thanks to Sarah Kift for the inspiration.