Cooperative Parenting Part III: Embracing a New Life
Sometimes during the separation period or soon after the divorce it’s hard not to hold on to the past – either wistfully, angrily, or something in between. In this third article on Cooperative Parenting we’ll look at why it’s important to let go of the past and how doing so will help you embrace your new life, especially your new parenting role.
It’s the most difficult role change for some. You might go days without seeing your child, then when they are with you, you spend a lot of time together – either because their stage requires you to or because you want to make the most of your time with them. When your child is with you, you act as both parents, making decisions on the spot that you once might have deferred to the other parent… and the same goes for your co-parent. There are bound to be situations where one person thinks a certain decision should be a joint one and the other thinks it’s a decision for the parent in charge at that moment. It’s one of the many times in co-parenting where minimal hostility and good communication is crucial. In general, there will probably be fewer shared decisions now than when you were married but be clear within yourself which decisions are up to each individual parent and which are joint decisions. Communicate with your co-parent about this (there will be opportunity to practice the skills of negotiation and compromise here) – it’ll greatly decrease conflict and hostility if both parents use the same guidelines.
You won’t just be making more decisions on your own when your child is with you – you will be doing things with or for your child that used to be in the other parent’s domain. If you’ve never been the cook in the family, you will be now. If you didn’t help with homework before, you will now. You will have to learn new skills and develop new routines which will help stabilize this new life for you and your child. Keep in mind that while the two households won’t operate identically, the more similar the rules and routines are, the easier it will be for your child to live in two places. Again, this will require respectful communication and negotiation between the parents.
This change in roles, as well as respectful communication and negotiation, is easier to do if you’ve let go of the past. For many people this involves grieving, a healthy process of accepting loss. Regardless of which partner initiated the divorce, you might be grieving the loss of intimacy with your ex, the loss of financial security or lifestyle, the loss of the dream of your ideal family life. Remember that your child is grieving as well – loss of routine, security, perhaps friends and school if he moved, and maybe things that can get lost in the shuffle of change and conflict – like favorite afterschool activities that don’t coordinate easily with the custody schedule. There are several stages of grief you might see in you and your child (and the other parent): shock, denial, guilt, anger, bargaining, depression, hope for the future, and finally acceptance. These stages aren’t necessarily sequential but it’s important to notice if you or your child seem to be stuck in one.
Moving forward will be easier if you are willing to acknowledge wonderful memories you had as a family. Depending in what way you are still holding on (angrily, longingly, sadly) this might feel very hard to do but those moments did happen and acknowledging them can help you heal. Forgiveness is another important component for letting go and moving forward. It doesn’t mean you condone whatever it is your ex-spouse did that hurt you, it means that you let go of the negative emotions toward them and think of them as positively as possible (this is where remembering those positive memories can come in handy). The more you hold on to anger, pain, vengefulness, being the victim, or a desire to win, the more conflict and hostility will enter the co-parenting relationship and negatively affect your child.
Think of it this way: the cost to you of holding on to the past is that the anger and sadness eat away at you, drain you of energy and happiness over time, damage your self-esteem and self-concept, and can interfere with future relationships. The cost to your child is that they will probably be caught in loyalty binds even if you try to avoid them, their relationship with one or both parents will be negatively affected, and their self-esteem and self-concept might be damaged since children view themselves as half one parent and half the other.
To let go of the past and embrace your new life you need to disengage from the other parent. People stay engaged primarily by either trying to hurt the other parent through revenge or angry conflict, or trying to take care of the other parent (outside of support agreed upon as part of divorcing, such as alimony) with the hope of reuniting or out of fear of the unknown. Both prevent you from truly moving forward wholeheartedly with your new life.
So, how to move forward? It’s simple but not necessarily easy. It starts with turning your mind – just deciding to let go of the anger, bitterness, sadness, hope, fear, and unfulfilled dreams. Start nurturing a curiosity and optimism about what your future might hold. Some people find that to do this they need to disengage physically from their ex-spouse – not see them, communicate only about the child and only through email and text, remove signs of them from the house (except for the child’s bedroom). It’s not recommended as a long-term solution since this kind of distance between parents can be damaging to your child, but it’s less damaging than hostility and constant conflict. It can be a critical first step to disengaging emotionally so that you can interact with your co-parent more effectively and healthily in the future. Many parents find that after this turning of the mind, performing a disengagement ritual eases the transition to the next stage. We have rituals for other life transitions (marriage, graduation, death) and they can be helpful with psychologically closing the last door and opening the next one. If you find that you are stuck in a stage of grief; engaged unhealthily with anger, fear, or unreasonable hope; or that the temporary disengagement from your co-parent goes on for more than a few months then you might consider seeing a divorce therapist to give you and your child the best chance of moving wholeheartedly into your new life.