When you go
to the library or browse through a book store, there are many books for
divorcing parents, most of which have some version of the following
message: “You must communicate with the other parent for the children’s
sake, no matter how you feel about him/her.” In this context,
communication usually means talking directly to the other parent.
is a useful, in fact helpful, message if parents are able to do so and
if talking together does not place the listener or their children at
risk. In high-conflict families, however, the message often remains the
same without regard to the realities of these families. In high-conflict
or abusive relationships, alternative interaction models between
parents are essential.
families need information and skill-building aimed at a more “direct
contact” mode of communication. In these families, parents can often
engage in frequent and direct dialogue; they can “co-parent”. Higher
conflict families need information about a “low- to no-contact” approach
between parents; they need to “parallel-parent”. Parallel parenting can
be compared to train tracks. The rails of a train track run
consistently side by side, never touching, yet still effectively helping
to move the train from one place to another. Similarly, parents can
parent in a parallel fashion, never communicating directly yet still
successfully raising their mutual child.
consistently indicate that divorce itself does not cause emotional and
behavioural problems in children. It is the degree of conflict that
determines the child’s adjustment. Parents must find some way to
cooperate to minimize conflict for the sake of the children.
often wonder how they can possibly cooperate during periods of high
conflict. But cooperation doesn’t have to mean being “best friends” or
even talking directly. Using distancing techniques such as respectful
e-mail, voicemail, or fax assists parents in maintaining the distance
they require from each other while still parenting effectively.
Separated couples do not necessarily maintain a constant degree of
conflict throughout the duration of the separation/divorce process.
families are engaged in high conflict in the early stages of
separation, especially when one partner did not want the separation.
Initial anger can be very intense. With time, some parents can move to a
lower-conflict relationship with more direct communication. Conversely,
some separations begin with little animosity, but conflict may increase
when difficult issues, such as the division of assets or new partners,
must be tackled. During times of stress and higher conflict, families
should revert to parallel-parenting techniques with lower or no direct
parent may experience more conflict and anger than the other. Even when
only one parent is in high-conflict mode, low- to no-contact techniques
are preferable to direct contact methods until the conflict/anger
subsides. When people communicate directly before they are emotionally
ready to do so, they will likely experience failure. Conflict may then
inadvertently increase. Research indicates that once people have tried
and failed to communicate, their ability and willingness to engage in a
non-conflictual, direct mode of communication subsequently diminishes.
In some cases, the angry treatment given and received completely impairs
the parenting partners’ ability to see themselves as anything but
enemies forever. If you are unable to communicate directly to your ex in
a civil fashion, do not let anyone talk you into it. The parent who is
able to engage in a more direct mode of communication often tries to
make the other parent, who is appropriately trying to distance
him/herself, feel guilty.
should not accept such guilt about not yet being able to talk directly
to the “friendly parent”. In fact, it is likely to be to your children’s
advantage for you to act cautiously and to engage in a low- to
no-contact communication mode when you are unsure that you can manage
your own anger.
the degree of conflict between separated/divorced parents may vary over
time, parents need to develop a range of options for communication,
including both direct contact and low- to no-contact strategies within
their parenting repertoire. It is useful for parents to re-evaluate the
conflict level regularly and to make adjustments in the amount of
contact between themselves accordingly.
you engage in co-parenting or parallel parenting, you can still be good
parents. Regardless of how close you are to your ex, you can still both
be very close to your children. And that’s what it’s all about.
is a counselor and the coordinator of the separation and divorce
programs at Jewish Family and Child Services in Toronto. She can be
reached at (905) 882-2331.