Conflict & Parenting: Customize Your Post-Separation Parenting Relationship
By Elinor Gertner, MSW, RSW
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.
This 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.
Lower-conflict 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.
Studies 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.
Parents 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.
Some 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 contact.
One 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.
Parents 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.
Because 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.
Whether 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.
Elinor Gertner, MSW, RSW, is the Coordinator of the Changing Family program offered by the Jewish Family and Child Service in Toronto and Thornhill, ON.