How To Co-Parent Effectively After a Divorce
A 5-point parenting plan and Google Docs finally made us better parents to our twin boys
If my ex and I had focused less on ourselves, then we could have come to a better co-parenting model earlier. Thankfully, we did improve.
The rollercoaster ride for us isn’t over, but the ups and downs have gotten much smoother. This is what I learned along the way—including the advice I was given but didn’t take at the time.
Last month, I texted my ex-partner. The twins want gaming laptops. I think we should buy them one each for Christmas.
Within seconds she replied. Great idea. Perhaps we can meet up and select them together.
This is a fairly mundane text exchange. But for me and my ex, this was a huge step. And it showed the progress made over a long 10-year battle. One that involved anger, resentment, jealousy, and frustration. Plus several abusive messages.
After 10 years, we had finally learned to co-parent. And through this, I hope that anyone in a similar situation will be able to follow what I did and do likewise.
In May 2010, with our twin boys just three years old, my wife Heather and I decided to separate. It was an extremely tough decision, but we had grown so far apart, the relationship was barely functioning.
I had held on as long as I could, purely for my sons. I didn't want them to be part of a broken home. To be destined to move between their parents' houses for the rest of their childhood.
From a selfish perspective, I couldn't imagine not seeing them every day. Being apart and wondering what they were up to. I was worried this would make me less of a father. I wanted to be as involved in their lives as possible.
I didn't know how to tell them the news or if they would even understand. How could we bring up the subject and tell them mummy and daddy would no longer live together.
What followed next was the first sign that co-parenting after a separation would be hard. And it is something many people go through. According to the Stepfamily Foundation, “Sixty-six percent of couples who live together or are remarried will break up when children are involved. The majority of American families have shifted from the original biologically connected mother, father, and child.”
Two parents, two different paths
My day at work had been one of aimless procrastination, stressing how about to tell my children the news.
When I returned home to give the heartbreaking news, I saw the two playing happily together. I was teary-eyed, and with a deep breath, I told Heather that we needed to talk to them, and then I would pack my bags and leave.
With a dismissive tone, she said, “I’ve told them already. You can pack and leave now.”
I felt like I had been stabbed in the heart. Such an important family discussion had been held without me being present. What had she said? What were their reactions? Did she blame me? As a writer, I was used to controlling the narrative, but I had no idea what was said about me.
Furious and hurt, I packed my bags and left. Divorce is tough, but surely this was the worst possible start. And it was only going to get worse due to my inexperience in dealing with relationship conflict.
Co-Parenting — What NOT To Do
The first year of our separation was full of anger, resentment, and legal fights. Where we live, counseling is compulsory before any divorce is granted. We did the mandated sessions, which were futile. There was so much anger that the sessions weren't the least bit productive.
They descended into arguing and pointing the blame at each other before ending in frosty silence. Outside of the sessions were even worse.
I wanted equal time with my children, but Heather would only agree to a 70/30 share in her favor. On top of this, she was demanding hefty financial payments, which led to even more anger. I felt like I was being punished financially and emotionally.
This led to many angry text exchanges. I was letting emotion get the better of me, and this showed in my communication. Heather took a passive-aggressive approach, which led to me fuming and wallowing in self-pity.
We were both wrong, but neither would admit this or try anything different. The anger at each other was too deep, and this affected our parenting. Picking up the children from each other’s houses was an awkward experience for all four of us. The children would run from the car to inside the house to get the exchange over as quickly as possible. Every time I saw this, my heart broke.
Marriage and family therapist Dr. Juliana Morris gives the following advice: “Self-reflect and own your role in ending the relationship. When you are happier individually, it’s easier to co-parent with focus and intention.”
It is great advice and one that we wrongly ignored. We were stuck in a cycle of angry text messages and awkward drop-offs—a cycle that seemed to have no end.
Subsequently, we were each doing our own thing, independently of what the other thought or felt. And this is quite common. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, parents that share custody are “more likely to have detached, distant, and ‘parallel’ parenting relationships than to have ‘co-parenting’ relationships where they work closely together, communicate often, interact regularly, coordinate household rules and routines, or try to parent with the same parenting style.”
How We Changed Our Communication — The 5 Point Vision Statement
Breaking the vicious cycle was hard, but we needed to do it. I spoke to friends who had been through similar circumstances. I showed them the texts. They were shocked. It needed to change, and one of us had to be the first to do it. I decided to focus on five key factors that we could both work on.
1. Move past the hate
The first step was to overcome my hate for Heather. It wasn’t productive for anyone. I was angry, very angry, but I needed to let it go. Holding onto the anger was holding the co-parenting back.
The focus had been on my hate for Heather rather than my love for my children. Jennifer Hurvitz, the author of “One Happy Divorce,” advises that “when you are in a co-parent relationship, you have to love your children more than you hate your spouse.”
I decided to change my mindset for my kids.
2. Implement a business relationship
I decided to treat my relationship with Heather as a business relationship. It will be based on appointments, meetings, and updates, all without any emotion at all.
I needed to remove any hint of emotion from communication; anything that could be interpreted negatively or a perceived attack. It would be just the same way I would take to a client or work colleague.
I will pick them up at 3 p.m. on Monday.
Sam is unwell and is not at school today.
Noah has a party to attend on June 13
Short, simple, and factual. They would usually be met with replies of OK.
As ‘business colleagues’ we had a shared mission and goal and both agreed to work toward it.
3. Say YES more
Part of the negative cycle was spurred by my need to win every argument, every discussion, every point raised. It was like there was a fictitious scoring system, and I had to be ahead on the scorecard.
If Heather asked to drop the boys off at 5 p.m. instead of 3 p.m., I would say no, just for the sake of it. If I wanted to change days with her, she would say no. Our first and only reply to most requests was no.
Even for the small requests, we would say no. We needed a circuit breaker, so we decided to say yes unless there was a major reason not to.
This was the hardest step for us to implement. After years of saying no, it was a major change. At college, I had performed improv and the first rule we learned was to always say agree and say yes. I needed to remember my old improv ways and agree with Heather more.
4. Never criticize
One thing that flows from hate is the need to criticize each other. All this resulted in was the boys seeing their parents in a negative light.
Divorce and Parenting Coach, Rosalind Sedacca says, “When you put down their other parent, your children are likely to interpret it as a put-down of part of them. When both parents are guilty of this behavior, it can create great confusion along with a sense of unworthiness and low self-esteem. “Something’s wrong with me” becomes the child’s unconscious belief.”
We both agreed not to criticize each other in any way in front of the boys. Pointing out flaws in their mother was an easy game to play for me. Not saying anything or actually saying something positive was hard. But we agreed to try.
5. Children come first, second, and third
This should go without saying, but sadly we needed to say it. Sam and Noah's needs always had to come first, no matter how inconvenient it was for either of us. Once we learned to say YES more, this seemed to happen naturally, but we had to agree to write this down. Not just say these words but act on them.
As an example, I needed to make the changeovers a more positive experience. Excited to see your mother today? I bet she has some great activities planned! I promised to walk them to the front door and greet their mother with a polite hello and a smile.
I didn't want to, but their needs had to come above mine. And me sitting in the car and driving off as they ran to the door wasn’t a positive experience for them.
We both needed to suck it up.
And so, based on these five non-negotiables (and several weeks of messaging), we had a basic co-parenting plan in place that we both agreed to.
In business terms, it could be classified as our vision statement. Importantly, it was short and easy to follow.
The First Test of the New Plan
It was a few weeks later when the first test of the new plan came into play. I was driving my children to school when Noah said he had a joke for me.
“Great, tell me,” I said. He then told me an anti-Semitic joke. I was crushed. I am Jewish, and Heather isn't, which makes my son half Jewish. This joke was offensive to all of us. I asked Noah who told him the joke, and he said it was Heather’s partner, whom she was now living with.
I pulled to the side of the road, blood boiling, ready to send a lengthy text berating her and the ‘Nazi’ she lived with. I had to pull back and remember our new plan. I dropped the boys at school and went for a short walk to compose myself. I then went through our non-negotiables and decided to send a text.
Factual without emotion. No hate toward her or criticisms. A simple text requiring a simple action.
Noah told me an anti-Semitic joke that Bruce told him. Please find out if true and what happened.
I hit send and waited. Normally I would either get no reply or a reply saying I was wrong and causing problems.
OK. I will speak to him and the boys after school.
I was surprised and relieved. What could have been an inflammatory situation descending into insults and arguments was handled swiftly.
The next day I received:
I spoke to Bruce and told him what he did was wrong. I also explained to the boys why it was wrong. It will never happen again.
It was a big step forward for our new co-parenting attitude. And a big thumbs up to our process.
One small step for Ash and Heather. One giant leap for co-parenting.
Our Co-Parenting Bible
I never thought Google would make the best co-parenting tool we could use, but it did. Google Docs took us to the next level.
With a large volume of texts and emails being sent, it often led to schedule conflicts and the potential to get back to the negative cycle. Taking on the business relationship model, Heather suggested we move everything to Google Docs. We would have one Master Schedule that was rolling 12 months in advance.
It would list all major dates, where the boys needed to be, and any comments that needed to be made by either of us. Any requests to change the schedule would be made here in red. The other parent would then comment and (usually) approve in green.
It is a simple method but works very well. We now have spreadsheets for 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. We can also easily go back and see who the boys were with at any date and any past requests. Everything is tracked.
This helps diffuse arguments — for example, we can see who the boys spent their birthday with each year (something we rotate) or any other special occasion. Before we started using the Master Google Doc, there were enormous fights over this. It has removed any emotion as it is treated as a business document. Better still it has cut down on the incessant texts and emails
Now everything is recorded in perpetuity. It is a one-stop-shop for all our parenting requirements. I have a new partner who has become stepmother to my sons, and she also has access and input into the Document.
It isn't an understatement to say that this Google Doc has allowed us to become successful co-parents after years of frustration. When I win Father of the Year I will thank Google in my acceptance speech.
Two Parents, One Path to Success
The model has worked better than I could have imagined. It has cut down on texts and emails, and in turn, any arguments.
It has provided consistency for our children who are settled and performing well in school and their sports. They see parents united rather than divided.
We now share custody 50/50, which has been a big positive for my partner and me. I know many parents don’t get enough time with their children (I was one), so this is the biggest win.
We now also split all costs evenly, which in turn eliminates many of the arguments.
An example of success
Before our plan, we did parent-teacher interviews separately. Our hatred for each other on full display for teachers to see. They would meet with one of us to discuss our child's school results. And then on the next day meet with the other. It was a waste of the teachers' time to double up and illustrate that we weren’t on the same page.
Now we attend parent-teacher interviews together. Admittedly our chairs are as far apart from each other as the room allows (we were social distancing before there was social distancing!), but we’re present in the same room together.
Our pinnacle of success
The high point for our co-parenting was the four of us heading to a computer store in December to choose laptops for the boys. It was the first time we had done something like this for over 10 years. The boys were so happy to receive new laptops and see all of us involved in the purchasing and buying.
It was a simple thing that many families across the world do each day, but it was akin to scaling Mount Everest for us. Something that the four of us could never have imagined a few years ago.
It had taken 10 years, but we had a successful co-parenting model in place.
Key Factors in Our Success
It was a decade long process for us; I hope that anyone reading this going through a relationship breakup with children involved doesn't take this long. In summary, the factors that led us to success and I would recommend are:
- Moving past the hate and viewing your relationship as completed rather than failed.
- Remove all emotion from communication. Treat the relationship as a working relationship. You don’t need to be friends just amiable colleagues with the same ‘work’ goal.
- Always put the children's’ needs above your own.
- Pick your battles. Don’t focus on the small things.
- Have an easy to update system for communication. Google Docs is perfect for this.
- Keep it simple. Our plan had five key planks to the agreement that were easy to follow. And the Google Doc eliminated the need for messages and emails and made for an easy-to-follow schedule.
I will never be friends with Heather. But I will be a co-parent. And that, to me, is the most important relationship I can have with her.