By now, it is well known that giving children access to both parents is the best way to offset the negative effects of divorce.
Unfortunately, trying to co-parent can quickly become counterproductive if you and your ex have a high-conflict relationship – as is often the case following a breakup. Kids notice and react negatively to their parents’ disagreement from a very early age and that conflict can harm their physical and mental health whether or not their parents are married or even living together.
If you recognize that it isn’t possible to remain amicable with your former spouse, it might be a good idea to consider a parallel parenting arrangement. This model for high-conflict couples still puts children’s best interest first by giving them access to both parents, but minimizes the amount of contact former spouses have with one another.
Like parallel train tracks.
Parallel parenting is still a form of co-parenting, it just takes a different path to reach the same goal.
Traditional co-parenting is like a highway. The lanes are going in the same direction, but traffic is always weaving in and out of your way.
Parallel parenting, on the other hand, is similar to two sets of train tracks that are going in the same direction but never cross paths.
Clinical psychologist Kristine Turner explains it another way. She compares parallel parenting to the relationship teachers often have with parents.
“It’s kind of analogous to when kids go to school,” she said. “The teachers do the best they can trying to educate children, but they don’t spend a lot of time talking to parents on a daily basis about how to teach kids math or reading. They just go ahead and do it, and with relatively low interaction teachers are able to teach kids. Parents do parenting at home and it’s sort of this separate way of raising kids.
“That, in essence, is what parallel parenting is and that is often what we teach to higher conflict couples in the hopes that they can have less interaction with each they will have less conflict.”
More conflict equals more structure and less interaction.
The key to setting up a parallel parenting arrangement is acknowledging that you and your ex can only communicate in cases of emergencies.
That means you will need to go to great lengths to craft an extremely detailed parenting plan that specifies very specific times, dates and places for drop offs. It will need to outline who is in charge of major decisions – such as health and education decisions – if you aren’t in agreement on those matters.
You will likely need the help of a third-party facilitator to draft the initial agreement. This could be a childcare specialist, therapist, social worker or even a member of your church.
The more conflict present in your relationship, the more specific the details will need to be. The smallest details should be noted on a shared calendar so there is no room for flexibility or misinterpretation.
If you feel the need to communicate with your ex, it is helpful to utilize other forms of communication such as emails or letters. Remember, the whole point of this is to keep communication to a minimum so your children aren’t exposed to any marital discord.
It might also be helpful to keep a shared parenting notebook in which you and your ex write notes about your children’s behavior and pass the notebook back and forth.
It will be critical for you to accept the fact that you can’t control how your ex parents. You might disagree with their style, but as long as it isn’t putting your children in any harm, you can’t encroach. You are running parallel and independent households.
Leave the door open for traditional co-parenting.
Another benefit of parallel parenting is that it gives you and your ex time to heal. If you’re fresh off divorce, your emotions are still raw.
Eventually, you will recover and move on. As the years pass, those old wounds might start to heal and it might be possible to foster a more agreeable relationship with your former spouse, which would be even healthier for your children.
Regardless of what parenting arrangement you choose, it is important for you to take an objective look at your relationship and how it will potentially impact your children. As always, it is critical to put your kids’ interests first throughout the divorce process.