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Conscious Co-Parenting After Divorce

Divorce scars your children for life, goes the great misconception. Psychotherapist Dr. Marcy Cole knows different; part of her LA-based practice focuses on coaching ex-partners through co-parenting their kids in ways that reaffirm how much they are loved, protect their well-being, and strengthen their ability to overcome future adversity. Cole explains what it takes to stay a family in the immediate aftermath of a separation and how to go about creating a happy, even sane new normal (essential tools for exes and stepparents included):

A Q&A with Marcy Cole, Ph.D.

Q

What’s the greatest misconception about divorce?

A

That it stunts a child’s emotional development or their quality of life. Hearing that your parents are going to divorce is sad and traumatic. Every child assumes that the two people who loved each other enough to bring them into the world will love each other and live together forever. That said, divorce itself does not scar a child for life; rather, it is disengagement that can do so.

If one or both parents are preoccupied with their own internal struggle, or if they’re too focused on projecting blame onto the other, they may withdraw the focused attention their children need. This often leaves children feeling abandoned by a dismantling family system and alone with their feelings. When children do not have adequate emotional support to help shepherd them through this challenge, they often disengage from their own feelings. But what we resist does persist: Suppressed confusion, sadness, anger, and grief can linger for a very long time if children aren’t given time and space to express, release, and heal.

“While couples often ‘stay together for the children’s sake,’ children do not thrive emotionally or truly feel ‘at home’ when exposed to chronic conflict, estrangement between parents, or disengaged and dysfunctional role modeling.”

In order to heal, develop resilience, and continue thriving, their feelings need to be heard and attended to. It’s important to keep this observation and conversation going throughout childhood. As children from divorced homes go through various developmental stages, they deserve continued attention and assistance to help them process various issues that arise.

It’s also important to recognize that while couples often “stay together for the children’s sake,” children do not thrive emotionally or truly feel “at home” when exposed to chronic conflict, estrangement between parents, or disengaged and dysfunctional role modeling. Under those circumstances, assuming both parents remain emotionally available to their children, divorce (albeit not ideal) can actually be the most beneficial road for the child’s optimal well-being.

The primary goal of parenting is to create a foundation for your child to become a well-adjusted, independent, confident, and connected person. Divorce is never the chosen blueprint—it’s usually interpreted as an impediment to your child’s best interest. But if divorce is handled with mutual compassion, grace, respect, and patience, the experience of moving through it can offer your children tools to help them navigate future trials and tribulations—skills for problem-solving, conflict management, mindfulness, and resilience. This can actually strengthen their ability to overcome adversity later in life.

Q

Do you think co-parenting is also misconstrued?

A

Co-parenting after divorce is often assumed to be contentious for the parents. Once you’ve lived life as a family under one roof, co-parenting while physically separated can feel overwhelming, and it can also be hard to imagine working together in a way that does not compromise consistency, security, and connection with your children. But even if the marriage was not a forever fit, each person has the power to choose a co-parenting partnership that reflects and expresses their best self. I always remind the parents who are coming to work with me—before, during, or after divorce—that they are in each other’s lives forever. It can be hard or easy, discourteous or respectful, rigid or compromising. For all concerned parties, it’s a conscious choice to take the high road.

Q

What are the most common challenges divorced parents face?

A

Dealing with Grief

When divorce occurs, each family member experiences some form of grief—whether they are aware of it or not. When couples first fall in love, they usually do so with a full and open heart, as well as a vision for an everlasting love affair that feels safe, loving, and joyful. As the relationship deteriorates, there is usually profound disappointment and sadness. Grief is often camouflaged by anger, which can manifest as depression or escalate conflict through projection and/or blame.

Overcoming Guilt

Many clients I see have internalized feelings that they’ve “failed” at marriage. They also harbor a great degree of guilt when it comes to their children, feeling double heartbreak: the kids’ and their own.

Staying Centered

So much of navigating life is figuring out how to stay centered in the face of transition or interpersonal conflict. When people are going through divorce, especially in the early phases, it can be quite destabilizing.

Conflict Resolution & Respectful Boundaries

A recent client told me that he was distraught that his ex-wife constantly undermined him in front of their kids. Many people going through divorce are still processing feelings of disappointment, anger, and resentment toward their partner. If we do not process these feelings in a healthy manner, with appropriate supportive outlets (i.e., therapists, trusted confidants, or grounding solitude), we can cause emotional harm and distress to our children by unnecessarily exposing them to these unresolved feelings and conflict.

Determining Custody & Time Management

Most divorce cases end with shared custody. This is new territory: When children are being shuffled from one home to the other, it further destabilizes everyone involved. One or both parents may be setting up a new residence and planning physical spaces for their children, trying to make those spaces still feel like home. All the while, they are trying to determine how to best manage their time and how to optimally delegate caregiving tasks.

Financial Distribution

Most of us have a money story that either empowers or disempowers us. Depending on the family’s mindset and state of financial affairs, the effort of coming to a satisfactory financial agreement can be a source of mutual stress.

Q

Why is criticizing your ex (or partner) in front of the kids so damaging?

A

I’ll never forget watching psychotherapist Gary Neuman on Oprah share this laser-focused truth: “When you harshly criticize your spouse, or ex-spouse in front of your children, you are attacking their DNA.”

You, as their mom or dad, will always be a part of your child. If your child hears you blame, shame, or demonize each other, they can internalize those messages and feel bad about themselves. It also pressures them into defending one of you, or taking sides, polarizing their allegiances. If they are encouraged to cut off contact with one of their parents, it can feel like splitting their heart in half; one young adult client of mine described feeling it as a “death inside.” This tension can hurt, haunt, and disable kids for years. If you are angry and need to convey a strong message to your ex-partner, there’s a time and place for that. Wait until you have privacy, or are in a session with a therapist or mediator.

Q

How do you hold to this even when it feels disingenuous? Is it ever healthy to talk about the flaws of an ex/partner with your kids?

A

I believe we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. Our individual and collective journey is about realizing our true divinity and this miracle of life. There is nothing perfect here, except for our true nature of love, light, and infinite wisdom about the truth of who we really are.

You are not doing your child service by presenting a scenario that gives the impression that anything or anyone is perfect. Children do not gain comfort thinking that their parents are flawless and that they have to live up to this fictional standard. They feel most comfortable, safe, and inspired when they witness you taking pride in who you are and taking responsibility for any detours from your best self.

“You are not doing your child service by presenting a scenario that gives the impression that anything or anyone is perfect.”

As stated, the most damaging thing you can do to your child is to expose them to and involve them in chaos, drama, and trauma. Most often, the issues you are trying to resolve belong between you and your therapist, your ex, or just yourself. That being said, sometimes it’s unavoidable (and actually harmful) to pretend that all is well when it’s not. When your child is old enough to hear the real truth (vs. the sugar-coated one), delivery is everything. The wording you choose will depend on the age of your children.

For example, let’s say your ex-husband has a quick temper:

  • Validate and empathize: When there is arguing, yelling, or an energy of unrest, children feel it at any age. If your ex-husband yells at you or your children, and they get visibly upset, you can acknowledge their feelings with: “I know you may feel scared, sad, or mad when Dad gets angry. That doesn’t feel good, and I’m sorry.”

  • Communicate criticism constructively: I.e., “Grown-ups are always learning too. We can all get angry and frustrated. Dad has a hard time dealing sometimes with those big feelings.”

  • Remember your family’s best version and focus on a better future: “Let’s remember the good in Dad, even when he gets mad. We know he is a good person and loves you very much. Let’s stay honest with him about how it feels when he yells, and encourage him to find better ways to express his feelings. Hopefully he will learn to communicate better in time.”

Incorporating this kind of communication does not make it personal (like saying that your ex is a bad person) or permanent (assuming it will always be this way). This can help put the situation in perspective, preventing your children from internalizing his outbursts or losing faith in their parent.

Disclaimer: If your ex-partner is ever abusive in any way to you or your child, your safety and your children’s safety of course comes first. Assuming you have options, you don’t have to fight fire with fire, but it’s important for your child to witness you advocating for and protecting yourself and your children. This kind of situation may require removing yourselves from the scene completely, and/or communicating clear boundaries and requirements for continuing conversation: “I know you do not agree, but I don’t like or deserve the way you are speaking to me. You need to speak with me respectfully or talk with me about this another time.” (The only time I believe it’s ever warranted to temporarily or permanently remove a parent from a child’s life or require supervised visitation is in cases of neglect, mental illness, substance use, or physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse.)

Q

What are the most important steps to take immediately following the separation?

A

Take Time for You

Whether I see divorcing couples individually or together, I always stress the importance of solitude and self-care. Creating healing rituals and a reliable system of resources will provide space to work through grief and all its accompanying feelings. This groundwork will offer a greater sense of repair and grounding, as well as set the stage for new beginnings.

Establish Guidelines

Mutually agreed-upon guidelines that offer both structure and flexibility benefit the entire family. Establishing them requires mindful attention, dialogue, and agreement to create time with the children that will be comforting rather than confusing. It also may include an agreement to give each other some space until you both feel more sure-footed.

Consistent Attunement and Dialogue with your Children

It’s not just one conversation. The key points need to be reinforced: “It’s not your fault.” “We are both here for you.” “You are okay and loved.” “All will be well.”

Create Anchoring Statements

Anchoring statements are mantras to remind you of the truth of who you are and what you would like to exemplify for your children. They bring us back to our deepest longings, intentions, and visions for our best lives. When I work with families going through a transition, I encourage each member to create anchoring statements for themselves and for the family. Sharing, as a family, your ideal visions for moving forward will illustrate a common concept and give you something to steer back to when you inevitably detour.

Here are some examples of anchoring statements clients have chosen:

  1. Child: “I know I am safe and loved by both my parents.”

  2. Parent: “I am a wise, loving, and courageous person who is committed to staying connected to the truth of who I am.”

  3. Couple: “We are two good people, with good hearts and noble intentions. We choose forgiveness, respect, caring, and gratitude for our relationship journey, and we honor all we learned from one another. We are committed to being good team players and remaining a united front as parenting partners for our children.”

  4. Family: “We are and always will be a family that will care for one another.”

Keep a Gratitude Journal Ritual

There is no better way to recalibrate during challenging times then to remember our successes, and to celebrate our abundance rather than focus on scarcity. Try writing down at least twenty-five positive, life-affirming takeaways from any hardship.

Q

When, or how, does co-parenting work best?

A

Receive Self Responsibility

If you take good care of yourself first and foremost, you strengthen your capacity to communicate constructively with your ex-partner and your children. I believe that the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle, which means that you both likely deserve credit for what went right, and responsibility for what went awry. There is so much power in owning your part in the demise of something you once held precious: When you apologize—fully expressing your accountability—you also forgive yourself and can better empathize with the other.

Remember the Good

When you look at your ex-spouse, you can choose to focus either on their flaws or the qualities that attracted you to them. You can choose to harp on disruptive and upsetting memories, or you can savor the moments when you were at your best together. This man or woman before you is still, and will always be, the father or mother of your beloved children. Taking on this mindful spirit will help soften the eyes, quiet the mind, and bring gentleness to the new chapter you are in together.

When I work with a divorcing couple that’s receptive and ready to find peace within themselves and with one another, I suggest this powerful exercise—to write a three-part love letter to one another (yes, a love letter):

  • I’m sorry for… (This is the part where you own what belongs to you.)

  • I thank you for… (This is the part where you express gratitude for all the good times and lessons learned.)

  • I promise to… (This the part where you renew your vows on this new ground, recommitting to openness, learning, and a caring connection with one another and your children.)

Clarity of a Shared Vision

Most divorcing couples have discovered they have irreconcilable differences in lifestyle preferences and/or perception of reality. Moving through divorce peacefully and constructively requires a mutual willingness to focus on your common ground. This will help you return to a more unified energy, providing a greater sense of security and serenity for your children. Sometimes you will agree, and sometimes one or both of you will be required to bend or meet in the middle. But when you commit to discovering what you can both stand behind, it’s much smoother sailing for all. You can then apply your agreements and your shared vision to issues of custody, delegation of responsibility, time management, financial agreements, etc.

Break-Through vs. Break-Down Communication

Practice the power of pause. I practice and incorporate breathwork into all my sessions with my clients. Breathwork can calm our central nervous system. So, before you speak, settle in so you can think clearly, and set a tone in your voice that conveys good intention. This, in turn, usually incites greater receptivity from your listener.

Choose love. Our intentions lead to outcomes. If you focus on “winning” or “getting your way,” it leads to a power struggle. If you set an intention to find solutions that are good for all, it leads to peace. Wake up every morning envisioning the best-case scenario in navigating this journey together. Ask: “What would love do?” Vow to treat one another with kindness, compassion, respect, consideration, and appreciation.

Fix the problem, not the blame. Most relationships get rocky sometimes. During your journey as a family, there are bound to be times when children are acting out or other stressors occur. Focus on your intentions to find solutions.

Be magnanimous, rather than measuring. If you keep score on who is doing or giving more, someone always loses. As Maya Angelou so beautifully stated, “Giving liberates the soul of the giver.” If you lead with generosity of spirit, it can’t help but return to you.

Bracket your communication. You are bound to hit times when your points of view will differ, or when you feel triggered. I teach what I call “bracket communication,” which deliberately begins with your positive intention for the conversation, addresses the hard stuff in the middle, and then ends on a positive note. An officiant at a friend’s wedding ceremony once said: “We are always just one sentence away from peace.”

Anticipate Change

Successful co-parenting requires you to accept that things will change: New developmental issues and milestones will arise with the children; careers and finances may shift; periodic health challenges come up. New lovers, relationships, and marriages are likely. The more willingly you predict, plan for, and embrace the ebb and flow of life, the more pleasant the road will be for everyone.

Receive Individual & Collective Support

Just like a trainer can help you stay on course at the gym, and your medical professionals can help you prevent illness, all of us can benefit from holistic health support. In the most challenging circumstances, when one or both parties are not willing to practice any of the aforementioned recommendations, counseling or mediation becomes an absolute necessity. If you don’t do it for you, do it for your children. You’ll be better off, and they will thank you later.

Q

Do you think there is any danger in exes being “too close”?

A

I do not believe there is a danger in maintaining a loving bond. It only presents secondary issues if exes remain enmeshed, interfering with each other’s ability to carve out new space for themselves, or for a new relationship. In that case, it requires honest problem recognition and healthy boundary adjustment to enjoy a balanced sense of closeness moving forward.

Q

What are good guiding principles for a step mom or dad?

A

Adopting that role can be a blessing or a challenge, gentle or gritty, and often it’s both. Ideally, you can get all hands on deck to create the best outcome for everyone. Here are some takeaways for stepparents:

Stand Steady in Who You Are

Having a strong, stable, and positive sense of self is always the starting point for us all, no matter what field we are playing in. When I see stepparents getting triangulated into unfinished business that’s within the family they are entering, the way they deal and respond has a direct relationship with how steady they are on their own two feet. If nervous or insecure, they will be shaken. If strong and self-assured, they will advocate without alienating and love without breaking boundaries.

Highest Good is the Goal

There are a lot of moving parts and participants involved when you enter into an extended family system: You’re nurturing and attending to your marriage, the children may be struggling to adapt to their changing and expanding family life, and your new spouse is trying to prioritize the family’s well-being with consistent quality time and emotional attunement. Consequently, there will be times your needs are met, and times when the needs of the family come first. Self-care becomes important; you must choose to be a benevolent presence.

You Go High, When Times Get Low

Stepparents can often bear the brunt of unfair projections and old resentments from ex-wives or ex-husbands, and they might feel rejected, judged, or treated harshly by their spouse’s children. If a child is dealing with unrest between his or her parents or still struggling with unresolved feelings about the divorce, they might project their disappointments on the stepparent. Until the child is encouraged to deal directly with their feelings and/or gets old enough to sort it out themselves, the stepparent can be the first (and safest choice, from the child’s perspective) to get thrown under the bus. Even under the best of circumstances, I’ve heard children who genuinely respect, love, and admire their stepmother or father express feelings of guilt about the fact that they do. They—consciously or unconsciously—carry the burden of feeling like they are betraying their biological parent.

“The stepparent can be the first (and safest choice, from the child’s perspective) to get thrown under the bus.”

Standing in their shoes is a way toward empathy, compassion, and resilience. For most children, there’s a primal wish for their parents’ happy ending. I have a twenty-one-year-old client who shared recently that, after twelve years of his parents being divorced and subsequent marriages for both, he’s finally realizing that they are not getting back together. This primal wish is powerful, and the natural ambivalence to others entering the family fold, no matter how wonderful they may be, is prevalent and understandable.

Borrowing from the wise words of Michelle Obama, when we are faced with unfair projections or treatment, we can react with hostility, or we can accept the invitation to perceive and respond from higher ground. By “higher,” we don’t mean superior, but instead, taking a perspective removed from the complexities of our circumstances, so that we can accept the good times and challenging ones with equanimity. If and when you bear the brunt of someone else’s grievances, your higher self encourages unification, not division. In order to instill harmony and help heal hurt, you can advocate for yourself without attacking—feeding the peace, not fanning the conflict.

Dr. Cole's Recommended Reading for Co-parents

  • Conscious Uncoupling

    Conscious Uncoupling

    by Katherine Woodward Thomas

    “Tips to Live Happily Ever After together, no matter what.”

  • Giving the Love that Heals

    Giving the Love that Heals

    by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. & Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D.

    “Teaches reflective mindfulness for resolving issues that originate in the parents’ childhoods, so that they can forge a clear, conscious, and healthier relationship path with their children.”

  • Helping Your Kids Cope with<br>Divorce the Sand Castles Way

    Helping Your Kids Cope with
    Divorce the Sand Castles Way

    by Gary Neuman with Patricia Romanowski

    “Learn to stay attuned to what your children need,
    post divorce, and throughout their development.”

  • Permission to Parent

    Permission to Parent

    by Robin Berman, M.D.

    “Packed with inspirational stories and medical research, this a thorough guide to raising emotionally well-adjusted and thriving children, through love and limits.”

  • Spiritual Divorce

    Spiritual Divorce

    by Debbie Ford

    “Alchemize the heartbreak of divorce into breakthrough— reclaiming your authentic self, personal power, and joy.”

LA-based Dr. Marcy Cole is a holistic psychotherapist who has been in practice for twenty-five years, in both inpatient and outpatient settings with adolescents, adults, couples, and families. She received her Bachelors from Northwestern University, her Masters from Loyola University, and her Doctorate from the Institute of Clinical Social Work in Chicago. In 2004, Cole founded First Tuesday USA, a platform for women, fostering social connectivity and professional networking, which hosts monthly events in LA. In 2011, she launched an online platform for women without children, and she is also the founder of CMomA.org, a non-profit organization promoting the connection between people without children and children in need, through adoption, foster-care, hosting, mentoring, and sponsorship.

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