Jun 11 12:18 2015 Eve Kilmer, PhD Print This Article

Parenting is challenging enough in a family where two parents respect and love one another.  In divorce, where the respect can be diminished and the love can turn to intense dislike, co-parenting can be extremely frustrating.  This article will give you seven steps to constructively respond to what may be infuriating behavior, improve communication and find personal peace.



On their honeymoon when Donna's husband,Guest Posting Steve, professed how much he wanted to have children with her, she never imagined that she would be attending her son's third grade school play alone while her ex and his new wife were away on another romantic getaway. Nor did she imagine receiving repeated last minute cancellations of Steve's weekend time with their children because of another work "emergency" which she knew were really golf matches and drinking sessions with his buddies. And she certainly never anticipated her ex being the "fun" parent -- letting their kids stay up late on school nights playing video games and gobbling up chips and candy bars, while she was the "strict" parent, making sure they did their homework and ate nutritious meals.

Parenting is challenging enough in a family in which two parents respect and love one another. In divorce, where respect can be diminished and love can turn to intense dislike, co-parenting can be extremely frustrating. Despite how infuriating your ex's behavior may be, here are seven steps that you can take to have a successful outcome for you and your children.


Donna is ballistic. It's Steve's parenting weekend. He and his new wife at the last minute book tickets to ski in Salt Lake City. He insists that she therefore needs to take the kids. When Donna informs Steve that she has already made plans this weekend, he screams at her that her unwillingness to take the kids proves she was an irresponsible parent.

When I suggest letting go of your anger, I'm not suggesting be a doormat, make excuses for, or tolerate bad behavior. Anger is a good thing when it motivates you to stand up for yourself and not be taken advantage of. But once you've been assertive, and things don't change, swimming in a toxic pool of anger and resentment hurts you more then your ex (in fact, Steve seemed to enjoy it when he got Donna's goat -- at least she was engaged. He loved a war). So don't do this for your ex. Do it for yourself. Bearing a grudge, is drinking the poison meant for the other person. Neil Kinnock, a British politician, wisely said, "Resentment is an extremely bitter diet, and eventually poisonous. I have no desire to make my own toxins." Letting go of your bitterness allows you to move on with your life. Refocus that energy to better your life and your children's.

So how do you do this? See the world through your ex's eyes. See him as a human being -- someone who is fumbling around in this world trying to feel good about himself. Donna softened when she was able to see that underlying Steve's explosive defensiveness when she asked him to please get the kids to bed at 9 pm on school nights, was a sign that he was feeling inadequate as a parent. When she could see past his need to play the victim, distorting or even recreating reality, to a need to feel better about himself, she also softened. Once she understood what was driving his behavior, although his behavior was still upsetting, she was able to take it less personally. This wasn't easy and Donna found help from her therapist indispensable at times.


When Steve dropped the kids off, he screamed, “I told you that I wanted you to find a different soccer team this year for Justin and you didn't do as I asked! We need to talk about this right now!” Donna could see the anxiety etched on her son's face.

It's exposure to parental conflict -- not divorce itself -- that places children at risk, from low self-esteem to school performance. Children of divorce who witness little conflict between their parents do as well as children from intact homes. When there is the potential for conflict, discuss it with your ex when the kids aren't present. When your ex is determined to fight in front of the kids, use the broken record technique. Validate his feelings and stayed with your position without defending yourself (defending yourself gives your ex ammunition to argue). “ I understand that you're frustrated, and I'll call you at eight tonight to discuss it.” If your ex persists, respond, “I understand and I'll call you at 2pm eight.”


Donna wanted to take the kids to a family reunion during Steve's parenting weekend. When he started she lost it. He hung up the phone on her.tory.sure that he was going to be a jerk about it

Approach the relationship as you would a business and your objective is to raise emotionally healthy and happy children. Before you approach your ex with an issue, consider: if this were a resistant business partner or client that I was trying to sell something to, or if my ex had a million dollar account that I wanted to procure, what would be my approach? Most businesspeople aren't going to get into a fight with a difficult client, not if they want to have any success. Rather, a difficult client is treated with kid gloves, especially if you are trying to sell them on something.

Also, before going into a potential difficult sales meeting with a client, consider whether your sales pitch will be successful if you are ruminating about what a jerk that client is and how much you dislike them. Others pick up on what we're feeling unconsciously more then we think. Rather, focus on your needs and what you want to accomplish.


Expect and accept that there are going to be differences between your parenting styles. Accept that you're not going to change your ex or what happens at their home. If your ex didn't modify the things that irritated you when you were married, he certainly isn't going to now. Unless it's a safety issue (i.e. he's leaving the nine year old alone to watch the 5 year old), you want it to be none of your business what happens at his home. Imagine the increased peace and freedom you'd feel if you took that psychological energy trying to change something over which you ultimately have no control, how he chooses to parent, and instead invested that energy in the quality of your own parenting where you can make a difference. Rather then focus on the constant TV watching at dad's home, Donna put energy into planning fun outings to the aquarium and zoo.


When pressured, make it a rule of thumb to not make on the spot decisions. When someone is controlling, they use the element of surprise, and demand an immediate response. Your tendency may be an automatic "yes," yet when given time to think about it, resentfully realize that it doesn't work for you. A good response is, "let me get back to you on that. I'll call you in an hour," and give yourself space to figure out what your needs are.


Two things always escalate conflict: criticism and defensiveness. If you criticize your ex, he's probably going to shut down, get defensive and maybe even see red and grow fangs. Second, try not to get defensive yourself. When you defend yourself, the other person typically doesn't feel heard, makes their point more adamantly, you get more defensive and it quickly escalates. Also, defensiveness is a form of criticism since it suggests, "You're the problem, not me."


Donna's disabling preoccupation with her ex's frustrating behavior had been an energy drain all last year, she realized, spoiling the present. No more, she resolved. She was making an empowerment shift; she was refocusing her energies. She no longer wanted to miss out on the moments of her life and her children's lives.

This year is different for Donna. She is fully present to enjoy the exhilarating, wild sled ride down the snowy hill with her son on Xmas morning and to sipping steaming hot cocoa afterwards. She relishes the warm fuzzes of cuddling and toasting marshmallows in front of the roaring fire. She enjoys her daughter's wonder at observing the bees pollinate the flower beds. She realizes that the problem she had the best chance of resolving aren't her ex's behavior, but her own beliefs and attitudes. Her choice: her focus. She is back in charge. You can be too!



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About Article Author

Eve Kilmer, PhD
Eve Kilmer, PhD

Eve Kilmer is a prominent clinical psychologist specializing in individual, couples and group therapy and maintains a private practice in Boulder, Colorado. 

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