Communicating More Effectively With Your Coparent
There are generally three ways that separated parents coparent their children. Some do it cooperatively by sharing information easily, attending appointments and their children's activities and events together, reinforcing their respect for each other through their behaviour and what they say to their children, presenting as a united front and being tolerant and supportive of each other. Others coparent in a more "parallel" way - engaging with each other, sharing information and attending appointments and events together only when necessary, but otherwise maintaining virtually separate lives. Finally, there are those who coparent in a conflicted way, constantly engaging in arguments and debates about virtually all aspects of their children's care and upbringing. They frequently involve the children directly in their disputes.
Communication between separated parents can be a major hot spot. How frequently parents are required to communicate with each other, whether they communicate by phone, text, e-mail or face-to-face and the actual content of their communications are all issues which are often the subject of lengthy, expensive negotiations and court proceedings. Many parents refuse to speak directly with each other. Others feel anxious or intimidated when they see a text or an e-mail message arrive from their coparent and just can't bring themselves to open it because of the tone, content or even the length of past communications. Some parents object to being asked to share what they perceive as either too much or unnecessary information with their coparent. Others feel in the dark because so little information is shared.
How would you feel if you received a communication like the the one below from your coparent? What if this has become your norm?
"HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU TO STOP?????!!!!! Every time the kids are with you, they come home COMPLETELY EXHAUSTED!!!!!. Can't you even TRY to put them to bed on time? I guess you have no rules over there. Not much has changed since we separated. And WHAT are you feeding them????!!!! They tell me that you don't have food in the house and they HATE their school lunches. They refuse to eat them. I throw out food every time you make them a lunch. I've just dropped off snacks for them at school because apparently - you don't care. All of the teachers have told me that the kids aren't getting their homework done when they are in your care because you don't make it a priority. I notice that you don't have a problem with making sports a priority. I never agreed to hockey four nights a week. You didn't even bother showing up for parent-teacher interviews. What kind of a parent are you anyway????? Do you even care about the kids or are you just taking them away from me to avoid paying child support? And by the way, I am not signing the travel consent so that you can go away with your parents. I never said you could book a holiday with the kids during my time. You are NOT taking them out of the country. I'm sick and tired of your crap!.GET A LAWYER! I'm taking you back to court............
No matter what type of coparenting relationship exists, there will always be a minimum amount of information that parents need to share so that their children are safe and their basic needs are met. Parents who have young children or children with special needs, learning issues, complex medical diagnosis, mental health issues, or social challenges may need to communicate more frequently and share very detailed information. Even children who are old enough to communicate information to their parents directly often feel caught in the middle when they are asked to deliver information from one parent to the other.
Brief, respectful, child-focused and more structured communication may help parents transition from conflicted to parallel coparenting or from parallel to cooperative coparenting. Following even a loosely-structured template for communicating with a coparent will also keep communications focused on current and future issues rather than past issues, which may never be resolved, no matter how many times they are rehashed. A structured approach will also limit the length of inter-parental communications, which in and of itself will likely reduce conflict. If both parents routinely use a predictable template for their communications, there is an increased likelihood that they will open and respond to e-mail and text communications from each other.
The following is an example of a more structured communication template.
- The subject line of the e-mail or text message identifies the topic of the communication. For example: "Swimming Lessons", "My Holiday Plans" or "Can we Change the Parenting Schedule Next Weekend?" The subject line also identifies whether the communication is for information purposes only or whether the sender expects to receive a response. So, in addition to the topic, the subject line of each communication would indicate: "For Your Information Only", "Response Required" or "Urgent".
- The communication identifies a specific request, concern or proposal. For example: "Megan's teacher told me today that she is acting out a lot in class and is getting into arguments in the school yard almost every day", "I need to schedule March Break travel" or "Can we switch weekends next month?".
- The communication includes a proposed outcome or resolution. For example: "Can we schedule a meeting with Megan's teacher?" or "Our flight leaves Ottawa at 6:00 am. Friday morning. Can the kids sleep at my house on Thursday night?". By proposing a solution, the sender is sharing the responsibility for resolving the issue rather than arbitrarily and unilaterally delegating responsibility for finding a solution to the other parent.
- The communication invites the other parent's input. For example: "What do you think we should do?", "Would that work for you? or "Can we talk about this sometime?" By inviting input, the sender is communicating openness to finding a solution that works for both parents and makes it clear that they are not imposing their own views on their coparent.
* There are situations where a Family Court Restraining Order or a criminal Recognizance, Undertaking or Probation Order prohibits parents from communicating with each other at all or restricts their communication in some way. For example, parents may be permitted to communicate only by e-mail or regarding only issues relating to their children. Restrictions imposed by a court need to be respected and so even a structured communication template may not comply with court-imposed restrictions.