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How to Set Co-Parenting Boundaries With Your Ex

As stated by Tara S. Peris & Robert E. Emery in Redefining the Parent-Child Relationship Following Divorce: Examining the Risk for Boundary Dissolution, “Boundaries are defined as the implicit or explicit rules of relationships in general, and they are central in establishing the structure of family relationships in particular. Boundaries delineate each member’s unique psychological domain, as well as his or her role within the broader family system.”

This is especially necessary when interpersonal violence has occurred or either parent finds communication too stressful and disruptive. Even if that’s not the case, setting some ground rules and boundaries will be beneficial to you, your ex, and your children. And, here are some suggestions on how to effectively set co-parenting boundaries with your ex.

1. Utilize online parenting tools.

Many apps and websites provide interactive tools to help separated or divorced parents maintain a sense of organization and foster a strong co-parenting relationship. You and your ex can stay organized and on the same page using these tools, which include shared calendars and communication portals. There are several popular platforms for co-parenting, including Our Family Wizard, WeParent, and Coparently.

During high-conflict situations, you might find it beneficial to communicate only with written words or to rely on tools like these. Depending on the situation, a judge may even order parents to communicate through these platforms. In fact, these programs have been developed specifically to improve parenting relationships after separation. Most of these platforms also allow attorneys or parent coordinators (mediators) to witness the interaction between parents. This accountability is sometimes necessary to have productive co-parenting communication.

2. Have a businesslike relationship.

“Communicate with your co-parent, as if you are talking with a colleague, your boss, or even a client,” advises family mediators and parenting/co-parenting coaches Jan Yuhas and Jillian Yuhas. “When you avoid being friends, it prevents lines of communication and actions from being blurred, allowing for clarity amongst family members. It’s okay to be respectful, kind, and cooperative in front of the child(ren) or when supporting them at school functions, but don’t be best friends, especially if you want to heal and have healthy relationships.”

In a businesslike relationship, you have clear objectives every time you interact.

Communicating through discord can yield results. But not by what you say, but rather by how you say it. “Your tone of voice will account for 90% of the disagreement, where 10% of the conflict will be due to differences of perspective,” they add.

“The best way to prevent using a defensive tone of voice is to simply take care of your emotional distress prior to talking to your ex-partner,” Jan and Jillian recommend. “And, if you are having a bad day, it's probably wise not to engage with your ex until you have reached a calm state and can communicate without taking anything personal they might say to provoke you.” I remind people all the time to take time between feeling emotionally upset about anything and engaging in the next potentially stressful thing. It is ok to take some time to regroup prior to responding to a tough topic involving the other parent. You want to be calm and ready when you engage.

When you do need to communicate with your co-parent, use a friendly tone of voice and as few words as possible. “The less information they have, the less ammunition they can use against you when your ex-partner is having a tough time.” Keep your communication simple and clear, remaining focused on the objective of the call.

Having a business-like relationship makes it much easier to communicate with your co-parent, allowing you to be direct and to the point. This prevents you from entering into an emotional fight with your co-parent because you have already exchanged many things, so you have no firing line. And, remember, focus on the facts, not your emotions. Return to your objective of the call.

3. Follow court orders consistently.

Court orders are at the core of family law. If a judge issues a court order, it indicates what a party must or refrain from doing. Even though it may not be an official law, you and your ex must follow it based on your current situation.

Common examples include child support, custody agreements, restraining orders, and lawsuit rulings.

It is possible to be found in civil contempt of law if either party does not follow every aspect of a court order. The court will first determine if the contempt was willful or non-willful if you take your ex to court for not following your agreement.

  • Willful contempt. Despite knowing about the order, your ex was emotionally, financially, and physically capable of complying, but he/she chose not to do so.

  • Non-willful contempt. The ex didn't follow the order due to reasons beyond their control. Typically, this occurs when a parent has recently lost their job and is unable to pay child support.

A judge may try to modify an agreement so it works for both of you if your ex doesn't follow a court order. On the other hand, long-term, repeat offenders may face more serious consequences, such as fines, jail time, and losing parental privileges (such as custody of their children).

Once you have reached a court order it is most important to remain consistent. During COVID-19 quarantine many parents modified their existing orders on their own to minimize back and forth between their homes. Although this helped keep them safe at the time it has not continued to work for all families, returning to the court order was hard for some parents. Even though that was a necessary exception, however, consistency with court orders is best practice. Some parents relax their court-ordered agreement and then want to return to it if they feel the other parent violated it in some way, this will create more discord. Best to keep it consistent.

4. Don’t exclude your ex in activities.

It may be hard initially, but try to include your ex in your child's extracurricular and school activities, as well as special events like birthdays. Having both parents attend their events is important to your children as they love both of you equally. Also, when inviting your ex to activities make sure to provide them with enough time to make plans so they can attend.

Using a joint calendaring system, like Our Family Wizard or Google Calendar, helps keep everyone updated on events. And, with a shared calendar, both of you can add events and activities, as well as have a common view of events. By doing so, the likelihood of a conflict due to one party forgetting to inform the other is minimized.

And most of all, having two parents equally involved in the child’s life is what is best, regardless of your feelings toward the other parent.

5. Limit the amount and forms of communication.

You should maintain regular communication with your ex regarding matters relating to your children. However, this must be done at the right time. For instance, when picking up or dropping off children, try to stay away from discussions about these matters. And, besides talking to each other, learn to listen to each other as well.

If there are no special situations, such as emergencies or illnesses, or if the child has special needs, there doesn't need to be much more co-parenting communication than this. If you are in a new relationship, daily conversations might be burdensome and disruptive.

Also, only stick to a couple of forms of communication, mainly;

  • Email. Communication via email is fast and efficient. In addition, it allows for proper documentation of your communication. It may be in your parenting plan to respond to emails within a certain timeframe, even if you just acknowledge they have been received.

  • Text. With text messaging, you and the other parent can exchange basic information quickly. Even though texting is convenient, it may not be a reliable way to record your communication in the event of a disagreement. Sometimes, technical problems or an uncharged phone battery prevent text messages from being received in a timely manner. During a co-parents custodial time, a parent and child may exchange frequent text messages that don't always go over well or aren't appreciated. The co-parent may feel like they are intruding on their time together.

  • Phone call. In most cases, the phone can be an effective and useful means of communicating with the other parent when no specific reasons are given for restricting direct contact. If you and your co-parent have communicated without conflict, regular telephone communication may be appropriate. It may be beneficial to schedule calls at a specific time, such as between 6:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Some families limit each phone call to five minutes daily.

Once a parent and child make contact do your best to help facilitate the call for your child. Allow them time and space to take the call.

6. Consider parallel parenting.

“When your co-parent isn't willing to cooperate, and communication is difficult, parallel parenting may be an excellent approach to take,” suggests the Our Family Wizard team. “Parallel parenting is co-parenting but with added boundaries” One boundary, for example, will be to distance yourself from your co-parent by not communicating directly with her/him directly.

“You'll limit your interactions to only what's most important for your children,” they explain. “What you may not know about parallel parenting is that it doesn't have to last forever, but it will significantly impact the way you manage your shared parenting at the onset.”

It is possible to develop rather specific parenting plans during parallel parenting. By doing so, parents will follow their parenting plans and there will be no chance of conflict created by direct communication, they explain. “For this reason, you may plan parenting time exchanges at a supervised location, or you may not even attend exchanges together.”

“You may still need to communicate at times over matters like child-related emergencies and significant decisions, but you won't do so in the ways you may have previously.”

Co-parenting situations marked by high conflict often benefit from written communication since it allows parents to maintain a physical boundary. Even so, emails and text messages can sometimes result in conflict due to ambiguity or unfriendly words.

Parallel parenting should be time-limited until conflict calms down. Once things are calmer re-engage within established boundaries.

7. Consider co-parenting counseling.

Designed to help parents resolve their conflict in a civil manner for their children's sake, co-parenting therapy helps parents put anger and hurt aside. With co-parenting therapy, people can achieve a balance in their lives and remain the best parents they can be while not being controlled by the past. The three main benefits of co-parenting therapy are reducing conflict, improving communication, and applying effective parenting strategies.

However, co-parenting counseling can also help form accountability when it comes to boundaries. This is an opportunity to really sort through your parenting differences and come to some agreements regarding the children. As a co-parent counselor I have some families who come to me when they cannot decide on bigger life-changing decisions (e.g. where will the child(ren) go to school, a parent is moving, etc.). Co-parenting counselors can be a huge resource if you approach it with the goal of the resolution, not arguing more.

Additional tips.

Below are some more tips to assist you in your new co-parenting arrangement with your ex.

  • Your kids should never be used as messengers. Talk to them directly.

  • Consistency is key when it comes to co-parenting schedules. As an example, don't cut short visits if you have decided your child will spend two weeks with you and one with your ex over the summer. Children will be hurt by this and it may cause a riff with you and your ex.

  • If you encounter a problem with your ex, speak positively about him/her and give him/her the benefit of the doubt. Don't throw him/her under the bus if something goes wrong. A successful co-parenting relationship depends on this.

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