One of the biggest challenges that many people face post-separation is how to change a long-term negative relationship dynamic into a productive and positive Co-Parenting relationship. Relationship patterns that have been established over many years (even decades!) are hard to break. You may care about one another and even still love each other, but you separated for a reason. There was something that was not working for one or both of you and someone decided to no longer continue the romantic relationship.
Remember the old days when you broke up with a significant other and you did not have children or live together? That was so much easier! You may have had some tough times where you found yourself picking up the phone to re-connect only to face a painful rejection and a night of tears, or a conflict arose when you saw each other at a mutual friend’s party – but for the most part you got reprieve from the pain of the relationship and had space to grieve and recover. There was no poring over financial statements to divide up money or tagging furniture items that each of you will take as you part ways. Okay, so there was that one box of mementos from that ex you could not resist opening over and over again for months at a time, but before you knew it life was starting anew, you met new people and soon weeks, months, and then years passed without ever looking back at that pesky box! You may have even decided to throw it in the trash at one point or drop it on your ex’s doorstep. You purged your grief and anger (maybe even with a little help from your pals Ben & Jerry), but you had the choice to never look back.
Yet, this one you cannot just leave behind.
You cannot pack it in a box.
You cannot throw it away.
You cannot leave it on someone else’s doorstep.
You cannot take a “break”.
You cannot avoid contact. After all, there are soccer games and music concerts. Decisions about schooling, therapists, illnesses, everything under the sun…
There is no place for you to escape.
No time and space for you to grieve without interruption.
You are seething in pain and trying to make it through a day without tears, yet you are expected to function together as a team. You are connected for a lifetime through the beautiful children you share with a person that you may feel you never want to see again.
How do you go from the feelings of conflict and hurt that precipitated the separation to all of a sudden “working together” as Co-Parents? It sounds so impossible to do this and many people do not realize there are steps to be taken… it does not happen overnight. The other issue is that most people are not even aware of the negative relationship patterns they have developed with one another. Sometimes those who attended couples counseling before separating have some sense of the relationship framework that was built over the years, but if they were not able to resolve it in therapy and repair the relationship together, how is it supposed to be repaired now upon separation?
The first step is to truly end the relationship you once shared. This means each person has to find the time and space to grieve and move forward positively. I often suggest that each parent enter into individual therapy with a professional trained in relationship issues who can help guide them through this process in a positive manner.
In my next installment in this series, I will discuss the next step – how to move into an entirely new relationship with your former spouse or partner – what I like to call the “Business Relationship” where the two of you are now in the “business of raising emotionally healthy children together”. You can only get there when you are ready to put on your “professional” hat and start developing a new pattern of working together. This takes time and practice. Sometimes you will even slip back into old patterns, but that does not mean you are not making progress. Starting over in a whole new fashion takes work – imagine taking an old dress and re-designing it and sewing it to make a new one (Pretty in Pink anyone?). There may be some remnants left of the past relationship and it serves as the foundation of what you share, but it is transformed into something that works for the here and new — the current reality.
Stay tuned for more…