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Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex

In the divorce process through the time your kids finally leave the house, you will hear over and over again, “Get along for the kids.” The notion that you once loved this person and the fact that you aren’t inviting them over to hunt Easter Eggs as a family is a negative reflection on your ability to be a mature adult. Single parents have to find a way to raise healthy children. Co-parenting with a toxic ex can make everyone less healthy.

While effective co-parenting can make everyone’s lives easier and healthier, it isn’t always possible. As a single parent, you must determine if you are able to find middle ground as a co-parent. If you are dealing with a toxic personality, such as a narcissist, chances are co-parenting is impossible. It sucks but the reality is the attempt to engage in mutual agreements ends up becoming another series of arguments, lies and broken promises.

Who Gets Hurt in Co-Parenting Conflicts

Your child deserves to have both parents in their lives but they don’t deserve to be in the middle of high conflict scenarios all the time. That is exactly what happens when you are co-parenting with a toxic ex. Your child’s ability to make it to soccer practice is impeded because there is conflict. Sure, the stress and anxiety take a toll you as well, furthering the dysfunction your child experiences.

I had a high-conflict divorce. In fact, that is an understatement. We had a bi-furcated trial: part one over financials and part two over custody. I was married for approximately two years. My custody battle ensued for two-and-a-half. It was expensive, with my ex holding all the cards – meaning the money. To say this was a difficult divorce is an understatement. I didn’t understand nor did I have effective techniques to deal with the barrage of lies and misdirection constantly being exploited to the courts, our friends and to my son.

Custody Schedules and Parenting Plans

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You already know you can’t get in the way of your kids seeing the toxic parent. The courts will be on you harder than the toxic parent. This means you need to create a parenting plan and stick to it. Requesting a switch of a weekend is an opening for your ex to manipulate you. Think about the scenarios leading to the marriage breakup: were things you asked for used to get control or build an advantage over you? This won’t change as a co-parent.

Our parenting plan required us to use email to determine schedules, send notifications and manage all co-parenting tasks. Down to the minute of when I could call my son in the evenings at his dad’s, I stuck to the schedule. My ex, from the moment he got 50% custody was constantly dropping our son off early. My life consists of all the normal single mom duties, working and an extensive custody log of what I did and when and what my ex did (or didn’t do) and when.

Documentation, I was told, was critical if I ever had a custody issue. The missed pickups, the late drop-offs and series of things my son would tell me were all documented in the log. It was consuming and exhausting. There was no pattern of change in my ex even in the times I emailed to notify him he violated the court order. Of course, I was always wrong.

Be Careful of Parental Alienation Syndrome

Be careful what you say to your kids. We all know that kids are sponges and hear everything. In divorce, kids tend to internalize everything. You know the other party is saying a million bad things about you. Don’t fall into that trap. Not only will it become a problem for you in court if you end up back there (most I know dealing with toxic situations do end up back more than once), your child absorbs it.

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What Parental Alienation Syndrome Is

Parental alienation syndrome occurs where one parent is preventing the other from seeing their kids or is manipulating them in ways to turn against the other parent. It is real and it hurts kids more than just about any other emotional abuse in my opinion.

Statements that lead to alienation syndrome include:

  • You should live here full time because Mommy can’t take care of you
  • Mommy (or Daddy) is dumb
  • I think your Mommy’s boyfriend is a criminal. Aren’t you scared?

You’ll hear people talk about “poisoning your child against the other parent.” This is the core of parental alienation syndrome. It confuses kids, but they ultimately realize the reality of the situation. If you don’t engage in the same type of behavior, know that kids are smart and see the truth. It’s hard to watch them struggle with it and even buy into if at times, but the truth is on your side. Take the high road.

There was a policy I made very clear to all family and friends: we don’t discuss my divorce where my son can hear me. I didn’t care if he was napping in the backseat, totally passed out after a day a Disneyland. Even my closest family would be taken aback as I would enforce the policy regardless of how enraged I might be about the situation.  

Learning Parallel Parenting Skills

co-parenting with toxic ex

I didn’t have a partner in my marriage and it was crazy to think that I would have a partner in divorce. It had nothing to do with what was in the best interest of my son. Towards the end of the custody evaluation, having dealt with the mind-changing demands clearly caught lies in testimony and constant aggravation, my attorney advised me to the concept of “parallel parenting.”

What Parallel Parenting Is

Parallel parenting is a type of co-parenting where divorced parents disengage from each other. This doesn’t mean you don’t follow the court order. You simply have to agree that you aren’t going to have a say in what happens at the other person’s house. You can outline things in the court orders and parenting plan and go to court if you feel it is constantly being violated.

Parallel parenting plans mean you don’t agree on things like:

  • Bedtime for the kids
  • Meals and dietary restrictions
  • Television shows, movies and video game use
  • Homework habits

Don’t expect parallel parenting to be easy on you or your child. It does beat the alternative of constantly fighting and never getting a resolution. The other parent is going to do what they want anyways – accept it. Of course, if your child is in danger take action.

My son was in kindergarten and desperately wanted to join the basketball program at the YMCA. His best friend was in the program and he was excited to try a sport. I signed him up and emailed my ex about the schedule. He was upset that I was infringing on his parenting time by signing our son up and refused to take him. I didn’t try to enforce it and my son missed every practice and game when he was at his dad’s.

Of course, he didn’t improve as a player and hated the experience. My intention was good and I was within my rights to sign him up. I didn’t ask my ex to even pay for half. I’d show up at the games on my off weekends, just in case he was there so I could cheer. Mostly I sat there feeling like an idiot even though I was cheering for his team and our friends. My job was to show up even when my kid wasn’t showing up – usually through no fault of his own.

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Tips for Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex

If you are in a co-parenting scenario, you’ll need to develop coping and parenting skills to deal with the situation. Separation or divorce with kids requires you taking time to heal and process your own feeling. That’s the only way you get into a new healthy relationship later on. Engaging with a toxic ex will only delay your healing.

Here are five tips to help co-parent with a toxic ex:

  1. Mind your tongue: keep your beliefs about your ex to yourself and ask all around to do the same.
  2. Get joint Google calendar or Co-Parenting App: Apps like Our Family Wizard allow you to email, schedule and record all events for your child with the other party. It even allows accounts for the kids and stepparents. If needed, the system links as evidence to courts.
  3. Stick to the parenting plan: deviation not only confuses your child, but allows the toxic parent to start bartering, controlling and manipulating. Unless an emergency, keep your end of the parenting plan on track always.
  4. Respect your kids’ relationship with the other parent: This is hard but they have a right to know and spend time with them. Leave it up to your kids to learn the truth about why Mommy and Daddy got a divorce.

Taking Time To Heal

As a co-parent, I’m not perfect but I’ll hold my head high knowing that I did the best I could. I set rules in place to no engage in negative talk about my ex, even when my son was asking why Daddy was saying such bad things about me. A difficult divorce takes time to work through negative feelings. Honestly, there are still triggers for me.

Don’t be afraid to get seek assistance with mental health professionals. They’ll be able to help you discern what is reality and what is the “crazy talk” resulting from your situation.  Know that you can still develop positive parenting skills as time goes on. While your kids feel conflict, they also feel love. Just make sure that is the most prominent thing you show them.

If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with the situations and emotions involved with co-parenting with your ex, join us in our private group, Single Mommy Tribe. We’re supporting, caring and, at times your reality check on moving and becoming a better single mom.

Being a single mom does mean you are parenting solo, but it doesn’t mean you need to be alone. Join the Tribe for support, resources and fun.

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