Co-parenting with an ex-partner can be tough at the best of times but add in other negative factors and things can soon become exponentially more difficult. In episode 277, I received a question from a listener who has been struggling to co-parent with a toxic ex, finding it difficult to safeguard her own wellbeing in the aftermath. In this post, I take a look at this subject in more detail and offer my thoughts on how you can protect yourself and your children in situations such as this.
Obvious answer is to cut those people out of your life, but what if you can’t?
My ex husband has some diagnosed, but untreated mental heath issues and co-parenting with him (even when we were married) has always been difficult. It doesn’t help that we both come from different cultures and have very different ideas as to how to discipline our child. I do my best to not engage with him when him when he is in a highly emotional state and I’ve mastered the art of remaining calm when he starts in on me for something he dislikes, but it’s the aftermath that I am having trouble coping with. I find myself unable to stop replaying these conversations/interactions in my head for days afterwards. Pacing around the house or laying in bed trying to not let his words get to me. I tell myself to just “let it go” as Princess Elsa would say, but how? Are there any tools you know of to move on from a difficult interaction with a toxic person? That is, aside from climbing to a snowy mountaintop and singing a song about it.
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Thank you for this question. This is a tough situation and one that I encounter often. When you have a situation like this, you are essentially required to put your child into a situation that you would not choose to put them in if you had the choice. That goes against your very instincts as a mammal. So it’s absolutely common to have strong feelings about this and have a difficult time shaking them off.
Coparenting is not easy, even when everyone gets along. When you introduce differences in parenting, conflict, and other negative aspects, it just multiplies that pre-existing difficulty further. Culture is an important thing to consider, but if you are living in the US, there are certain behaviors that do transcend culture and are universally inappropriate or illegal. So, if you have concerns that rise to that level, I suggest you consult with your local child protective services branch and ask them about the behaviors you are concerned about. I’m not assuming that there is abuse going on here, but I do want to empower you to do something about it and not remain silent if you think there might be.
Parenting and attachment
In my experience, a lot of the dwelling and turmoil comes from not your own initial emotional reactions and displeasure, but more about what this means for your kid. The implications of these conflicts or the behaviors of their parent. What will this do to them? How will this impact their development? Just like many things, whether it is Youtube, lessons at school, lessons on the playground, television, etc. your job as a parent is to be a place for your child to return to and digest their experience. You get to hold them and reframe things for them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about attachment lately and I find that a lot of people forget the fact that it’s very common to have a different attachment style to each caregiver. You might have a more anxious or disorganized attachment style to one parent and a more secure one to the other. This is a powerful realization because that means that you have influence over your kid’s situation as well. You can work toward being their secure base. When they encounter difficult situations in life, they can trust that you are their stability and consistency. You are there for them to feel, to think, and to be safe. You being that for them makes a huge difference, even if they encounter difficult things on the other side of the equation.
I think that it can be a good thing at times to understand the other person’s tendencies and not play into their issues. This is like dropping the rope instead of playing tug-o-war. However, I also want you to be wary of falling into a cycle of avoidance and placating. If there are real issues to be addressed here for the safety and well-being of your child, then that is what needs to happen. If you haven’t gotten much external feedback about the situation, I would encourage you to get that. This can be trusted friends and family members or even professionals. Share your concerns and try to get a feel for what other people think. Is this just a quirk of the co-parenting situation that you will need to continue working on and clarifying with your kid or is this something that must change? If this is something that needs to be addressed, there are avenues to do so from family therapy to interventions of other family members to family court. You would need to decide on the most appropriate route for you.
BUT let’s assume this is something that does not rise to that level of requiring intervention. It’s just an unfortunate quirk of the situation that you are having a hard time letting go, what can you do?
Taking care of yourself
Personal therapy is a great option. Having a place to vent, to sometimes ask opinions, to clarify whether you are acting or feeling based on assumptions, and when appropriate to strategize. I’ve worked with a number of people in similar situations and it has been very healing and useful for them to have the frame of therapy to work through these issues.
You mentioned that you are pacing, replaying things in your head etc. Are you doing anything with those thoughts? Sometimes we let thoughts crash into our head over and over without doing anything about them. I know these are things that you are trying to not think of as much, but they also can’t be ignored. Sometimes, it can actually be helpful to set aside time and intentionally think of them. Rather than try to force the thoughts out and have them slip in through the cracks, maybe you could set aside some time. Actually even setting a timer. Get out a piece of paper or your journal, write down what happened, how you feel about it, what your thoughts are about the implications, whether any follow up in necessary, and how you can work to continue making things good for your kid. This is a great way to get the thoughts down somewhere else instead of letting them just rattle around in your head. When you don’t put things on paper or in some other format, your brain actually tries to keep them at the top of your mind. It’s a problem that you are continuing to try to solve. It’s almost like you are rehearsing it. But just like any other problem, starting to actually work it out on paper can help a whole lot. You may also use this reflection time as a time to notice what you are doing well, congratulate yourself as a parent, and build up the awesome work that you are doing to keep your kid moving in the right direction.
This is also an area where mindfulness training can be helpful. I’ve gone into mindfulness many times, but having an active mindfulness practice can help you learn how to take things more in stride. To allow thoughts to just be thoughts without overwhelming your entire awareness. To be less judgmental and caught up in your own internal experience. So if you have thoughts about the co-parenting situation or specific instances of conflict, they can exist without taking over the entirety of your experience.
The last thing I will say is to not forget that you have rights here. If he is being inappropriate toward you, it can be the safest and easiest option to treat him like a child having a tantrum and not play into it. But you also have a right to advocate for and defend yourself. You are allowed to say that certain behaviors are inappropriate.
Thank you for the question. I hope those ideas are helpful for you.
You can listen to this on Episode 277 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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