After eight years of separation, my children's father and I pride ourselves on the relationship we keep for the benefit of our children. We celebrate birthdays and holidays, and sometimes even travel together to attend events for our children. Our friends and family commend us on the relationship we are able to have for our kids.
Last year I posted a picture on Facebook from my sons birthday with us all. In the comments, a friend wrote that "we had it all figured out." I began to wonder if our smiling faces and togetherness made it all look easy. It made me worry that people struggling in their co-parenting relationship might assume it was all rainbows and butterflies in ours.
For anyone wondering, it isn't. Not at all. But having a good relationship with your ex is possible.
Here are a few things that have helped my ex and I navigate our co-parenting relationship.
Accept each other's strengths and flaws
This one isn't easy. It might even be one of the hardest.
We all have strengths and flaws. With our exes, we're often acutely aware of what those things are, especially if they've been a driving factor in the relationship ending. Focusing on what you don't like about your ex is a recipe for disaster. If we focus more on what we do like, such as their strengths as parents, we will see it more often.
I know that some of my character traits drive my ex crazy, just as some of his bother me. We may at times vent in confidence to people close to us — this is natural and healthy — but at the end of the day we've worked really hard not to let that come between us.
The kids benefit from this choice.
Think about what's best for the kids
Sometimes we need to make decisions regarding the kids where the answer isn't simple, such as ones that don't follow the co-parenting schedule we have, or the norms we see other families following.
These situations are often about family holidays, and may affect one parent's time. For example, every Christmas Eve since we separated, the children stay with me overnight and then spend Christmas Day with their dad. We do this because the kids have told us this is what they want.
My ex could have argued it wasn't fair for me to have every Christmas Eve with them. We could have pushed them to go to their dad's place every other year. Instead, we took our feelings out of the equation, and asked, "What is best for the kids?"
If your ex wants to take the kids on a trip, but that means they'll leave on Friday, and you expected to have them till Sunday, why not let them go? Don't just think about "your time," but also their time.
Have realistic expectations
We often place unrealistic expectations on people and relationships. People are not always capable of what we think they should be, and this always leads to disappointment.
With our exes, I think we often know what to expect, yet we still set the bar too high. When we can get real about what each of us bring to the relationship, and not expect more, we'll be less disappointed, which in turn will cause less conflict and hard feelings.
Keep good communication
There's no way to completely avoid bumps in your co-parenting relationship, so you need to communicate. When things happen that upset you with your ex, don't be afraid to have "I feel" discussions. When you start the conversation with an "I feel" approach, it can keep the other person from believing you're pointing fingers or placing blame.
You need to do it, for the kids.
My ex and I have used this approach and found it to be helpful. We often learn through our discussions that certain words or actions were perceived in an unintended way. It can be a hard conversation to have, but improving communication between you and your ex will benefit the kids.
Sometimes you just have to be the bigger person
At times, one of you may need to bend, be flexible and sacrifice more. It's not really any different than what we do in other relationships in our lives, but, possibly because of the history with our ex-partner, it can be easier to feel justified in not compromising.
Still, you need to do it, for the kids.
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Here's the truth: you're both stuck on this roller coaster ride, and so are your children. We can spend the ride focusing on past hurt, and how we think our ex is failing as a parent all while our children watch. Or we can say hey, we are the two people our children love most in the world, so let's try to get along.
The truth is that the smiles in that picture I posted on Facebook post are genuine, but it took a lot of hard work to get there. It was work worth doing.
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