High conflict couples. Some seek my services attempting to salvage their marriage. Others have decided to divorce and request my services as a “co-parenting communication expert.” In this latter scenario, I am called upon to help high conflict couples co-parent their children. Usually these couple’s assumption about co-parenting is something akin to working together as parents. This is a tall order if the couple hardly agrees on much, gets into arguments over big and small issues, and carries too much anger and not enough indifference toward the other. While co-parenting in principle is the ideal, sometimes it is beyond a high conflict couple’s reach. In these cases, parallel parenting, while in my view less preferred, is probably a better, more tenable option.
Co-parenting is a framework that suggests 2 cooperative parents working together to make decisions on behalf of their children. If the children live in a 2-home configuration (i.e. part of the week with one parent and the other part of the week with the other), co-parenting would reflect a similar “culture” in both homes. This might include similar rules and expectations related to bedtimes, curfews, screen time limits, and general behavior. In essence, there would be a seamless 2-home experience for the children, with 2 parents who have dissolved their marital relationship yet still value their ability to work together as parents. These parents would be able to communicate with each other through direct dialogue, telephone, email or text messaging. They would be able to agree and more importantly be able to disagree without tensions rising or conflicts between them intensifying. Within a 2-home co-parenting arrangement, children generally do well related to depression, anxiety and other psychological issues.
If there is too much emotional conflict between parents however, co-parenting is not realistic. Alternatively, parallel parenting is probably the better option. Given the similar circumstances of a 2-home environment, parallel parenting suggests more of an “invisible wall” between the 2 homes. Each parent sets his or her own culture, rules and expectations, with limited to no contact between each other. The children live their lives with mom on pre-arranged days and holidays and with dad on certain others. The advantage of this arrangement is that high conflict parents don’t have the opportunity to communicate and thus get into conflicts with each other. This inevitably allows both parents to “cool off” and potentially down the road move toward a co-parenting relationship. The disadvantage of parallel parenting is that children are often stressed (i.e. anxious or depressed) as they must accept that their parents carry negative feelings towards one other and are not able or willing to resolve them.
Commonly, I am asked to assist divorcing couples with co-parenting needs. The beginning assumption made by many couples is that they can feud and yet parent together at the same time. Usually I can help high conflict couples recognize that this dynamic will not work if they want to constructively parent together. Some couples are able to rise above their strong feelings for the other. Others however are too entrenched in thoughts and feelings and in these cases need to fall back to parallel parenting. My experience is that parallel parenting over a short period of time does not create deep psychological damage for children. Over longer periods of time however, it can. Sounds like an interesting dissertation project for anyone reading this who might be looking into a PhD/PsyD topic.