Parallel Parenting: A High-Conflict Co-Parenting Model


parallel parenting

In an ideal world, divorcing your spouse would instantly release all hostility between you and your now ex. All the pent up resentment, anger and misgivings you’ve harbored during years of dysfunctional matrimony dissolve like your marriage with the signing of the decree.

Unfortunately, that fairy tale almost never comes true. This can make moving forward after a divorce involving children just as thorny as when you were still together.

Co-parenting is regarded as the best option for mitigating the harmful effects of divorce on children. However, this method requires former spouses to exercise extensive communication, flexibility and a general ability to get along — conditions that are unlikely to exist after a high-conflict divorce.

Luckily, an alternate form of co-parenting exists that is designed to achieve the same goal for ex-spouses who still cannot stand one another, known as parallel parenting.

Same goal, different approach

The most damaging effect on children is not simply the existence of parental discord; it is being directly exposed to the conflict.

In some divorces, couples are amicably able to put aside their differences, separate their lives and continue a new parenting relationship where they actively work together for the benefit of their children. When that is not possible, a different method must be taken to give the children what they need: A meaningful relationship with both parents devoid of constant parental fighting.

This is achieved by taking the business-like attitude co-parents often share to the highest level. By completely disengaging from each other and focusing entirely on the children, even the most spiteful of ex-spouses are able to effectively parent while avoiding any unnecessary interactions.

Parallel parenting requires comprehensive preparation up front when developing the parenting plan, but after the details are squared away, there is little room to question how things will work in the future and little need to deviate from the agreement.

Applying parallel parenting

During the course of negotiating custody arrangements, both spouses may come to the conclusion that they cannot parent cooperatively to the benefit of their children.

Deciding to forgo traditional co-parenting models because they know it will only hurt their children, they are able to lay out an agreement that essentially sets in stone how the future parenting arrangement will work that requires the bare minimum of interactions with each other. This entails:

  • Utilizing a third-party facilitator — They will help mediate the creation of the initial plan and any further face-to-face meetings that are required between parents. Several different options exist to moderate discussions, such as a childcare specialist, therapist, social worker or even a member of your church.
  • Hammering out extremely specific details — The parallel parenting plan should be constructed to avoid any possible room for misinterpretation. This includes specific times and public places for exchanges, contingency plans for cancellations and methodology for dispute resolution.
  • Reducing any kind of notion there will be flexibility — Deviating from a plan breeds conflict. You will need to design everything in advance down to the smallest detail on a shared calendar, and work to uphold the agreement unless there is some kind of catastrophic emergency that prevents you from doing so.
  • Communicating only when necessary — Limit communications to only important details, and schedule regular intervals for sharing this information. Additionally, communicate through writing (email, letters, etc.) as much as possible so you can ensure all messages are kept formal and lack anything antagonistic. A shared “parenting notebook” that you can pass back and forth is a good way to document and share important information about your children.
  • Running households independently — Parallel parenting means each parent is in charge of making decisions while the children are under their care. Do not send instructions or push the other to change their style. Unless your children are in imminent danger, realize that your way is not the only way to parent.
  • Remembering to keep the focus on the children — You and your ex may despise each another, but you both love your children. Any aggravation you must endure from your ex can be endured for the sake of your kids. You may have to remind yourself that at times, but looking out for their best interests is your No. 1 priority.

Transitioning parallel parenting to co-parenting

It is only natural for a lot of bitterness to exist following the conclusion of a high-conflict divorce. Since this can be extremely detrimental to the relationship between children and parents, it makes sense in certain situations to go with a parallel parenting plan to reduce the chance of catching your children in the middle.

However, that does not mean you should give up on the chance of one day being able to co-parent effectively.

It may take years, but eventually your anger toward your spouse should start to cool. Once you have moved on with your life and she has moved on with hers, work to put old grudges aside.

Your emphasis should obviously always remain on your children’s best interests. Well, it is in their best interest to have parents who can both come to their soccer games or school performances without causing a scene.

As a mature adult, make the conscience effort to achieve the ability to be in the same room as your ex without being overwhelmed with anger.

Even if it takes until your children are grown, you both owe it to them to be able to attend their graduation or wedding many years later without past bitterness causing a blowout.

Parallel parenting offers an alternative co-parenting model for spouses still overwhelmed with negative emotions after a high-conflict divorce. By disengaging all but the most necessary communication between you and your ex, children are still able to have a meaningful relationship with both parents without being caught in the middle of your shared animosity.

Though it still takes a lot of work to succeed, just as any co-parenting relationship does, parallel parenting presents a transition option to help acclimate you to your new role as a divorced parent.

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