“All happy families resemble each other. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. " Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina
As the legal system has moved increasingly to support the policy of "joint custody" (joint managing conservatorship-JMC- as it's called in Texas), the reality is that physical "custody" or "primary residence" for the children still resides with mom in about 85% of divorce and custody cases. But regardless of where the children live, most (about 60%) of those kids will have regular visits with the non-custodial parent, and the two parents and their fractured family will have to cooperate in some minimal ways to function as co-parents to their children.
The research is very clear. Kids who have a working co-parenting arrangement suffer less and function better after the divorce than those children who don't have regular involvement from both of their parents. Regardless of the many challenges in co-parenting with a person whom you have recently divorced, the kids benefit if the co-parenting relationship is free from hostility; if the hostility between the parents continues, the children will suffer, many of them permanently harmed by the toxic environment in which they live.
In between the extremes of no visitation, and the ideal of genuinely cooperative co-parenting without conflict, lies the vast majority of co-parenting relationships where mostly well meaning people do their best to make the post-divorce life of their children as good as they can. The question for many of them is: How are we doing and how can we tell?
Here's a simple four factor system for parents to use to evaluate their co-parenting track record, and then use as a guide to making any improvements that may be needed. The four factors are: Communication, Affection, Power, and Task Completion.
Good communication between co-parents is open, not guarded, and information is neither withheld nor shared with hostile intent. Information about school, grades, activities, friends, health, pets, awards, school discipline, or emotional crises are freely shared in a timely and thoughtful and considerate way. The communication is appropriately "dosed" not to much and not too little.
When this level of open and free flow of information isn't yet possible, then the BIFF system is used: communication is Brief, Informative, Firm, and Friendly.
In healthy intact families, affection is freely expressed and warmly received. Children hug their parents and parents hug their children, and touch is used as a way to communicate genuine care and concern. In fractured families, children sometimes withhold public displays of affection for one or both parents because they are afraid that any expression of affection for one parent will be interpreted as disloyalty to the other parent. And parents can likewise use their overly exuberant displays of affection at times of exchanges of custody as a weapon aimed at their former spouse (and now co-parent).
For co-parents the goal is to express affection to your children, and to encourage your children and your co-parent to express their affection without concern that it will be threatening.
In healthy intact families, power is usually shared by the parents, with decisions made by joint consultation. For some decisions, dad will have more influence and final authority; for others, mom's expertise will make her the more influential parent. In any case, the final authority will rest with the parents: NEVER with the children. In healthy families, children are NEVER in charge.
For most co-parents, the power arrangements have been settled by the terms of the divorce decree. The decree should spell out who has the "right" to make decisions about health care, counseling for the kids if needed, educational issues, and other matters. The decree is intended to be the "go to" if co-parents cannot cooperate. Regardless of who owns the right according to the decree, the more that co-parents cooperate in decision making, the better the children will do in the long run.
In co-parenting families, effective use of power requires healthy communication (see above). The opportunity for children to manipulate parents, and to gain control to the point where it is bad for the children, is greatly increased when communication between co-parents is poor.
Healthy intact families get things done. Income is produced, bills get paid on time, household chores and maintenance are done regularly and without drama, homework is done early and checked by mom and dad, after school activities are enrolled, paid for, and kids get to practices and games (or rehearsals and performances) regularly and on time without drama. Life is busy, active, and productive.
The challenge for co-parents is much greater because of the physical (and emotional) distance between the parents. Task completion requires much more attention, focus, and discipline for both parents and children in fractured families. However, the bottom line for the children is the same: if the kids are doing their daily chores, getting to school, doing their work, getting to their activities, and getting to bed on a regular schedule, then this part of family life is being successfully accomplished after divorce.
If any of these four areas of family life are not working as well as you would like, then the first thing to do is to start with the first factor: communication. Have a chat with your co-parent at a Starbucks, and express your concern, and have a suggested solution. If the two of you have a history of conflict, then start with email rather than face to face discussions. Remember to use the BIFF system: keep the email Brief, Informative, Firm and Friendly. Stick to one issue at a time, don't do a long laundry list. Solve one issue, and then move on with a track record of success.
Your children will benefit from your efforts by having the advantage of two parents who work together for their welfare, just like kids from healthy intact families. Do it for your kids.