Divorce can be a stressful situation on both parents and on the children involved. While many studies show that co-parenting is the ideal situation for the children, there are cases where it is not the best route. Co-parenting with a high-conflict ex can be difficult, if not impossible.
Dr. Joan Kelly, a renowned psychologist, reminds us that the outcomes for children of divorce improve when positive bonds with both parents exist. These enhanced outcomes include better psychological and behavioral adjustment as well as improved academic performance.
Dr. Kelly also states that when compared to children who are in the sole custody of their mothers, children who have both parents are generally satisfied, feel loved, and experience fewer feelings of loss.
There is one caveat. Few experts discuss the drawbacks of co-parenting when one of the parents has a high-conflict personality. Some parents create an environment or expectation that the children should choose sides. This can lead to a parent fostering the rejection of the other parent. In extreme cases, children get manipulated into hating one parent by the other.
High-conflict personalities like to “win” by provoking emotion from their opponents. That’s why you need to plan for the worst. People with high-conflict personalities may never be able to move on from the old relationship. Keep records of everything and respond to even the most frivolous accusations with factual, non-defensive presentations of the real details.
Dr. Edward Kruk, Ph.D., recommends parallel parenting rather than co-parenting in these situations. Parallel parenting is a style of parenting in which the divorced parents co-parent with one another while also disengaging from each other. It means parenting with as little contact with your former spouse as possible. Though the parents remain disconnected from one another, they remain connected with the children.
This usually works when parents agree who will be responsible for the different domains of the child’s life. An example would be one parent being responsible for medical decisions while the other being responsible for educational decisions.
With parallel parenting in place, the parents can often let their heads cool. With enough time, they may be willing to resume a more cooperative parenting mode. Dr. Kruk also states that children of divorce benefit from strong relationships with both parents. These children simultaneously need shielding from parental conflicts.
Marriage and family therapist Virgina Gilbert agrees that attempting to co-parent with a high-conflict personality, such as a narcissist, will keep the other parent engaged in constant battle. Instead of trying classic therapy, which encourages openness and authenticity, they need to invert that goal. Gilbert recommends minimizing contact with the high-conflict personality. This is because they thrive off of conflict. She also recommends keeping your feelings to yourself.
Gilbert also recommends that you never admit wrongdoing. A high-conflict personality will use any admission of guilt as a means to achieve their ends.
Finally, Gilbert agrees with Dr. Kruk and suggests parallel parenting instead of co-parenting in the case of high-conflict personalities. The more high-conflict your ex is, the more you will need to distance yourself and your parenting.
While co-parenting with a high-conflict is not advisable, parallel parenting still allows for both parents stay active in the lives of their children.