Co-Parenting Primer

Brette Sember's picture

by Brette Sember

Dave and Karen have just gotten divorced. Their divorce wasn't pleasant but it was reasonable, especially when it came to custody. The kids live with Karen, and Dave sees them every other weekend and one night per week. Their divorce decree refers to their "co-parenting" plan and talks about joint legal custody with Karen having residential custody. Neither one of them is quite sure what all of these words mean or how they are supposed to co-parent when what they want more than anything is to start their own separate lives.

co-parenting"Co-parenting" is a big buzz word when it comes to divorce. You've probably heard about the importance of co-parenting, but understanding what co-parenting really is and how to make it work requires delving beneath the hot word of the day.

Types of Custody Arrangements

Before you can even begin to try to co-parent together or understand what co-parenting is, it is important to understand what the custody options are when your marriage or relationship ends. There a variety of arrangements possible. The biggest distinction is between legal custody and physical custody.

Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to parental authority and decision making power. Parents can have joint or sole legal custody. Parents who share joint legal custody are supposed to make important decisions about the child together (and is truly at the root of co-parenting). These include education, health, religion, and other major decisions.

In theory, joint legal custody requires the parents to truly cooperate. In reality, often parents are given joint legal custody simply because it is a way of making the parent who does not have primary physical custody feel better about the situation.

I've worked with several families where a schedule was easy to create, but the father would not agree to it because he did not technically have joint custody. Changing that wording made the agreement more palatable -- parents like to be able to say, "I have joint custody of my children." Often this designation is in words only -- parents who couldn't work together before are not magically transformed into cooperative parents by a court decree. Often the residential parent ends up being the one who makes many decisions about the child without the other's input.

On the other hand, just because one parent is given sole legal custody does not mean that the other parent is completely shut out of participating in decisions about the child's life. Your custody arrangement is what you make of it.

Physical Custody

Physical custody has to do with how the child's time is shared by the parents. There are an infinite number of ways time can be shared -- any possible schedule permutation can you think of. However, there are a few ways these arrangements can be characterized. First, let's consider the child's primary residence. In most custody arrangements, the child has one home base -- the parent's home at which he or she spends the most time. This parent is sometimes referred to as the residential or primary parent.

If one parent is given sole physical custody, it means that the child spends all of his or her time with that parent and does not see the other parent. This is rare, except in cases of abuse or neglect. Parents can also have joint or shared physical custody, which means they share the child's time in a relatively equal way, such as alternating weeks or months, or splitting the weeks in half. As great as this sounds, it doesn't work for many families. Most commonly one parent is given primary custody or residential custody and the other is given visitation.

What is Co-Parenting?

Generally speaking, co-parenting refers to two parents continuing to function as a parental unit after a divorce. Instead of going their separate ways and never speaking or cooperating, co-parents continue to see themselves as a parenting team who must work together and rely on each other to raise their children together.

Joining together in this way is the best thing possible for the child, who needs to know he still has two parents who care enough about him to work together. Co-parenting is possible in most cases, except when there is domestic violence or control issues.

No matter what kind of custody and visitation schedule is in place, almost anyone can be co-parents. Co-parenting is not about equally sharing time or even making big decisions together; it is instead a state of mind. Your divorce has not ended your parenting relationship. In fact, you will be parents together for the rest of your lives, even after your children are adults. Co-parenting is a cooperative approach to the years ahead of you and a way of including both parents in the child’s life.

Co-parenting does not mean second guessing each other or having no individual freedom. Since you are each essentially parenting alone, you have to have the ability to make decisions on your own. What it does mean is trying to face the big picture of parenting together -- working together to solve problems in your child's life, presenting a united front on things such as curfews and household rules, and sometimes joining together in a happy way to celebrate your child's accomplishments or milestones. Viewing each other as partners in your child's life is at the root of co-parenting.

Co-Parenting Agreements

Co-parenting agreements are sometimes included as part of your divorce decree or family court order. Sometimes, though, co-parenting agreements are negotiated and created with the help of a therapist. Co-parenting agreements can be very short and simply list the schedule you will follow. They can also be quite long and incorporate other details about how you will parent together, make decisions together, and face problems as parents.

How to Co-Parent Successfully

The first step in co-parenting successfully is to talk to your children about the divorce together. The news that you are separating or divorcing needs to be shared by both parents together. Talking to your kids about why you are breaking up (only general reasons should be discussed, such "mom and dad are fighting a lot and need a break" or "we have decided we don’t want to be married anymore" and it must be emphasized that none of it is the child's fault) sets the tone for your entire co-parenting relationship. It lets your kids know that you are still parents together and will continue to work as a unit. If you aren't comfortable talking to your kids together, then you need to seek help from a therapist who can assist you with this.

One key to making a co-parenting arrangement successful is respect. You must respect the other parent. You likely have a lot of bad feelings towards the other parent, but you need to find a way to separate your parenting from those feelings. Your goal is to create a good life for your child and you can do that by parenting together in a respectful and cooperative manner.

Flexibility is the other key to success. You have a schedule, but you need to be flexible with each other. Today the other parent may ask for a change, but tomorrow it will likely be you who is running late, suddenly has a business trip scheduled for your weekend, or wants to take your child to a special event on a day you aren't scheduled for. Cut each other some slack. Also, try to approach your time sharing on a monthly basis. Don't be uptight if you have three hours less with your daughter this week than you are supposed to. Things tend to even out over the course of a month, so try to look at the schedule in a long term way rather than an in a to the minute manner.

Evolution of Co-Parenting Agreements

One of the biggest changes in co-parenting agreements in recent years is the wording. Custody and visitation were words that were always used to explain how parents shared their time with their children, but more and more people are realizing that there are better words. Parenting experts today prefer to talk in terms of parenting time, parenting schedules, parenting plans or just simply agreements. These words are much more family-friendly and do not degrade the parent who has the least amount of time. There is also more recognition of the fact that the time really belongs to the child and not to the parents, so parents are learning not to refer to "my time" and "my days."

Co-parenting agreements have become more and more specific over the years. For some families, they are pages and pages long. One family I worked with created a long document that specified each parent's responsibilities to the finest details. This included bedtimes, types of meals appropriate for the child, and even details about who was responsible for what portion of the child's laundry. The problem with very detailed co-parenting agreements is that they don't give a lot of room for flexibility and have to be re-drafted as your child ages and has different needs.

Co-parenting is the best way to help your child through the divorce and the years afterward. Working together as parents after a divorce is not always easy, but it always offers big benefits.

Brette McWhorter Sember is a retired family attorney and mediator and nationally known expert about divorce and parenting after divorce. She is the author of:

Learn more about Brette on her web site.

Copyright © Brette McWhorter Sember. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.