Coparenting with Difficult People

Coparenting or parallel parenting with difficult exes is one of life's great challenges. What's the difference between coparenting or parallel parenting? When you're coparenting, there is a reasonable or significant degree of cooperation between you and the other parent. You can frequently enough agree on a variety of things and there's a lot of overlap between what the rules are at your homes. With parallel parenting, these things are absent or in very short supply. You're parenting "in parallel" rather than more or less together.

In our discussion, we're focusing on trying to move in the direction of coparenting and finding better ways to cope with glaring mismatches between rules and parenting styles. It's very important to realize, and accept, that you don't control or make rules at the other home. Trying to control the other parent or your children remotely is not going to work. It's only going to make everyone's lives harder.

We're going to look at difficult coparenting from three different angles in this class and the next. This week we'll focus briefly on dealing with unreasonable people in general, the Karpman Triangle of dysfunctional relationships roles and then start focusing on a flexible coparenting process. We'll finish with the process next week, work through some real-world examples and talk about some foundational coparenting guidelines.

Dealing with Unreasonable People

One of the fundamental mistakes we make in life is to try to reason with the unreasonable. Dr. Alan Godwin goes so far as to say unreasonable people are "un reason able" and lack the capacity to reason or to be reasonable in interpersonal conflict regardless of how smart and capable they might be otherwise.

Dr. Godwin also says that you need to understand that unreasonable people substitute drama for problem solving and that if you aren't prepared for that you will never get anywhere. To deal with drama, he points out that avoiding drama requires planning ahead, may cost you something short term and requires persistence to change.

You can avoid becoming a drama participant by taking care when your buttons are pushed, watching or paying attention to how you react, especially verbally, and avoiding pushing the other person's buttons in retaliation.

You should avoid the common temptation to "tell your side" or "make your case" more vigorously, hoping that they'll eventually get it. The problem is that no matter what you say or how well you say it, unreasonable people won't get it. They won't really listen to, understand or accept your position. If you react by arguing harder, you're right back in the drama, and you lose simply by becoming engaged in the conversational tug of war.

You need to remember this rule of thumb: To solve conflict problems with reasonable people, you should talk more. To solve conflict problems with unreasonable people, you should talk less and act more. The primary way you do this is by sticking to your guns and setting reasonable limits or boundaries for what you are willing to accept, do or change, especially at the last minute.

The Drama Triangle

When you get into an argument or some other form of drama, you fall into one of three roles. While the drama is going on, you switch roles from time to time. You usually have your preferred roles but depending on the moment you may shift to another role as the drama evolves. The roles are described below. (An annotated "infographic" chart of the triangle can be found at the back of this handout.)

The Roles

  1. The Victim: "Victims" tend to feel helpless and blameless. They probably feel some combination of victimized, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, incapable, powerless or ashamed. They may seem unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life or figure things out. They may deny their own ability to do anything. Victims feel defective and want special or kid glove treatment. Victims try to identify "Persecutors" to blame and "Rescuers" who will save the day. These people also help keep the Victim's negative feelings going.
  2. The Rescuer: "Rescuers" try to help (and also enable). Rescuers tend to feel guilty if they don't go to the rescue. Rescuers tend to make themselves indispensable to others. Rescuing has subtle negative effects. It tends to keep the Victim dependent, and it gives the Victim permission to fail. Rescuing usually takes the focus off the rescuer. When they focus their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues.
  3. The Persecutor: (a.k.a. Villain) "Persecutors" insist, "It's all your fault." "Persecutors" are controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritarian, rigid and superior. They bully. They don't provide any sort of help or insight into problems or potential solutions.

How It Works

Each person in the conflict has a natural or default starting role. Depending on your relationship and your history, your starting gate role might be different. In a marriage, someone may tend to start in the persecutor role, yet when in conflict with their mother be in the victim role.

No matter what your role, you will interact with each other based on the view you have from that role. You can even change roles in the middle of a conflict. You might start off as a victim but turn the tables and become a persecutor or a rescuer. However, if you play any of these roles in any drama, you will tend to end up feeling hopeless and helpless. Two people may interact from the victim role and see the other as the persecutor. What role you and someone else are in depends on your personal point of view.

Feelings and Your Coparenting Problems

When you are coparenting, your primary focus and goal always needs to be your children's best interests. Those interests include having the best or most reasonable relationship they can with their other parent. Whatever disagreements you have, you need to leave the kids out of them as far as you can. Unless your children's safety is very clearly as risk, differences in rules, privileges and parenting styles will have to be respected or at the very least respectfully negotiated.

One of the most common coparenting problems happens when one of you thinks there's a problem and the other one doesn't. This might be simple differences of opinion and style, but it may also reflect denial. Whichever it is, as long as one of you isn't interested in changing things, things won't change. It can help if you more clearly identify and clarify any problems you believe you have to yourself, before you take them up with your ex. This can be handled in a few steps. Let's start with the first three.

Step 1: Identifying Your Feelings

Many of the problems you're facing have a number of parts or aspects and you need to be clearer about what you really feel. You need to separate your feelings from the actual problem. Your feeling aren't facts. Your beliefs aren't facts. Regardless of how strong these are at the moment, the actual problem you face is independent of them.

When you get too caught up in your feelings or become overwhelmed by them you tend to do one of two things: You either blow up in anger or you shrink back and become paralyzed with inaction. Neither of these responses helps you effectively solve anything.

Step 2: Accurately Name Your Feelings

We usually have some basic idea of our feelings, but seldom pay very close attention to them and fail to clearly identify them or tie them to important aspects of a situation. We generalize our feelings into four large categories. We're angry. We're depressed. We're worried or afraid. We're happy. All of these cover a lot of territory.

There's a big difference between being "concerned" and being "convinced something really bad is going to happen." It helps to find the right emotion words for each of these. We might accept worried or anxious for the first and scared or perhaps panicky, furious or helpless for the second. These are all very different and have different mental images, stories and thoughts to go with them. When we aren't clear about our feelings, we run the risk of seriously misjudging a situation and making it harder to evaluate and manage our potential responses.

Step 3: Take Ownership of Your Feelings

No one ever "makes you" feel something. You feel the way you do for a variety of reasons. Your feelings are your whole-body response to things and are based on your complete lifetime of experience. Even if "most people" might respond the same way you do, the other person or the situation as a whole don't force you to feel some particular way. Your feelings aren't right or wrong either. They just are. They're a complicated "summary" about what you know and what you've experienced. They can help you weigh things better and make more informed choices. You have to decide what they actually mean, how much weight to give them and what choices make sense with them in mind. Learn to take the time recognize and own your feelings, but don't just let them jump into the driver's seat. When you take ownership, you stay more in control and can manage your responses better.

Putting Problems into a Better Perspective

There are a few cycles in how you live your life. One of them is the Think-Feel-Do cycle. You'll find it illustrated below. When something happens, which we'll call the "event," thoughts and feelings immediately start popping up. We could argue which one really come first, but the important point is that thoughts and feeling rapidly go back and forth and tend to reinforce each other.

The Think-Feel-Do cycle starting event often "triggers" or "cues" memories and launches a memory-based habit of thoughts and feelings. Strong feelings can encourage you to impulsively react before you're aware of your thoughts or the need to make choices. This is almost always a bad place to be in difficult relationships. Even if you don't act impulsively, negative thoughts and feelings tend toward negative actions. You have two windows of opportunity to change this. First, you can pay attention to your thinking and take steps to deal with the cognitive distortions that are present. Taking charge of your thoughts lets your feelings downshift to a healthier level.

The Think-Feel-Do Cycle

Your second window of opportunity involves changing your actions. Regardless of how you feel, you can choose to practice proactive assertive communication. This is Step 4 for handling coparenting (and many other) problems. Notice that whenever you act a new event restarts or continues the cycle. If your cycles look too much like Groundhog Day, start paying more attention to your windows of opportunity.

Step 4: Breaking Down the Problem

You can easily feel overwhelmed when a problem seems to pop up along with an event. This can then very quickly bring a number of other related problems back to mind. It can then seem like there's one big mess to deal with and that there's no good place to start tackling them. It helps to start breaking it back down again. Here are a few keys to more quickly sorting things out:

  1. What's actually in your sphere of control? If you can't do anything about it, leave it aside for the moment. You may later find you have some potential influence but take a look at things you do control first.
  2. Separate the actual facts from your feelings. Pay attention to the language you're using. Identify cognitive distortions and get out of "Cartoon World" if you need to. It can help to imagine talking about what's on your mind with a wise friend and think about what they might say or pay the most attention to.
  3. Once you have a little more thinking room, it's time to pay more attention to which feelings are still the most intense. What parts of the situation are they tied to? What thoughts may be causing them or are lined up with them? You aren't trying to quickly decide if your thoughts and feelings are right or wrong. You're trying to put your own mind in perspective. You might want to ask yourself what cognitive distortions are still coloring things for you.
  4. Take the time to decide what the immediate problem is and whether or not it's really worth your time and energy. Did your reaction to the event temporarily get the better of you? Is this the time and place to deal with it? Should you take more time to think and decide what to do? You have options and being hasty doesn't make you assertive or necessarily serve your goals.
  5. Many conflicts are fueled by anger, envy, jealousy and wanting payback or control. Doublecheck yourself. Are you making a mountain out of a molehill? Do you need to take another deep breath and let go of some "small stuff"? When we've been hurt, and especially when the wounds are still fresh, we struggle with acceptance. Acceptance doesn't mean something is OK. It just means it's not worth so much time, attention, distress and effort. This often takes time and experience for the wisdom to just let go sometimes grow.


DSD, Co vs. Parallel Parenting

Live On Purpose TV, Co-Parenting With A Controlling Ex

Mel Robbins, Know Someone Who Always Has to Be Right? Here's How To Deal With Them

Lauren Kress, The Drama Triangle

The Conscious Leadership Group, Understanding the Drama Triangle vs. Presence


Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran, Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex – A Hands-on, Practical Guide to Communicating with a Difficult Ex-Spouse (2011)

Dr. Alan Godwin, How to Solve Your People Problems: Dealing with Your Difficult Relationships (2011)

David Emerald, The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic): 10th Anniversary Edition (2015)

Verses for the Week

Matthew 18:21-22
21Then Peter came to him and asked, "Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?" 22"No, not seven times," Jesus replied, "but seventy times seven!"

Romans 12:17-18
If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong. Try to do what everyone considers to be good. Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody.

Proverbs 15:18
Hot tempers cause arguments, but patience brings peace.

Proverbs 4:23
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. (New Living Translation)
Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts. (Good News Translation)

Prayer for the Week

Help me this week to pay attention to how I think about and respond to conflict. Help me stop my negative trains of thought, ask myself better questions and have empathy for and curiosity about the other people involved. Help me to remember my part, admit my mistakes and limitations. Help me be a better me, not only for me, but for the people who are around me. Help me to connect to and really value those around me. Amen.

The Karpman Drama Cycle