Coparenting with Difficult People

Last week we started looking at difficult coparenting from three different angles. We focused briefly on dealing with unreasonable people in general, the Karpman Drama Triangle of dysfunctional relationships roles and then started focusing on a flexible coparenting process. This week we're finishing with the process, working through some real-world examples and talking about some foundational coparenting guidelines.

The Problem Pyramid

Another way to get some perspective on an event or situation is to look at it with the problem pyramid in mind. If you've already started working through your feelings and breaking down the problem like we discussed last week, you've already gotten started. You'll have already answered the first of the four pyramid questions. Take a look below.

The Problem Pyramid

With the problem more or less defined, the next two pyramid questions make answering the last question easy. So, let's look at the next question: "Who has upset feelings about the issue?" While several people, including you, may have some feelings about the issue, who has significant feelings? Look at the main players in turn, you, your ex and your kids. Who feels strongly? Next ask yourself, who's bringing this up? If more than one person has brought it up over time, who's bringing it up now?

The final question to ask is: "Who's responsible for the solution?" This completely depends on how you answered the last two questions. If there's just one name for both that's easy. It's that person. If that's not you, don't try to fix it. If there's more than one person, a shared solution or several partial or individual solutions may be needed. Only take care of your part. If the upset person isn't the one who brought it up, it's most likely the one who's bringing it up needs to deal with it. Whoever is responsible is the "Top of the Pyramid."

Problem Pyramid Examples

"Simple" Cases

"My ex doesn't pack my son's school homework on the weekends I see him."

Who has upset feelings? You.
Who raised the issue? You.
Who tops the pyramid? You.

"Daddy makes me go to bed at eight on Saturday nights."

Who has upset feelings? The child.
Who raised the issue? The child.
Who tops the pyramid? The child.

"My ex called me at 2:00 a.m. because our son was running a 100° fever."

Who has upset feelings? Your ex (and you, for being awakened).
Who raised the issue? Your ex.
Who tops the pyramid? Your ex.

"My ex reads the emails I send to my son."

Who has upset feelings? You (and maybe your child).
Who raised the issue? You (and maybe your child).
Who tops the pyramid? You (and maybe your child).

"Complex" Case

"I was just about to leave to see a movie when the phone rang. It was Amy, crying hysterically. She was begging to come home because her dad wanted her to go to bed and wouldn't let her watch her favorite TV show. Why does he have to put her to bed so early? Anyway, Amy kept crying and crying. By the time she calmed down, it was too late for my movie. I was angry and exhausted, and my night was shot!"

  1. What exactly is the problem? Amy isn't having a good time at her dad's, so she called Mom, crying. Mom's plans to go out are now ruined because she has to spend time calming Amy down.
  2. Who has upset feelings about the issue? Amy is upset because bedtime is too early. Mom is upset that her plans are ruined.
  3. Who brought up the issue? Amy. (If Amy hadn't called Mom, Mom wouldn't have an issue.)
  4. Who tops the problem pyramid? Amy! Because Amy's name appears on the second two levels of the pyramid, the most effective route for Mom to take will involve supporting Amy in solving her own problem. When Mom empowers Amy to deal directly with her dad, she can avoid engaging in a battle with her ex over the rules in his house, where he has the final authority. By allowing Amy to deal directly with her dad, Mom will help Amy feel more confident and more in control and she will be less likely to need her mom's help in the future. Subsequently, Mom will achieve her Saturday nights without phone calls from Amy or conflicts with Amy's dad.
(Adapted from: 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)

Successful Coparenting Guidelines

1. Accept different rules for different homes.

Your house your rules. The other parent's house their rules. If you can't agree and no one is in danger of immediate harm, that's it. You don't get to make rules for each other. It's also not OK for you (or the other parent) to tell the kids they have to obey your rules at the other house. Don't put them in the middle of your conflict.

2. Don't make your children choose sides.

Kids need to have the best most appropriate relationship they can with both of you. Don't set things up so they have to decide who's right or wrong or who's good or bad. Family "political correctness" isn't OK. Don't put them in the middle of your conflict or to feel they have to validate your point of view.

3. Own your divorce or separation.

Your divorce is your divorce. Even if it wasn't something you wanted, you need to own it. It's not your kids' fault, and they may need to know that. It also doesn't help to blame the other parent, even if they did a variety of inappropriate stuff. Your divorce is yours, not theirs.

4. Don't confide things to your kinds or ask them to keep secrets.

Don't put your kids in the middle by asking them to keep secrets for you or to report on the other parent to you. This isn't only awkward for them; it also puts them in the place of basically lying for you or the other parent. Again, don't put them in the middle of your conflict. If you've done something you don't really want the other parent to know, it's not great, but you probably need to be the one to let the other parent know first. Don't leave your kids on the hook.

5. Don't kill the messenger or reward the spy.

You kid's aren't messengers or go-betweens. Communication between you and your ex needs to go directly between you as much as possible. You can't expect messages relayed by you kids to be delivered accurately and to not be manipulated at times.

If your kids do come back with what sounds like juicy gossip or tales of your ex's misfortune, keep your reactions to yourself. Be as matter of fact as you can. Don't reward them for it and don't ask them to spy.

6. Don't give your kids negative messages about the other parent.

When you criticize or belittle your ex in front of your kid's, they don't hear it the same way you do. They still love, respect and sometimes identify with them. When someone says, "Your mom is crazy." or "Your dad is such a jerk," the kid's might also hear "And so are you." The more a child cares about and feels they are in some ways like the other parent, the more likely it is they'll take it personally and mean something about who they are, too.

7. Beware of cascading consequences.

If someone is experiencing consequences for misbehaving at your house, the consequences stay at your house. Remember, it's "Your house your rules. Their house their rules." If something quite serious has happened, then inform the other parent and if you agree on consequences then jointly enforce them. This should very much be the exception and not the rule.

8. Don't parentify your child.

It can be very tempting to deputized older children as junior parents and put them in charge when you are out. It will unavoidably happen as they get older that you have to be somewhere without them and at least one of them can keep an eye on things, but you don't have to put them in charge in such a way that they can discipline the others or take on responsibilities that are really yours.

It's also not OK to use you kids for emotional support or as sounding boards for you and your issues. You kids need to have as normal a kid's life as they can in spite of your divorce. Don't set them up for codependent relationships by having to deal with adult feelings and issues before their time.

9. Don't encourage your kids to regress.

Kids sometimes "regress" after a divorce. They may fall back into immature behavior or habits as a way of coping with things or getting attention. In either case, don't encourage it and don't assume that your divorce was mistake or that the other parent is for some reason responsible. Encourage mature behavior and if the problems persist, get professional help for all of you.

10. Keep transition times low-key.

Going back and forth between parents is stressful for everyone. Make the transitions as routine, low-key and drama free as possible. For younger kids, it may help to remind them how it's going to work: "I'll kiss you goodbye, stand at the door and wave as the car leaves. I'll pick you up…"

Sometimes feelings will run too high and a moment or two of soothing is required. Keep it brief. Reassure them that you and they will be fine and that you're looking forward to them being back soon. Don't reward drama or meltdowns. If necessary, walk away and leave it in the other parent's hands if they're good with it. If there are problems when they get home, let them talk about their feelings and sit with them if you find it helps, but don't reward or encourage drama. Do not tell your kid's the other parent is to blame for the way they feel.

11. Make a home for your children.

If you only have your kids parttime and don't have a bedroom at your house, make sure they still have a place or some space they can for the most part call their own. Whether it's a drawer, shelf or corner, it's theirs and they can rely on having it. If they have special towels, sheets or other things that they can call their own, that can help them feel like they really belong there. You want your kids to feel as at home as they reasonably can. They shouldn't fell like guests or intruders. They're still your kids and you're still family when you're together in spite of a variety of changes.

12. Develop new rituals and traditions.

Holidays and other special occasions can be a challenge when households are radically changed. Creating new traditions can be a way to rebuild a sense of family again. When holidays are shared, figuring out how to have a special day when you're not going to be together on the "official" day is important, too.

13. Use trial periods.

In the early days of your new arrangements, it's important to treat things as a set of experiments. You're trying things out. There should be as little as possible that's fully set, but it's still important to do things a particular way for a period of time. You need to get a better feel for how something works and not add to the chaos and confusion by changing too many things too many times too quickly. Be careful with anything involving court orders or that may set precedents for future court orders.

14. Remember that an ounce of prevention

If you and your ex are having difficulty cooperating, minimize the number and "intensity" of the meetings or situations that you're involved in. Instead of picking kids up, agree to dropping off. If necessary, do it at a "neutral" location like a school, library, restaurant or other public place. If you have to be at an event together, consider how to sit well away from each other in advance. Consider opposite sides or front and back.

15. A little planning can go a long way.

When you're jumping back into the dating pool and are ready to start talking about your "new friend" or planning to introduce them to your kids, you should take into consideration how you're going to handle it with them. Think about their temperaments. How might they react? Do you know or suspect they'd still really like or even expect you and your ex to get back together again? What's an appropriate low-key way to do this? Do you want to wait until things are reasonably serious first?

16. Leave well enough alone.

When your kids are at the other parent's house, don't intrude. Short of a true emergency, don't call, text, email or otherwise disrupt the visit. It's OK if they contact you, but you need to keep it short. It's all too easy to reward their behavior. They need to be relating to the other parent not you while they're there. This is an area where subtle manipulation can easily go both ways. Avoid getting in the middle of the other parent's relationship with your kids.

(Adapted from: 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)


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.