First published in www.stuff.co.nz - 10 August 2020
Seven Common Causes of Conflict between Separated Parents (and how to avoid them)
Parenting can be stressful at the best of times, and even more so after separation. Family Dispute Resolution mediator, counsellor and Parenting-through-Separation facilitator Karen Allsop shares her strategies for smoothing the path
“Our parenting agreement is so general, it actually causes more arguments”.
A parenting agreement that is vague and open to interpretation spells trouble. For example: “Sally will spend Mother’s Day with her mother, and Father’s Day with her father”. As Mother’s Day approaches, Dad decides he wants to drop Sally off at midday after spending time with his own mother, but Mum has arranged a champagne breakfast with her side of the family. Discussion and negotiation is then required, opening the door for conflict.
Tip: Make your written parenting agreement crystal clear. e.g. “Sally will spend from 10am to 5pm on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with the relevant parent” – misunderstanding eliminated. The more-detailed and comprehensive care arrangements are the better for everyone, especially your child.
2. “We argue in front of the kids at changeovers, and they get upset”
Face-to-face conflict is most likely to happen at changeovers. A co-parent who won’t respond to email requests, a child-support payment that hasn’t been made - changeovers are often our only opportunity to talk to the other parent about niggles and complaints.
Tip: Wherever possible schedule changeovers at a neutral place such as school or day-care. If changeovers have to take place at a home, “dropping off” is preferable to “picking-up”. Picking up poses more risks e.g. a child who isn’t ready or doesn’t want to leave. Dropping–off enables you to prepare and transition your child and lessens the risk of conflict with the other parent.
3. “We’ve been separated for a year and she’s still telling me how to parent!”
Households have different rules, routines, boundaries, expectations and values. When one parent tries to influence or control what happens in the other household, conflict will likely follow. Whether it’s differences in bedtimes, nutrition, manners, device use or rules around homework, these things can drive us mad.
Tip: Let it go. Your child’s other parent can manage their household however they choose, and the sooner we accept that reality, the better. It’s tough to hear and difficult to do, but accepting this gives us more time and energy to focus on the important things we can influence – like having fun and building connection with our children.
4. “He thinks he can still talk to me like we’re married.”
Separated parents sometimes speak to each other as if they are still partners, behaving as if they have the right to tell the other person how to run their household, or parent their children.
Tip: Guess what? It’s no longer any of your business. Co-parent is a new role so new boundaries are required when interacting. It may be helpful to consider the co-parenting relationship as a business relationship. Would I tell my colleague he should brush his child’s hair more often or my boss she really shouldn’t introduce her new partner to her children after only four dates? It’s not easy and it takes lots of practice.
5. “My ex has re-partnered and everything has turned to custard.”
Sometimes the co-parenting relationship can truck along nicely and then… the dreaded new partner. They come with their own way of doing things, which can change the household’s rules and routines. This can throw the co-parenting relationship into turmoil. Also, because a parent thinks their new partner is wonderful, doesn’t mean your child will automatically feel the same way. They may now enjoy less one-on-one time with that birth parent – and feel left-out or jealous.
Tip: Children still want exclusive time with their parent – so think creatively about how to provide this. Consider the new family as a team rather than a nuclear family (because it’s not). Re-partnered Families by Jan Rodwell is an excellent book that advocates the team concept and provides insights and helpful ideas. Don’t rush. It takes time to develop a bond; let the relationship between the new partner and child develop at its own pace.
6. “When I ask for a half-share of our child’s swimming lessons or braces, my ex tells me to take it out of child support.”
Money can be an ongoing source of disagreement between co-parents. Additionally, there is no clear legal definition in New Zealand of what expenses child support should cover.
Tip: Often child support will not cover expenses over and above the day-to-day living costs (rent, food, etc). Including your child’s necessary, and often significant, ongoing expenses as part of your Parenting Agreement (e.g. school fees and uniform, extra-curricular activities, dental and medical expenses, school devices) can save years of disagreement. These expenses could be shared, with an agreed extra weekly payment to cover the child’s extra living costs incurred by one party. This can be paid as a private payment or, alternatively, administered by the IRD.
7. “We were trying to sort childcare arrangements out together then she went and got a lawyer.”
There is nothing like receiving a letter from a lawyer to take conflict to the next level. Changes to the Family Justice process in 2014 were designed to support parents to establish their own care arrangements. Unfortunately people often still think contacting a lawyer is a requirement. Not only is this is expensive, it can create more acrimony between parents.
Tip: Unless there are serious safety or protection issues, the best people to decide upon care arrangements for children are their parents. Enrol on a Parenting through Separation workshop offered by the Ministry of Justice. It only takes four hours and it’s free. Delivered throughout New Zealand, the course provides accurate information about how separation affects children (and parents) and discusses care-arrangement options. The Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) process will also be explained - a funded mediation service put in place by the Ministry of Justice that enables parents to discuss the children’s arrangements in a supportive, collaborative environment, without the time, stress, conflict and expense of court.