In the co-parenting classes I have taught over the years, most of the participants were engaged in high conflict divorce situations and were ordered by the Court to participate. Initially, I used a curriculum that focused on communication skills, cooperation and the effects of conflict on children. After quickly learning how difficult it was to teach people to communicate and cooperate when tensions were high, I became determined to find ideas and methods that would be more helpful. Undeniably, the participants in the classes were in a great deal of pain. Having been through a difficult divorce some years before, I understood and felt for that pain. I wanted to be able to contribute something practical that would lessen the pain and make their lives better.
Over time, I have made some discoveries that have helped me work with high conflict divorced parents more effectively. The most important one is that you can teach communication skills to people, but when they are in emotionally reactive states, they will not be able to use them. Divorce that involves children stirs up our deepest feelings about security, family and self-worth. When our sense of security, our relationship with our children or our self-worth is threatened in some way, we become emotionally reactive. When we are in an emotionally reactive state of mind, when we are angry, frustrated, fearful, anxious or resentful — or all of the above– we are unable to be rational and logical. One of my favorite sayings is: You cannot talk to emotions with logic. Telling a person when she is in the throes of intense emotion to communicate nicely is an exercise in ridiculousness.
Another discovery I made is that the word “co-parenting” can be a detriment. It is a mushy and loving word, but people in these situations are not feeling mushy and loving. I often heard comments such as: “It is absurd to think that we are ‘coparenting’– my ex is a bully, and has no interest in compromising and communicating. How do you co-parent with someone who has no interest in coparenting?” Or: “This class makes me feel guilty, because it stresses me out that I am hurting my children if I don’t adopt these ideas. As much as I try, I can’t seem to use these ideas in my real life, and I walk away feeling like I’ve failed and I’m a terrible parent.” Or my favorite: “Whoever wrote the co-parenting curriculum never met my ex-husband/wife!”
The problem with the word “co-parenting” is that it implies that the two people in the relationship should be able to parent together, that they should be able to cooperate and communicate, and that if they can’t, they are hurting their children. The problem with this, and the most frequent complaint I’ve heard about this approach, is that even if your intention is to communicate effectively, you cannot make the other person do it. People get frustrated because they feel like they are trying, but they can’t control what their “co-parent” does. When you hold out hope that your ex will “co-parent” with you, and then she doesn’t, it actually makes things worse. (Please note that I will be alternating between “he” and “she” when referring to co-parents.) Here’s another discovery I’ve made: It is not true that you both have to be on board in order to make things better. I believe that if you are in a significant amount of conflict with your ex, and feel as though you can’t communicate with them, you can still significantly improve the situation just by the changes that you make within yourself.
So this class is focused on YOU – helping you gain power and wisdom. In high conflict divorced co-parenting situations, people feel and act out of powerlessness. We feel as though we are losing control over the things most deeply important to us– our children and our sense of security. When we feel powerless, we tend to behave in irrational and desperate ways, further diffusing our power. We create an emotional “loop” that is very difficult to disengage from. What I have come to then, is that what people need in these situations is not to be told what they have to give up, or how they should be nicer and more compromising. Conversely, they need to know how to step into their power. This class is going to teach you to be powerful because children do better when their parents are confident, secure and in control of themselves. In divorce situations, children already feel insecure as a result of the changes and disruptions in their family. When parents act out of control and desperate it only makes matters worse.
Power, as I define it here, is all about being able to control our emotional reactivity so that we can be smart. True power and wisdom go hand in hand. When we can control our emotional reactivity, we can think clearly about what we are trying to accomplish and how to accomplish it. When we are being controlled by our emotional reactivity, we almost always work against what we really want. Power is more about being in control of ourselves than being in control of others. We think of power as being aggressive, but, in fact, aggression is often powerless, because it comes out of an emotionally reactive, desperate place. True power is about effectiveness. It is about being able to see clearly what we want and how to go about getting it. Power can look very quiet. Power is a feeling of knowing, of feeling strong within ourselves. It is the feeling of being in control of ourselves and not at the mercy of others. Power is the ability to stand our ground like the oak tree that sways in the wind but doesn’t get blown over.