Parallel Parenting: When Co-Parenting Won’t Work

Co-parenting during and after a divorce isn’t easy, even under the best of circumstances.  It asks a lot of both parents:  to set aside or ignore their feelings toward their ex-spouse, to put on a happy face during exchanges when they are emotionally distraught, and to restrain themselves when potentially triggering comments are made by their ex-spouse.  Many divorces are based, in part, on communication issues between spouses, so there is no reason to think those communication issues will simply vanish when it comes to co-parenting.  Fortunately, something called “parallel parenting” offers another option, in particular in high-conflict situations.

What is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel Parenting is a type of parenting in which both parents severely limit their communications and contact with each other.  Often they agree to one specific form of communication, usually written, such as text messages, email, or use of a third-party parenting app.  Instead of parents speaking regularly to each other about their children, they limit their communication to only that which is necessary, and usually only when an exchange has occurred or is occurring.  For example one spouse may text the other that a child has a cold before dropping him off with the other parent.  Otherwise, communications are limited to only what is strictly necessary.  “Just the facts, ma’am.”  No one is asking about each other’s weekends or how the new job is going.

In more high-conflict parallel parenting arrangements, the children are exchanged in “neutral” third-party locations, such as a parking lot, instead of at either spouse’s residence, which can trigger conflict.

While the ideal arrangement is healthy co-parenting in which both parents are able to communicate robustly about and around their children, this is simply not a realistic option for many parents.  In those situations, it is in the best interests of the children that they be sheltered from parenting conflicts, even if it means setting up strict communication boundaries between parents.

Parallel Parenting Doesn’t Need to be Permanent

Just because a rigid Parallel Parenting arrangement is necessary during a divorce, or immediately upon conclusion of a divorce, does not mean that it will be necessary forever.  Often Parallel Parenting offers parents the opportunity to get comfortable with their new lives, their new independence, and their new roles as single parents.  This can provide the hostility and negative emotions between parents the opportunity to dissipate.  Once things have “cooled down” between the parents–after a few months, or a few years–they can allow their Parallel Parenting arrangement to evolve into a more traditional co-parenting relationship, with stronger communication and integration between the parents.  Text messages only become phone calls and FaceTimes as well; exchanges at the mall parking lot start to occur at the parents’ residences; parents start to share details about the children’s time with them with the other parent.  Sometimes getting to a point like this requires distance and strong boundaries at first to get there.

Parallel Parenting Isn’t Just for High-Conflict Divorces

When you receive your Final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage, you will be legally divorced, and you will be financially divorced.  However, in many cases you will not be close to emotionally divorced yet.  Couples often focus so much on the details of the divorce itself while it is happening that they do not take the time to process the emotional cost of being divorced officially.  Even if you are on decent terms with your former spouse, coming out of a divorce can be a difficult time, one in which boundaries and limited overlap between the parents may provide both parents the opportunity to “move on,” which they were unable to do while in the midst of a divorce.  A less rigid form of Parallel Parenting can aid couples who need the time and distance to process their divorce before establishing a new co-parenting relationship in the future.  Opting for a short- or medium-term Parallel Parenting arrangement can often be the best way for families to move into healthy long-term dynamics.

Figuring out the best parenting arrangement for your family can be one of the most difficult decisions you make during a divorce, but it is also often the most important.  Each family is unique and as such no one-size-fits-all Parenting Plan will work for every family.  When you are ready to explore your options and discuss parenting further, click here to schedule a consultation.