Co-Parenting After Divorce When Your Ex Was Abusive

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In the realm of intimate partner abuse, getting away from one’s abuser usually doesn’t mean being free of abuse when it involves co-parenting children. All too often, the dominant partner in the relationship feels highly threatened by the other partner separating to divorce. In the aftermath, the abusive partner is often angry, even hostile, and abuse can show up in the context of co-parenting. Although less than ideal, parallel parenting with an abusive ex-partner becomes the better solution.

Co-Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting

In divorce, studies have shown that children benefit from spending at least 35% of their time with each parent despite the difficulty parents have with one another.

The impact of divorce on children’s well-being during and after their parents’ separation or divorce is potentially within parents’ control—the parents’ own well-being and capability to function will have the biggest effect. (Pedro-Carroll, PhD, 2020)

Co-parenting works well when parents who separate and then divorce can actively share parenting, have good communication with one another and work together toward what is in the best interest of their children.

When the abusive partner continues their hostility toward the other parent, the ongoing turmoil erodes quality parenting and contributes to children’s emotional and behavioral problems. (Pedro-Carroll, 2020). In these circumstances, co-parenting is not possible.

Conditions for Parallel Parenting

When one parent has been abusive and controlling during a marriage, it’s very likely that the same harmful behaviors will continue. The following are examples of behaviors that don’t make co-parenting possible and a parallel parenting plan is needed (Post Separation Power and Control Wheel, DV Intervention Programs, 2013):

  • Harassment and intimidation–manipulating the other parent to get what they want by using harassing behavior such as incessant calls or texts; sending messages through the children; showing up uninvited.
  • Undermining one parent’s ability to parent by withholding information.
  • Devaluing one parent to the children.
  • Withholding financial support or blocking access to money after separation.
  • Disregarding the children such as ignoring school or athletic schedules.
  • Disrupting a parent’s relationship with their children by coercing them to ally with the other parent or using children as spies.

Parallel parenting allows both parents to be involved in parenting with the purpose of the parents having minimal contact with one another.

Protections If You’re Being Abused

If you’ve been the target of abuse and you finally take the difficult steps to divorce, you may assume your experience with your ex-partner will finally improve. Unless your partner seeks treatment for their abuse, your interaction will not change. Knowledge of a partner’s past abusive behaviors creates the best plan of protection going forward to co-parent with minimal contact between the parents, lessening the potential for harm.

Knowing the legal rights and protections that you have as a parent can help to minimize your risk going forward. If physical abuse occurred toward you or your children, it’s important to make this known during the divorce and custody process. When the court knows the full history of abuse, the best decisions can be made that are truly in the interest of the children concerning primary custody and visitation rights. If you fear your abuser will retaliate and harm you for reporting, it might be necessary to obtain with the help of your lawyer a restraining order or protective order.

Parallel Parenting Plan

Strategies for minimizing opportunities for the abusive partner to get at you are making clear the guidelines for contact that become part of a separation agreement and custody. Communicating in writing is best so you have a record and the message cannot be distorted ending up in a “he said/she said.” Deciding the use of communication via email or texts and contact can only pertain to the needs and care of the children–disallowing personal attacks to the parent. Using an online scheduling tool can be useful so both parents have access and one parent is not in a position to inform the other of events, appointments, etc. Also, an online tool such as Family Wizard allows for emails to be sent that cannot be manipulated and can be used in court if necessary.

Negotiating a separation agreement with legal and physical custody promotes the best interest of the children. Set a clear concise visitation schedule with details that leave little room for misunderstanding and manipulation. If drop off and pick up need to be in public places for personal safety, then require this as part of the visitation arrangement. If you’re unable to negotiate a custody and visitation plan in a separation agreement, then a legal process involving a court order can help.

Parenting Essential Reads

Once there is an agreement with a visitation schedule, both parents are required to follow it. It’s likely that the abusive parent will attempt to make changes, or not follow through, or harass the other parent about the schedule, child support, etc. This is where setting clear boundaries and limits become critical to upholding the agreement. With an ex abusive partner, this is not easy.

Getting Help

Coming through an abusive relationship can be traumatic. Being complacent with an abuser during the relationship in order to side step their wrath and abuse, might have been one of many kinds of self-protection used. Now it’s likely these reactions will come up and it’s important to just notice when they do and know not to act on them. Refer to your agreement and the detailed guidelines that were created for protection. At times, it might be necessary to copy and paste a guideline that an ex is violating to remind them. Standing up for yourself may take some time.

Getting therapy for yourself and your children can be a way to get additional support and recover from the past. Therapy for children is important to include in an agreement ahead of time if it’s desired. With more recovery time, setting boundaries can get easier creating a better arena for parenting children.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233.


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