When couples divorce, they often forget that they need stay teamed in one very important aspect – parenting. At DivorceForce, one of our mottos is "Kids Comes First." With this in mind, DivorceForce would like to introduce you to Karen Bonnell. Karen is the author of The Co-Parents' Handbook" (http://coachmediateconsult.com/co-parents-handbook/) and more recently, "The Parenting Plan Handbook." DivorceForce had the honor of interviewing Karen, and capturing some sound advice from her with regards the conflicts of the intersection of divorce and co-parenting …
Karen, first can you give the DivorceForce community a bit about your background?
Sure. I'm a nurse by training and have always been drawn to the healing aspect of relationship. Early in my career, I quickly learned that I was much better at listening to a young mom with a toddler suffering from cystic fibrosis than giving medicines on a schedule.
In 2000, as part of an interfaith study group preparing to go to Israel/Palestine to listen to the experiences of people in high-conflict/war, I studied with and became a core council member of The Compassionate Listening Project. This deep listening and heart-centered practice informs my work with couples, with conflict resolution in any setting. You might say, I live from a belief that "world peace" begins one relationship at a time. Another favorite tenant is the understanding that "an enemy is someone whose story we haven't heard."
In 2006, the first couple walked into my office asking for assistance with restructuring their family as they divorced. Although I had no training in mediation-per-se, I reluctantly agreed to facilitate their conversations, to hold the space for them to come to agreements, and ultimately determine the shape and form of their two-home family. (For their part, they agreed to consult an attorney when we were done!) Feeling out of my league in terms of training, this catapulted me headlong into mediation and Collaborative Law trainings. I became a founding member of Collaborative Professionals of Washington and served on the board of King County Collaborative Law. Today I regularly provide legal continuing education on co-parent and divorce coaching.
After 30+ years, I've retired from working as a psychotherapist and focus solely on couples – whether they're preparing for a commitment ceremony/marriage, struggling in their relationship, or restructuring their relationship through divorce or remarriage. My role as a divorce coach in the Collaborative Law process is one part of my practice, and as a co-parent coach for parents before, during and after divorce is another.
Karen, you are a divorcee and have children. You were divorced a number of years ago. Back then, were you prepared to co-parent with your ex?
Yes and no. My children's dad and I created a two-home family back in the 90's without the assistance of a divorce coach. I was an established psychotherapist and most would imagine that I would have been "good at" how to divorce and how to co-parent, but that simply wasn't true. Yes - we knew "what to do," but struggled with "how to do it."
What does it really mean to effectively "co-parent"? What are the key elements?
Effective co-parenting means that you embody the belief and develop the skills to provide the same high quality love and care for your children across two-homes as you would have in one. This requires that you resolve the end of your marriage – we call this "uncoupling." That way the mistakes of your marriage don't continue to be the mistakes of your co-parenting relationship.
Co-parents are not necessarily friends. When we complete or end a primary relationship, one or both members of the couple may need definitive separation and strong boundaries in order to heal. The key is not to use conflict/enmity to maintain those boundaries or define that separation. In fact, high conflict is often the result of unresolved marital strife! In implementing the following skills, if a friendship emerges, that's wonderful for all involved, but if not, you can still be strong, capable co-parents with healthy thriving kids.
The key skills in constructive co-parenting are:
1) Develop a strong parent mind – recognizing that what's best for kids is two "good enough" parents loving and caring for their children in an active and engaged way,
2) Healthy boundaries – respecting day-to-day decision-making, honoring the residential schedule, transitioning children with a calm, respectful demeanor,
3) Communication protocols that work – providing accurate, timely information to your co-parent that allows him/her to take over and care for the children as skillfully as possible,
4) Functional "Co-Parent Executive Officers" – solving problems effectively, protecting children from being caught in the middle, and aligning effectively on important decisions affecting children's lives,
5) Responsible "Co-Parent Financial Officers" – planning for, coordinating, and following through on all the financial needs of raising your children (including record keeping, prompt payment, and protecting children from adult financial matters), and
6) Remain parents first and date second – helping your children feel secure in their new family structure before including new romantic partners, focusing on their needs when you're on duty with your children, and respecting children's adjustment/needs post divorce.
What is some advice you have for shielding children from the conflict one experiences with their ex and at the same time being honest and upfront with your child(ren)?
Children don't need honesty about "adult issues" … they need age-appropriate, constructive information. This is often confusing for parents, as they don't want to "lie" to their children. We hold back adult information from children all the time. Divorce doesn't change using good judgment and protecting children from information that they're not emotionally ready for, have no context for, can't do anything about, or information that may be harmful to their relationships with either of you.
In divorce, remember that your former intimate partner is also your children's parent – two very different roles. Each of you fill, hold and support half of your child's heart – when you say negative or hurtful things about your "ex," your child carries that hurt, disappointment, upset in their own little chest, inside their heart, often in silence. Separating spouse mind from parent mind helps you remember that your feelings of betrayal, hurt, loss, and deception … are not necessarily your children's experience nor do they need to be your children's experience. Children will come to understand each of your strengths and weaknesses on their own. You don't need to stack the deck or prove a point by providing information that may damage their relationship with a parent – even when the other parent is breaking this rule, don't strike back. That only hurts kids. We want kids to feel central to our care and concern, not get caught in the middle of our adult conflict.
Learning to manage your emotions is an important part of working through your divorce transition. You manage your emotions for yourself; you manage your emotions and communicate constructively/age-appropriately as part of being a strong parent for your children. If you're struggling, reach out and get help from a co-parent coach, divorce coach, or highly skilled counselor.
What are the positive outcomes of "co-parenting" versus adversarial or high-conflict parenting? Do we actually see different outcomes of child behavior, development, and growth?
Separation and divorce is a "family transition." Parents restructure their children's family from a one-home to a two-home family – a home with each parent. I encourage parents to imagine a large house that holds both of their homes for the children – this sense of integration and larger sense of family helps kids feel secure and protected. The two original parents will always be the children's sense of family – will always be "the parents" even when new adults enter the picture and the sense of family expands to include others.
When we are able to focus on a secure sense of family for children, they grow up thriving, learning, growing in compassion, flexibility, and skills that many of their age-mates do not have. Children raised with two involved, capable parents across two homes are just as healthy physically and emotionally as children raised in one home. Children don't need to be disadvantaged or damaged from divorce. But, they can be…
Children are disadvantaged by divorce when parents are unable to resolve their marital conflict, and the enmity between them becomes a constant thread in children's lives. Every holiday, life-cycle event, transition, challenge they face becomes doubly stressful because of their parents emotional needs and conflict. Children lose their secure, once-in-a-lifetime childhood in exchange for navigating and surviving their parents' emotional upheavals.
Children are disadvantaged by divorce when they lose a parent to emotional overwhelm or through marginalizing a parent – a residential schedule that doesn't allow both parents ample residential time for an engaged and meaningful relationship. Children are harmed when they feel like they have to choose one parent over another, or that loving both parents is a form of betrayal to one or the other. Children are harmed when they're used as weapons between parents, treated like property that one parent owns over the other, asked to be private eyes and to keep secrets, or expected to grow up and become a parent's confidant or take over the care of their siblings.
Divorcing doesn't change the fact that children need good parents. Parenting across two homes involves a few more steps, a bit of formality, healthy boundaries, and specific protocols. But, at the end of the day, co-parenting is taking your commitment to be a good parent and expanding your skill set to accomplish raising healthy, resilient, capable kids with your co-parent across two homes.
Karen has over 25 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families facing transition, loss, stress and change. Karen played an instrumental role in developing the year-long facilitator-training program for the Compassionate Listening Project. Karen served on the Board of King County Collaborative Law and Collaborative Professionals of Washington. She is a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals and Academy of Professional Family Mediators. Ms. Bonnell is the author of "The Co-Parents' Handbook" (http://coachmediateconsult.com/co-parents-handbook/) and more recently, "The Parenting Plan Handbook" (http://coachmediateconsult.com/the-parenting-plan-...) – both practical, compassionate resources for parents as they face difficult emotions and make some of the hardest decisions for their children and themselves through separation/divorce. You can learn more about Karen Bonnell and her practice at http://coachmediateconsult.com .