Managing conflict in co-parenting

Using good communication skills to manage conflict.

Conflict is a normal part of all relationships. Co-parenting is one relationship where conflict management styles can bleed over from unhealthy patterns developed when you were a couple. Interestingly, conflict alone is not a predictor of divorce or break-up of a relationship. What can predict separation and divorce are certain types of behavior patterns people use when disagreeing with their partner.

Michigan State University Extension suggests if you are separated or divorced and have children you co-parent, it is important to take the time to identify any unhealthy patterns of conflict you and your ex may have developed. Better communication can make life less stressful for you and more importantly, your children. After you know what you need to work on, you can then begin to work to develop new skills for healthier and more productive communication. One way to do that is to know what unhealthy communication patterns look like.

Here is an example of an unhealthy communication pattern:

  • A complaint is made, “You are late picking up the kids and now I am late for my doctor’s appointment!” If complaints are not acknowledged or dealt with in a satisfactory manner, they become criticism, “You are always late picking up the kids…you don’t care about anyone else’s schedule!” Complaints and criticism are met with defensiveness. Interaction begins to involve contempt such as eye rolling, sarcasm and belittling. Partners finally stonewall, meaning they dismiss each other, disengage from one another and ignore each other completely.

Other problems that can lead to unhealthy communication involve mind reading, sarcasm, keeping things in then dumping them all at once and using a sharp tone of voice. When conflict does arise, you have choices. You can escalate them by pouring ‘fuel on fire’ and continuing patterns of unhealthy communication. Another choice may be to start by learning to de-escalate conflicts so you can begin work to find solutions that work for everyone. Things that escalate conflicts include an increase in negative emotions like anger and frustration, someone feels threatened, other people get involved and choose sides or the individuals have few healthy conflict solving skills.

When working to de-escalate conflicts it helps to focus on the problem – not the person. Keep your own strong emotions in check. Take deep, calming breaths. Focus on listening to what the other person has to say. Repeat back to them what you think you heard. Use a quiet, steady tone of voice. Be a model for good conflict management skills. For example, use “I” messages to relay your feelings while maintaining respect to others. Empathize and see things from the other person’s point of view. State what you would like to happen. Here is an example:

  • “I feel frustrated when you are late picking up the kids. I understand your hours are unpredictable. I appreciate your busy schedule and realize how important your visits are to our kids. When you’re going to be late, I need you to give me a call, so I can adjust my plans.”

Conflict management skills take practice and time. At first, you may find it helpful to write down what you want to say, before you have to have a difficult conversation with someone, so you feel more prepared. It isn’t easy changing old patterns of unhealthy communications and behaviors in relationships, whether you are a couple of not. However, you and your children will benefit in many ways. 

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