Co-Parenting With The Enemy

It was about 6 years ago that I was, on a daily basis, exchanging hateful emails with my older son’s father about the divorce and custody issues. Sadly, we spent 5 whole years battling each other in what felt like an endless litigation and tens of thousands of dollars. The result was completely broken trust, hostility, and a very negative and hateful image of the other person. What once brought us together was tearing us apart, and the only one suffering the consequences was that precious thing in the middle- our son (but we couldn’t see that because our anger and fear was blinding us).

I could write pages and pages about the hateful back and forth we had for so many years, but I won’t. To summarize, it was two very bitter demons threatening and being defensive and overly reactive. Things were so bad, we had a court-ordered co-parenting therapist come between us to help us communicate, and even one year of that wasn’t bringing us anywhere closer to cooperating or co-parenting. Sadly, out of lack of trust and a deep hatred toward the other party, we signed our 30-page court order, and several stipulations and motions later, we were on our way to litigation-free co-parenting. It was a rocky transition, living without having our attorneys as the go-between. It required us to…(gasp!) communicate. Living with such a build up of animosity toward each other, for the first year, we didn’t have the capability of communicating, because everything that came off our tongue was laced in mistrust, anger, and fear. It was easier to just live off the “rules” (the court orders, motions, and stipulations).

It wasn’t until nearly 2 years later that we were able to be flexible when we couldn’t. What changed? We stopped seeing each other as the enemy and started (FINALLY!) seeing each other as our son’s “other parent”. But more than that, we started really understanding that the only victim in any of this was not ourselves, but our son.

That was hard because for the first several years we didn’t see each other as “the other parent,” but as “that horrible parent-wannabe that doesn’t deserve to breathe on this earth“. For a long time, both of us were rationalizing our own bitterness and defensive mechanisms as simply “protecting MY son” from “that evil person”. Changing that image was dependent on letting go of our pain, our sad stories, and broken expectations, as well as forgiving the words and behaviors that we couldn’t see were rooted deep in resentment and fear. While letting go didn’t come without a fight, slowly, little by little, we let go.

The awkward and humbling feeling of accepting that maybe  it wasn’t just the other person…but maybe I was also responsible for the hostility and inability to co-parent. What got me thinking, was, at one mediation appointment, the mediator said, “you can’t come to every decision with an automatic NO in your mind. You have to approach everything with an expectation of saying yes, and then consider what implications that ‘yes’ could have.”

The point wasn’t to be a pushover and say yes to everything, but to get us out of our habit as seeing the other person as the enemy and train our minds to WANT to cooperate and co-parent, even if we don’t get things exactly the way we want, and even if it means we have to be a little uncomfortable with the other person parenting in a way that we don’t see “to our standards”. Of course we have to consider safety. If the other partner is abusive, we are not going to jump into a “yes!” Fortunately, for me, my son’s father was not abusive (for clarification purposes, my current husband IS, but not my ex).

Eventually, we became flexible on things such as make-up days, exchange locations, and who buys clothes and shoes this time. Flexibility turned into cooperation, and cooperation turned into co-parenting. Co-parenting rebuilt the respect and trust we had toward the other parent. When I went through this most recent separation with my “new” husband, my “ex” was even supportive and helped in many ways like bringing dinners to the house so I didn’t have to cook, taking the dogs every other weekend so that I wouldn’t have to worry about walking them with the kids, and even providing emotional support with words like, “you’re a great mom to the kids” and “I’m sorry you’re going through that…I wish you could have made it work out…”

Still, 6 years of hostility and litigation tends to leave a bit of a scar. We still struggle with fully trusting the other parent, but our intentions are there, and the bigger picture is clear: It’s not about us, it’s about the kids. We both just want the best for our son. We both want to be an important part of our son’s life. We both want happiness and peace for ourselves as well. How we go about that may be different, but it should NEVER come at the cost of our son having to witness his two most favorite and important people in the world being unable to get along and co-parent.

We determined that being the “best parent” for him meant being the best co-parents. Co-parenting after divorce is hard enough, but it’s nearly impossible if you see the person as an enemy.

Now, I’m stuck reflecting on those days in bitter litigation from the ending of my first marriage. I move forward in what feels like a re-run from the past, forced to communicate with my current husband about our pending divorce and our baby’s future. What kind of child custody schedule will we have? How do we communicate? What part am I playing in preventing a positive co-parenting for him?

I have days when I wish I could just stop all of this and beg for my marriage back. I miss my husband, I miss our family. Unfortunately, the reality is he loved his addictions more than he loved me. He loved his addictions more than he loved the idea of having a family. That comes with tremendous sadness and the feeling of rejection, neglect, and abandonment… I was tempted to see my husband as the enemy. I was tempted to put all the flaws I saw in him as my husband (and human) on him as a father. If only he could get sober! If only… If only we could find a way to save our marriage… But the truth is, as much as I loved this man, the man I loved was too deep into his addictions to know, see, or want anything different than his choice of lifestyle. His addictions caused him to be abusive, angry, and neck deep engaged in dangerous sexual activities, alcohol, and gambling. And if he was that same person when our baby was under his custody, I would never know. Unfortunately, California Family Law doesn’t see a problem in that.

I was forced to conclude that I had two choices: I could spend the rest of my life worrying about it, full of anxiety and emotional stress, hypervigilance and being a nervous wreck all the time (all the while deeply hating and resenting him for exposing our child to such horrendous and despicable behaviors), or, maybe…. I could spend my energy elsewhere, trying to be the best mother I could be.

This was the only place I had my power. This was the only place I could make a difference in my children’s life. The more I look back on the years I spent in litigation on the first divorce, the more I realize that it simply wasn’t worth it.

I will never return to a loveless marriage, and I will never go back to my ex-husband, but what I learned out of the 6-year hell of litigation was that eventually all those angry bitter feelings go away and you are left with the reality of…what purpose did it serve? What purpose did it serve the kids? What message did it send the kids? What kind of skills did we teach them in building healthy relationships? What messages did we send to them about love? Family? Resilience? Forgiveness?

Or are we still stuck in our self-centered mind, defensive, offended, and bitter?

Sadly, addiction is a disease that has the power to completely wipe out any rational thinking. Addiction is the escape hatch from accountability and responsibility. It’s so powerful that it can kill your opportunity for ever really feeling any kind of meaningful loving relationship and it will tear at your soul with guilt, shame, and regret. But deep down inside that sad and confused soul is someone who just wants to be loved.

I realize now that so long as I see my husband as an enemy, my behavior and attitude toward him will reflect that. Deep down, I do genuinely fear the safety of my baby when in his custody. I worry about the exposure he has to my husbands endless line of prostitutes and escorts, his over consumption of alcohol, driving under the influence, and his reckless gambling. I genuinely fear for my baby’s life, physical, and psychological well-being. But like it or not, California Family Law generously puts the children’s lives equally in both parent’s hands, and in this case, I have no other choice but to pray to God that he will be ok… My power, unfortunately, does not lie in trying to force California Family Law to change their policies. It lies in being the best role model I can be for these kids.

One day, I hope to have the same cooperative, supportive, co-parenting relationship I have with my first husband with my current husband. Sadly, my husband doesn’t have to be cooperative or feel the same. He can continue to be, think, and believe what he does. We cannot control a lot of things, and that can be VERY SCARY and uncomfortable a lot of the time.  That is an extremely difficult pill to swallow, especially as a protective mommy. But I have hope that regardless of what my husband chooses to do in front of our baby, love will endure. Hope will endure. Goodness will endure. I have no other choice but to hope. The sooner I can take my part of this co-parenting role into a positive place, perhaps it will pave the way for the other parent to follow. And even if it doesn’t, I will have set an example for my children.

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Here’s a picture of my first husband and my baby, the son of my current husband, at our Annual Easter Egg hunt.

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