Most divorced parents describe their ongoing relationship with the other parent as strained, sometimes even disastrous. How is it that two people who once loved each other enough to produce a family can get to such a severe point of dysfunction? Since most divorces occur after a major breakdown in trust and respect, it is not surprising that two parents who can no longer live together will continue to have trust issues with each other after the divorce. This can cause a series of unhealthy disappointments for both parents and their children if steps are not taken to at least try to build up a minimal level of trust.
For example, if one parent was rejected due to an extra-marital affair, he or she is likely to distrust the other parent after the divorce in practical matters having to do with the children. Suddenly, that person's character is called into question on every issue. The scorned parent may say, "How can I trust that he/she will be devoted to my children, when that level of devotion could not be maintained in the marriage?" Or, let's say that mismanagement of money caused a huge rift in the marriage. In this case, a parent paying child support may not trust that the other parent is spending it wisely. The paying parent may say, "If he/she could not be trusted to pay the electric bill while we were married, how can I trust my children will be taken care of now?"
With so much history of distrust and disrespect, how can two parents build enough trust to parent their children together effectively? Although it takes some attitude adjustments, co-parents can make the shift if they keep the focus on the child's perspective instead of their own.
1. Don't compare apples to oranges. In other words, don't assume that your ex-spouse will treat your children the same way you were treated in the marriage. The parent-child relationship is much different from the spousal one. Chances are (unless there is a severe character flaw), your ex loves and cherishes your children and will do right by them. Instinctually, we care for our children in a more unconditional way than we care for our marriage partners. So, start by considering that the parental side of your ex-partner may be more trustworthy than his or her other characteristics.
2. Don't expect perfection. For some reason, after parents are divorced, they tend to expect a lot more from the other parent than they ever expected during the marriage. For example, tardiness may have been expected and generally accepted in the marriage, but when a parent shows up late to a soccer game after the divorce, the other parent may act as if it is a federal offense. Recognize that the flaws you once thought were "cute" personality traits during the honeymoon will now be major annoyances to you, but that they do not necessarily constitute bad parenting. Also, every day cannot be a good day for any of us. Learn to cut each other some slack and allow for a bad day now and then.
3. Talk respectfully about the other parent. This helps kids to trust you, as well as helps you to accept the new relationship you have with your ex. It doesn't mean you have to be fake or pretend, but refraining from saying negative things will actually help you to stop thinking negatively about the other parent. Kids know that their parents are not perfect, but they do not want to hear them labeled as evil, calculating, dishonest, or sleazy. Even if you think those things are true, there is no good reason to share your disdain with the children. When kids reach a certain age of reasoning, they will begin to form their own opinions about the other parent without your helpful adjectives. Let them discover the other parent's character in their own time and in their own way. In the meantime, your refraining from verbalizing the negative will make you a healthier, more positive role model.
4. Work on forgiveness. The most important step in rebuilding trust is in finding a way to forgive and move on. Keep in mind, though, that forgiveness and trust are two different responses. Forgiveness is a choice you make for your own peace of mind and growth, but it doesn't require you to trust — that must be earned by each of you living up to your responsibilities as parents.
Divorce always produces some amount of emotional imbalance for all family members involved. According to Bruce Fisher, author of Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends, there is a certain amount of work and patience involved in getting healthy again.
"After divorce, we often regress and interact the way we did earlier in life. This can be positive: becoming a healthy person emotionally is like climbing a slide in the playground. You progress up so far, then lose your grip and slide back down. Then the next time you are able to climb to a higher point."
When thinking about your relationship with the other parent, learn to accept that there will times you both will slide, but that with each slide there is a potential to reach higher ground.
DIANE CHAMBERS is a divorce mediator, and author of “Solo Parenting: Raising Strong & Happy Families”.