Co-Parenting With an Ex That is Controlling

Question: “I have been divorced for almost two years. I chose to leave a very controlling husband. The only way I could see to get out of the marriage was to give him partial custody of the children. We each have them half the time. The issue I’m having is that my ex-husband completely refuses any kind of communication with me. He even says I have no right to know where the children are when it’s not my week with them. I feel that we can make our divorce as easy on the children as possible or as difficult, and he is choosing the latter. He is hurt, angry, and feels like a victim and wants me to hurt as well. My fear is that it is harming our children. They are so afraid of him, they won’t stand up to him and tell him what they want. They are very uncomfortable even talking to me when he’s around. Several of them have expressed a desire to come live with me all the time, but the older ones feel like they need to be there (at dad’s) to take care of the younger ones. I cannot get over the feelings of guilt that I ruined my children’s lives by leaving him. I am happily remarried and they all love their stepfather. I think it’s good for them to finally see a healthy marriage. I just wish I could get their dad to see that us communicating and co-parenting would make it easier on the children. But he keeps telling them it is my fault that everyone is so miserable. Help!! Do you have any suggestions?”

Answer: This sounds like such a trying time. From your post it appears that the marriage was clearly conflict ridden and that there is much hurt on both sides, yours and your former husband’s. Sounds like he is also really hurt and that he is trying keep still be pretty closed with you. The difficulty with co-parenting is that is the children are both of yours, they need both you and their father. It gets complicated when either parent is recalcitrant or belligerent to either spouse. The kids equally sound confused and fearful that they need to band together, especially the older children in light of their younger siblings. It is really sad that they are not able to feel safe with their own father, as living with him in likely difficult for them.

You’ve really got a couple options. Ideally you’d be able to visit with their father and discuss the significant of co-parenting and its impact on them and their future relationships. I suggest doing some reading and getting a better understanding of the co-parenting benefits on the children’s overall development and then discuss your concerns with him. This is optimal and in light of his hurt and anger may not work, but is the best if it can happen. Second, I’d work diligently with the kids to talk about the pain of the divorce on the family. I’d suggest your creating space and engaging them in a conversation around their need to not feel loyalty to one parent or another. That they can infact talk to you as their mother in the presence of their father, without their father being upset. Talk to them about their fears and validate them. Also, start coaching them in small ways in other areas of their life to assert themselves to go against the norms and stand up for themselves. This coaching will vary depending on the ego strength and temperament of the child and their age. Thirdly, I’d suggest your helping them in their spiritual development. Helping them to be centered and strong spiritually will be key in helping them withstand the huge stresses that come as residue when the dust settles following divorce.

There are not easy answers on your case. Again, ideally you’d get your former husband to engage but if not then you really need to get the kids emotionally resilient and strong in many ways to buffer the chaos that your ex has with you and ends up falling on them.

Suggested Resources:

Families apart: 10 keys to successful co-parenting

The Co-Parenting Survival Guide: Letting Go of Conflict after a Difficult Divorce

Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex, A Hands on, practical guide to coping with custody issues that arise with an uncooperative ex-spouse