Co-Parenting When Healthy Boundaries Are Not Supported
How do I deal with my child’s other parent when they are not supporting healthy boundaries and are providing an unhealthy model for my child?
This is one of the most challenging questions I address when talking with parents struggling with a difficult child. The first place I’d like to start is with whether or not you should take legal action—custody changes, divorce, court order for treatment, etc. Much of the time, many of the differences parents describe are not serious enough to warrant or justify legal action. Courts are reluctant to intervene with a parent’s rights. Termination of parental rights is a very serious intrusion into the family, and it usually only applies in cases of severe neglect or abuse. This standard for abuse may include a significant lack of supervision, providing children with drugs or alcohol or using them in front of a child, or exposing a child to negative influences like domestic violence or sexual images. Even if you have every reason to believe that these dynamics exist between your parenting partner and your child, proving it in a courtroom can be very difficult. I think it’s a good idea to consult with a family law attorney in your state to understand what your options are even if you don’t decide to take further action. Doing this can create a sense of liberation and freedom when you feel like you and your child are victims of a toxic partner. Consulting with an outside source can also provide a reality check. While you may be experiencing great trauma and pain at the hands of the child’s other parent (hereafter referred to as the co-parent), an attorney can provide you with the perspective the law offers in matters such as these. Even if you are just wondering about your legal rights in a case like this, please do seek legal advice and weigh the pros and cons of pursuing legal action for changes to your child’s environment.
Many of the complaints from parents come in more subtle forms than those that warrant a legal course of action. Many parents, both married and divorced, feel that their co-parent is undermining the values he or she is trying to model, teach, and demonstrate by creating boundaries and setting limits. The co-parent may be undermining healthy messages, or they may be engaging in unhealthy or enabling behaviors. Parents are often tempted to send private emails to their therapists or to spend a great deal of energy listing the negative contributions of their co-parent. When I was a young therapist, I thought it was my duty to decide who was at fault in these matters, and I have since seen many new therapists fall into this trap. While a short description of family dynamics and perspectives about the positive and negative contributions of each individual within a family unit is valuable, this attempt to place blame often becomes a distraction, especially for the one making the complaint.
Once, while working in a particularly volatile case with co-parents, the mother asked me for feedback, “Be honest and brutal with me,” she asked. I responded, “sometimes, it seems as though you are obsessed about your ex husband’s faults and that gets in the way of you looking more thoroughly at yourself.”
With an aggressive tone she defended, “Who told you that? Did she say that?!”
The key in these situations is the obsession that can ensue for the parent making the complaint. This parent can lose some clarity in various ways. First, they lose some clarity between their co-parent and their child. Assigning attributes of a co-parent to a child, even if those attributes are accurate, is a slippery slope. Doing this begins to blur the line between how the co-parent has hurt you and how the child has hurt you. Powerful emotions are often associated with parental discord and assigning attributes can become a dangerous process of identifying your child with your co-parent. If the focus of your energy becomes fixated on finding faults with your co-parent, then you will lack the energy that will allow you to objectively respond to your child and parent them in a healthy way. Murray Bowen1, a pioneer in the field of family therapy, calls this dynamic triangulation. In family systems theory, whenever two people have problems with each other, one or both will "triangle in" a third member. Bowen emphasized people respond to anxiety between each other by shifting the focus to a third person, triangulation. In a triangle, two are on the inside and one is on the outside. For example, rather than talk with her husband about and deal with her frustration with him, a new mother might preoccupy herself with her new child. In this case, the wife diminishes her anxiety by ignoring its source (the relationship between her and her husband); the husband is on the outside and the wife and child are on the inside.
Bowen’s solution is working through the original conflict. In other words, you must sort out your anger and hurt with your co-parent in order to avoid the trap of seeing his or her problems in your child. I would advise you to consider co-parenting therapy. Yet, in some cases there is too much hurt, too must distrust, and only one side is willing to participate in co-parenting work.
When a parent triangulates a child in this way, that child can often feel the disdain and lack of approval for their other parent no matter how subtle a parent may think they’re being. The first thing to recognize is that a child sees him or herself as a part of his or her parents. When you show your disdain and disapproval for your co-parent, that your child internalizes this disdain. That is, it as though your disdain is being directed towards the child, since the child’s identity is so wrapped up in their parents. One of my mentors described a scenario in teaching me about her work with young children. Many children would often come to a session carrying a teddy bear or a blanket. These objects, referred to as transitional objects, served to soothe the child during moments of particular stress or discomfort. Additionally, the child identified with the object—it was as if it was a part of them. She then explained how she always treated the stuffed animal or blanket gently and with kindness during their sessions—she might ask permission to hold it or talk to it. In modeling this kindness towards a part of the child, the child would then receive the kindness as being directed towards them as a whole.
Even in cases of severe, chronic abuse of children or complete abandonment, the child can internalize negativity directed at the other parent. Children cling to their abusive parents even when they are being severely abused. Being taken away from a violent and abusive mother or father feels to such a child as if a part of them is being ripped away.
Even as I say all this, I will acknowledge that I have communicated these kinds of messages about my own wife to my children through eye rolling, subtle jokes, teasing, or even a repressed emotion showing on my face. As parents, we need to be aware of this, be honest with ourselves, and, at an appropriate developmental point, let our child know that we own our knowledge of occasionally doing this.
A few years ago, I was having this discussion with my own mother. My memory of childhood included many conversations with my brothers in which we would point out to one another the numerous family activities or weekend drop-offs where our mother would show her overt disdain for our father. When I brought this up with my mom during our discussion, I was flabbergasted to hear her surprise at my recollection. Our memory is selective and our perspective limited, but a healthy parent can acknowledge that these kinds of processes do occur and we can help to alleviate the stress of that on our children by admitting it to them.
When I talk with parents, one of the red flags for me is the covertness of their complaints. Secret emails, separate calls, and after-session visits all suggest a fairly fractured system. While the complaining parent would argue that it’s not safe to talk in front of the co-parent, this covert process can also start to demonstrate an obsession with that co-parent. I have learned to give some space for this. I want to hear what each parent is thinking and feeling. If I don't give audience at least once, I may miss some important aspect that a parent was unwilling to share in front of their partner. Yet if this process of confiding in me extends over a long period of time and becomes repetitive, it is clear to me that someone is stuck and I will redirect them to “work on their side of the street”.
Obsessing over their faults, how to change or convince them, or even over the negative effects of your co-parent’s behavior on your children is a hallmark of codependency. A professor of mine once told me, “What you tell me about the devil tells me more about you than it does about the devil.” When you’re obsessing over your co-parent, it suggests that you are spending all your energy on finding their faults and that you don’t have enough energy left over to work on your own. You, like the codependent wife or husband that we discussed earlier, are trying to fix and change someone else, and that focus on something that’s outside of your control causes anxiety, helplessness, depression, and, perhaps most pragmatically, it backfires to demonstrate the illness of codependency in you.
Even when your child may come to you complaining of their other parent, you are almost never the best one to contain that confession. Respond with empathy and encourage your child to work it out with the other parent or with a therapist. Part of the problem when our children come to us with these situations is that we often like that confession. It validates our experience of the other parent, and we may feel as though we are abandoning them in a moment they are coming to ask for our help if we don’t join in with their complaints. However, by utilizing the simple responses above and coupling that by saying, “I am not the best person for this discussion because it is clouded by my own relationship with your mother,” is a healthy way to support your child and redirect them while keeping your own boundaries clear and avoiding overstepping their own boundaries in speaking negatively about your co-parent, which the child will often internalize as being about him or herself.
The most common feature I see in these dynamics is the propensity for a parent to polarize with the co-parent. It is common in many families for one parent to focus on the co-parent’s weaknesses in the hopes of compensating for them in their own behavior. For instance, if a mother feels like her husband is not nurturing enough towards their son, she might try to make up for that by being the most nurturing that she can, but this can quickly move from a healthy state of nurturing to an unhealthy state of enabling. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, a father might think that his ex-wife enables their daughter and allows her to get away with too much, so he might sacrifice nurture and connection with his daughter in order to create strict rigidity. Sometimes, a parent may even start parenting in such a way that he or she doesn’t necessarily believe is good simply to balance the other parent. When a parent does this, it is the child who becomes lost. The child’s best interests are not being considered, because the parent is spending all their energy on trying to undermine their co-parent. Additionally, the parent loses a sense of balance and grounding. He or she tries to create a balance outside of him or herself rather than finding that balance within.
Even your assessment of the child and how troubled they may be can be greatly affected by your energy and feelings towards you co-parent. So, even before you respond, you may be seeing your spouse or ex-partner in your child and amplifying some negative traits. From that vantage point, it will be rare that your parenting behavior will be well matched to your child’s needs.
So, if you’re having problems with your co-parent, what can you do? Attend a support group. Talk to a therapist or a friend, not your child. If necessary, take legal action. Avoid triangulation. Don’t talk negatively about your co-parent with or in front of your child. Set the course to be the best parent you can be to your child. Be generous with your child and admit your weaknesses. Stay connected to yourself and look for balance within. Doing all this will create a sense of safety for your child and allow them to see that it is okay to be imperfect and to try to do the best you can with the tools that you are given. This will be a model for them to be able to confront their own limitations and other adults later in life. One of the greatest sources of resiliency in a child is when they have at least one adult in their life with whom they feel understands them. This creates a situation, which they can aspire to have later in life. This child learns how intimacy works with a balance of connection and differentiation, and they gravitate towards that ideal in subsequent relationships.
1 (Bowen, 1978)