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More divorced parents report having frequent arguments over parenting styles than married ones, but — get this — more also report never having disagreements. How can you find yourself in the second category and have a harmonious co-parenting relationship?

When two parents are raising a child together, they're almost bound to have occasional disagreements about the best way in which to go about this — they're different people, after all, often raised in different ways themselves, within different cultural backdrops. Thirty percent of parents report that they sometimes don't see eye to eye with the other parent about child-rearing decisions, while nine percent say they "often" disagree with the other parent, and only 15 percent never does. 

This kind of disagreement may be easier to overcome if the other parent is your other half, the person you love and have chosen to spend your life with. What if you're co-parenting with a person who is no longer your partner, though? Things can get exponentially tougher — research shows that one in five divorced or separated parents frequently have disagreements over parenting styles. What's more, studies suggest that conflicts dating back to when you were still together often spill over into the co-parenting relationship, one in which your only remaining shared bond is often concern for your kids' wellbeing. 

The most frequent problems co-parents face, research shows, include:

  • Your co-parent has different rules about food, chores, bedtime, or homework. 
  • Your co-parent uses your child or children to deliver messages to you, rather than communicating with you directly. 
  • Your co-parent has different ideas about which behaviors are and are not acceptable in children.
  • Your co-parent undermines your parenting decisions. 
Remember those stats? Divorced and separated parents may be most likely to disagree over parenting decisions often, but interestingly, a higher percentage of them also reports never disagreeing — again, one in five, compared to just 15 percent of coupled parents. If you're co-parenting, you'd prefer to fall into that category, right? The question is, how do you get there? How do you avoid conflict?

Decide to put your children first and know how harmful conflict is

This is co-parenting 101, of course, but we're all human — we all get irritated and emotional, carried away by a mood rather than logical thinking sometimes. You want the best for your kids, but you may get there by letting your co-parent handle things their own way rather than trying to impose yours. 

Let's look back at the list of topics highly likely to yield conflict. Which of them are you dealing with? How serious is the problem, really? Even if you disagree with the other parent, is their approach actually harmful?

If, after a long, hard, look, you decide your co-parent's approach is different but not objectively "bad", and your children are thriving, let it go. Research indicates that continued conflict among divorced parents is more harmful for children than divorce itself. It is probably also more harmful than your ex's decision to let your kids stay up an hour longer or allow them to watch that show you think is slightly inappropriate. Now, when it comes to things like riding in a car without a seatbelt, or being around smoking, that may be a different matter. Pick your battles, basically. 

Make clear agreements in advance

The more you can mutually agree on in advance, and perhaps even on paper, the less potential there is for day-to-day arguments to come up. If you're newly co-parenting, you should really sit down (with a mediator if necessary) to see:

  • What you both agree on regarding parenting. It's even better if you can maintain some continuity in terms of household rules, as this will be comforting to your children. 
  • What you're neutral on — in other words, what you're cool with your kids doing differently at "daddy's house" or "mommy's house". 
  • What your hills to die on are. Then, of course, work them out if possible — again, with a mediator or therapist if needed. 

What if you still disagree with your co-parent?

Talk. To each other directly, in person, over the phone, or via email — whatever works for you. Talk to each other under the guidance of a therapist, if you need to. If you and your ex have a history of solving problems constructively and respectfully, and you want to say something like, "hey, taking the kids to your parents over the weekend will disrupt their soccer game, so let's do that another time", even go ahead and talk in front of the kids. Yes, even if you're pretty sure your ex will really want to take that trip anyway. There's nothing wrong with modeling healthy disagreement and problem solving!

Don't, however, do as many divorced parents do and use your kids to convey conflictual messages to the other parent, along the lines of "Oh, mom said to tell you you're stupid for allowing us to stay up to 1 am and not to do that anymore". (OK, bad example maybe, as I don't think your kids would actually relay that particular message.) Don't yell or be overtly aggressive with each other in front of your kids. Have a serious talk with your ex in private if they do do those things. 

And if you're truly concerned? If your ex is allowing your 12 year old to drink alcohol, does drugs, starves the kids, or abuses them? Then, go ahead and get social services involved. 

Co-parenting: You'll figure it out as you go along

Just like parenting itself, co-parenting is something people need to grow into. Be kind to yourself as well as everyone else involved as you adjust. Communicate clearly, but respectfully. (One thing I always find useful is to think how you'd handle conflict with a coworker — often with less drama than people closer to you — and to apply similar communication strategies.) Learn from your mistakes, and apologize to your kids and ex where warranted. Praise things your co-parent does that you like in front of your kids. Be friends if you can, be civil adults if you can't. And if that doesn't work either, get professional help. 

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