They say parenting doesn’t come with a manual. That can feel doubly true about co-parenting. The decisions we make about how to parent our children are so personal and informed by the confluence of many factors… our own values and beliefs, how we were raised, our individual experiences in the world, our present circumstances, etc., etc., etc. The likelihood that two different people will bring identical vantage points to major decisions is miniscule!
Even the most cohesive parental units are bound to encounter times when they simply don’t feel the same way about something that impacts their children. While these differences of opinion at times lead to conflict, they can also open the door to thoughtful conversations about parenting choices that benefit your family even more than making decisions solo!
So to prepare for the inevitable disagreement with your parenting partner, consider the following ways to set yourself up for success when working together to make important decisions about your children:
Before Talking, Do a Basic Needs Check
Parenting is emotional. Of course it is. After all, we’re talking about your most prized possessions, your biggest responsibilities, the little ones most near and dear to your heart! But when you’re trying to work out a difference of opinion, emotions that run too strong can get in the way of really hearing each other and coming together as a united front.
So before getting into a heavy debate, consider the setting of your conversation. Make sure you’re both really ready to have a calm, regulated discussion by checking in on anything that could make you extra vulnerable to emotions. Are you hungry? (Or hangry??) Are you tired? Are you really stressed out by work? What do you both need in order to be ready to confront an emotional topic of conversation?
It may sound simple, but preemptively addressing your needs by pouring yourself a glass of water, making a quick snack, or going for an invigorating walk can really change the tone of the conversation.
Listen For the Emotion Under the Logic
When we disagree with someone, it is easy to respond to their counterarguments by becoming defensive and even more entrenched in our own views. The more we get hung up on the logic of the messages each party is conveying, the less we actually listen to the other person (and the more the goal becomes winning the argument… rather than making the best decision for your child!).
So before you get lost in the details, try to listen for the emotion your parenting partner is communicating. Often times simply acknowledging and validating the emotion that drives their point of view can make a world of difference. For one, it lets the other person know they are really seen and heard. This can help them keep their cool in what could otherwise be a very heated argument. Second, it helps you really empathize with their perspective, which makes you more likely to search for common ground. And third, by setting a precedent of validating their emotion, you are modeling for your partner how to validate your emotion, which will help you both move even closer to getting on the same page.
Let’s say you want to let your child go on an overnight class trip because you feel comfortable with the chaperones and think it would be a great learning experience for your child. But perhaps your co-parent is against the plan. They might provide some logical arguments that you could immediately refute (“He’s not old enough to be on his own!” “He’s the same age as all the other kids on the trip…” “But what if he needs us in the middle of the night?!” “There would be other adults there to take care of him…” “But he’s never been away from home!” “There’s a first time for everything…”), but that won’t necessarily resolve the conflict at hand (there’s always another “but” around the corner!).
Listening for the emotion guiding the debate might look like saying, “I wonder if you’re feeling anxious about him leaving home,” which then gives you the opportunity to validate that emotion (“I get it. It’s totally normal to feel worried about this. To be honest, I’m nervous, too.”). Once the feelings have been brought to the surface and labeled, you can work together to navigate the true issue at hand (finding a way to help you both feel comfortable with your child embarking on a new experience) instead of continuing in a power struggle over the minutia.
Find the Agreement Within the Disagreement
Before you get on the “same page”, you might need to make sure you’re in the same book! Sometimes we get so caught up on the ways we feel different that we neglect the ways we feel the same. Start the conversation by looking for the things you already agree on to help remind yourselves that you are both working together to do the right thing for your child.
Take the above example of the overnight class trip. You might not agree yet on a course of action, but there may be plenty of other things you can voice your agreement about. Perhaps you agree that you both love your child deeply and want to protect him. Maybe you agree that it is good for him to have new experiences and venture outside of his comfort zone. You might also agree that he is working on developing independence and still needs a lot of help. The more you search for common ground, the more connected you’ll feel, and the more motivated you’ll be to find a solution that works for both of you (even if it means coming up with a new answer altogether).
Which brings us to…
In the heat of argument, we often get stuck on choosing between Solution 1 and Solution 2. Sometimes we expand our thinking just a little and try to find the midpoint (Solution 1.5?). But the problem with this approach is that it rarely satisfies both parties, which can leave lingering resentment. Instead of thinking of “compromise” as the middle point between two perspectives, see if you can work together to redefine the problem at hand and find a corresponding solution that truly feels comfortable for both of you.
For example, if you simply “split the difference” between your child going on the overnight trip and not going at all by, say, just letting him go for the day portion and picking him up come nightfall, will either of you really feel better? One parent might still feel that the child was robbed of an important bonding opportunity with peers, which could spur further tension between parents moving forward. Or there could be other negative consequences outside the debate at hand (the parents might feel resentful that they have to drive all the way out there to pick him up, or the child might feel embarrassed to get picked up early when all his friends get to stay over).
But if you’ve done the work to acknowledge each other’s feelings and affirm your commitment to uniting as a parenting team, it might be easier to see the entirety of the landscape of this debate. Let’s say you’ve come to recognize that the problem is not whether he should get to go on the trip but rather how to make sure he (and you!) feel ready for this next journey into independence. You might now be able to see new and different possibilities that would help everybody get what they want – maybe you do a practice run of having him stay at a friend’s house overnight before the school trip. Maybe you talk to the chaperones about your concerns and ask them to text you with updates. Or maybe one of you volunteers to chaperone the event!
Whatever the debate may be, try to practice looking at all sides of the situation and asking yourselves what, if anything, is being left out of the conversation. By coming together to see the whole playing field, you might just find a solution you agree on after all!