Is Parallel Parenting Your Solution to High-Conflict Co Parenting?
I often get asked: “How do I co-parent with a narcissist [or otherwise high-conflict ex]?”
The answer is: you don’t. You parallel parent.
Parallel parenting is defined as a method of parenting that allows each parent to use a separate approach to when they have the kids. Their parenting does not intersect, as each parent is independent (versus more of a team approach). It’s mostly used when co-parents want little to no contact with each other. Parents rarely attend the same functions, appointments, or child-related events. If they do, they do not sit together or be expected to communicate.
How does parallel parenting differ from co-parenting?
Parallel parenting is contrary to co-parenting. Co-parenting involves more of a team approach. Both parents continue to raise their children together and craft a parenting plan that is in synch. This involves a substantial amount of interaction between the parents (both in public and in private) on the needs and best interests of the children.
When you are in a toxic situation, or a relationship with a narcissist, co-parenting can be a breeding ground for the high-conflict partner to control or manipulate. When you try to co-parent with them, it can leave you feeling exhausted, constantly trying new things to “keep the peace” – but failing. You may feel at a loss because nothing will work as easily as it “should.”
This rocks your mental health. And when your mental health is rocked, you can’t show up for yourself and your children the way you want to and need to.
Parallel parenting invites some space. It is an arrangement where divorced parents are able to co-parent by means of disengaging with each other and having limited direct contact in situations where they struggle to effectively communicate.
How do I know if parallel parenting is right for us?
If you notice most conversations with your co-parent spiral into conflict and no resolution is found, then you can assume most unified approaches are probably going to continue to go around in circles. It's much easier to establish a different way of being in this relationship – and a lot of times that comes from within yourself.
In my situation, I was (and still am) blamed for everything. My ex always thought I was manipulating a situation on purpose … if I sent a screenshot and accidentally cut out a time or date, I did it “intentionally and purposely.” If my kid fell at school and had a bruise, it was my fault and he assumed it happened at home. If the babysitter left the phone at home at the time of a scheduled call by accident, it was my fault.
Every decision was hard. Everything felt like an argument. And everything led to a personal dig at me as a mother. It led me to not want to engage – but I had to engage and inform legally.
It was exhausting. I felt like I was constantly playing a game I couldn’t win.
And the truth is, I would have really liked to be able to communicate with someone about my child. I would like to feel like we are aligned. But I have learned that everything will be a fight and it is not good for my mental health, or my child, so I have embraced parallel parenting to release the constant push and pull.
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Strategies to succeed with parallel parenting
Limit verbal communication
The first thing, and the overall theme, is to limit any verbal communication. Use email or online software. OurFamilyWizard is online software that can be used for communication and documentation. It stores everything: messages, schedules, expenses, and has logins for each child's accounts. It also has a tone meter for messaging, which can flag abusive language, encouraging you to think before you press send.
For online software, you do need the other person to agree, which may be a challenge, but it can be helpful because then everything is stored in one spot. This is something that can be court-ordered in some states.
If you can’t get an agreement, I recommend leaning away from text messaging and phone calls, and moving everything to email. Sometimes this can feel harsh, like, “Why do I need to eliminate text messages? Shouldn’t the other parent be able to message me?” I hear a lot of “I don’t want them to feel _________.”
Here’s the thing to remember: They don’t care at all about how you feel. If they did, they would not be causing any of the harm they are.
Think about how you feel and how much it triggers you when you get into endless text battles. Think about how inappropriate it can be at times. Think about how many minutes, hours, and days you have lost fighting battles with the other person in your head.
Using one method of communication is not a wall to keep someone out, it is a boundary to keep you safe and to allow healthy communication to come through.
Warning: Most people implement this and then get flexible. They let the wall come down in some areas. You will quickly be reminded why that wall is there and you will re-implement it.
This is important because it will allow you to address one specific issue: to stop defending yourself and to focus on the needs of the child.
When you receive an email from them, read through the email and look for the part you actually have to respond to about the child. Respond to that. That's step one.
Let go of everything that has nothing to do with the child and is only there to hurt you.
This will prevent endless strings of emails where you are desperately trying to get this other person to see your side when they never will – because they don’t want to.
In my situation, I didn't have the time to sit and respond to all these emails - especially because my words were always twisted. When I did, I would fall into a pattern of feeling like I could defend all day. But I learned the hard way that my words would never matter, so I needed to put my focus on what is important: not letting my energy go to these emails, and instead focus on my children, my work, and my friendships.
When you make the choice to say less, when you respond with less, when you have a strategy around responding, it can really help you bring some of that power back into you and your life. It moves you out of over-explaining and it stops giving the other person more words to manipulate.
The way I see it: You are probably the expert on your child – and you're also the expert on yourself – so you do not need to be told how you parent from someone who is not there.
Limit flexibility with schedule changes
A lot of people will say things like, “Oh, he just wants to switch Thursday from 9 am to 10 am,” or, “We changed the weekend and now I don’t even know which one is mine,” or, “I have plans but I canceled them because he now has plans.”
Stop. Stick to the agreement as much as possible.
I recommend trying to stay as close to the original parenting plan or timeshare as you can. You will have to let go of some things you planned to do, that’s unavoidable. But sticking to the pre-set plan will keep things as low conflict as possible.
If you do make an agreement on a schedule change make sure it is documented in email.
This is especially important if you are the custodial parent. Make sure you have good records. A narcissist believes their feelings are facts, so if they act from this place they will base their comments on how they feel or felt – not on the actual facts.
Keep your personal life private
The last thing I want to touch on is your personal life. Do not allow the other parent access to your personal life. It will only be used to manipulate you. Block them on social media, and if they find you, block them again. If they make another account, block that one. Make your profiles private.
They don't have a right to your personal information. They don't have a right to your plans and what you're doing so long as it's not affecting the child. The more you share, the more ammo they have and the more information can be turned around. It can and will be used against you.
You are divorced. If there is a concern about the child, they can ask.
The focus of parallel parenting invites both parents to focus on the child – not the conflict. It is going to feel weird in the beginning and counterintuitive, but it will really help. It will allow you to zero in on your own self, your own healing, and hopefully, maybe one day lead you to a co-parenting relationship that is more aligned.