Updated: Jul 23
If you think you are involved with a high-conflict co-parent, you will need to learn a different set of rules.
Aim for Parallel Parenting rather than Co-Parenting
Learn the 3 rules: Disengage, Disengage, Disengage. Don’t get sucked in.
Insist on a VERY detailed Parenting Plan. You can always loosen up later by choice.
Try to get a Parenting Coordinator involved if the other party is willing.
Use My Family Wizard or something similar for ALL communication. Refuse to communicate any other way with a high-conflict parent.
Be the healthy parent. Get help from coaches or therapists. Remember, you can only really control you, and kids eventually gravitate to the healthy parent.
The term co-parenting implies a situation where a mother and father attempt to cooperate for the child’s sake. They don’t always see eye to eye, but they put on a unified front for the child and do their best to respect each other’s opinions and roles. If you are not in a happy marriage, then effective co-parenting is the next best thing for kids, and it’s what we are striving for on this website and in our book, Baby Out of Wedlock.
However, some people cannot function as co-parents. They are so wrapped up in conflict with the other parent that they cannot even be in the same room together for more than a moment. They scream at each other on the phone and in front of the child. In some extreme cases, they make up horrible stories to get the other parent in trouble, either with the law or in the child’s eyes.
The worst high-conflict cases involve parental alienation. We recently watched an eye-opening documentary called Erasing Family (ErasingFamily.org), directed by Ginger Gentile, that addressed the growing problem of parental alienation and how the court system is not equipped to deal with it.
By some estimates, around 30% of all divorce cases fit into the “high-conflict” label, and we imagine the number is similar for baby-out-of-wedlock situations like yours. Endless lawsuits, badmouthing each other to the child, and withholding visitation or money are typical in these situations. Sooner or later, the child realizes what’s going on. They tend to side with the healthy parent in the end, but years can go by in this horrible state if it’s not dealt with effectively.
These high-conflict situations come in varying degrees, from low- to medium- to high-conflict. I think I was in a medium-conflict situation with my daughter’s mother for the first few years. After a decade of duking it out and getting professional help, we are probably now down to a low-conflict or maybe even semi-effective co-parenting relationship, but just barely.
If you think your relationship might fall into this high-conflict bucket, we are sorry to say you have a hard road ahead. Most of our book will still apply to you, but some of our advice will need to be tweaked for the high-conflict situation you are in.
We urge readers in this boat to seek help from professionals in high-conflict custody situations. Our favorite high-conflict guru is Brook Olsen, who wrote The Black Hole of High Conflict and offers several levels of coaching services on HighConflict.net, including over one hundred free podcast episodes in which he dives deep into this subject. His work is excellent, and I wish I had discovered it sooner in my life because it would have saved me many years of heartache and perhaps thousands of dollars in legal bills.
We mention some of Brook’s specific strategies throughout our book, but the general idea is that high-conflict parents who cannot get along well enough to co-parent shouldn’t even try. The better alternative for them is to parallel parent. Parallel parenting is when you get an extremely detailed parenting plan and then live your life with your child as if the other parent was totally out of the picture.
The three rules of parallel parenting are “disengage, disengage, disengage,” meaning you limit communication and do everything possible to avoid getting sucked into arguments, both legal and otherwise. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than living in a state of high conflict.
High-Conflict Parenting Plans & Communication
When writing a parenting plan in a high-conflict situation, the professionals recommend including as much detail as possible. For example, you want your document to spell out exactly when and where you pick up and drop off the child each week in a high-conflict relationship.
High-conflict parents cannot tolerate regular communication the way the rest of us can, so every time you talk, it sparks a problem. If your relationship improves over time, you can always loosen the rules, but you want the detail at first in case you need it. You will want to print and keep a copy of your parenting plan with you in your car and your house so you can pull it out quickly if you ever need to show law enforcement or some other authority that you are simply following the legal agreement.
If you have a good working relationship with your co-parent, it’s probably because you communicate well. If you don’t, the opposite is likely true. My daughter’s mother and I had dysfunctional communication beginning with the pregnancy that has only recently improved.
We use to get into long-winded email and text arguments, often over nothing important or due to written word misunderstandings. When we tried to talk on the phone or in person, it would just lead to yelling.
Once our first legal battle began, we realized every communication would be submitted as evidence, and we pretty much stopped communicating altogether. You don’t want to end up like we were back then.
It wasn’t until we met with a parenting coordinator for a while a few years ago that we relearned how to communicate, but even then, it was far from what I would call quality communication. Nowadays, we have an occasional phone call to discuss schedules or problems, but she still doesn’t like to put much in writing, which I find very problematic.
When trying to keep track of complicated dates and schedules, it is important to have the details in writing to avoid misunderstandings. Furthermore, for high-conflict parents who seem to argue every time they speak, sticking to written communication can help keep tensions down.
Our parenting coordinator stressed the value of keeping communication “business-like” using email, text, and a shared online calendar, like a Google Calendar. A shared calendar is an excellent way to put the child’s schedule all in one place. You put in recurring events like “Weekend Visit with Dad” or “July 4th with Mom in Odd Years” so you can look out years in the future and know who has the child on a given date. You can even mark down transition details like “meeting at train station at 5 pm Friday.”
When they get older, it’s a huge help to see your child’s extracurricular activities laid out in one place. It’s great because you don’t need to have a long discussion about simple dates; you can just check the calendar.
Jessica and I have recently discovered co-parenting apps that take the shared calendar idea one step further. The most well-known one out there is called Our Family Wizard, but there are others, like Talking Parents, which is newer and maybe just as good. Apps like these cover the basic calendar and communication functions well, but they also seamlessly share school report cards, photos, expense receipts, requests for payment, medical information, etc. Some parents use it for paying/receiving child support payments, which is great for tracking.
There are many other useful built-in functions. For example, if one parent needs to switch weekends, a feature lets them request the schedule change and then documents the other parent’s response.
While most of these tasks can be completed with a simple email, the apps keep everything in one place, avoiding confusion and miscommunication. For co-parents stuck in dysfunctional or high-conflict relationships, the app can mean all the difference in the world.
Our Family Wizard is such an effective tool that many jurisdictions around the country mandate parents use it for all communication and co-parenting functions. The data that the app tracks, including text messages, calendar appointments, child support payments, and expense reimbursements, are all admissible as evidence and impossible to tamper with by either party.
If your court order doesn’t require it, you can force the issue by just refusing to communicate outside of the parenting app. Speak with your lawyer about this strategy first, but we believe most courts support the use of these tools.
A friend of ours going through a high-conflict divorce recently told us her ex was harassing her with endless messages via the Our Family Wizard. The court reprimanded him after seeing the evidence in the report the app produced. What a fantastic tool! The saying “A little sunlight is the best disinfectant” applies here.
My experience would have been totally different (better) if I had followed the bullet points at the top of this article when my daughter was born 12 years ago, but it's not too late for you.
-Jim & Jessica
Jim and Jessica Braz are not lawyers. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, they do not give legal advice on this website. Furthermore, child custody laws, child support calculations, and family law, in general, vary from state to state. Be sure to consult an attorney in the appropriate state for your custody litigation.
Jim and Jessica Braz are not doctors. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, they do not give medical advice on this website. Be sure to consult your doctor on your specific medical situation.
Jim and Jessica Braz are not licensed therapists, mediators, or counselors. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, you should consult licensed professionals as needed.
The advice given on this website does not hold Jim and Jessica Braz legally liable for any adverse outcomes you may have from following their advice.
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