Why parallel parenting was the answer with my difficult ex

Co-parenting , Fathers Matter

Right from the start, Shelley’s relationship with her son’s father was a minefield; so finding a way to co-parent with him has been immensely challenging. She shares her story about how parallel parenting and creating a safe and supportive environment for her child enabled her to find a way, despite her difficult ex-partner. 

Michael and I were together for 10 years, but the relationship had red flags from the start. I came from a very conservative Christian family, so despite these flags, I was keen to make the relationship work and build a family, especially after discovering I was pregnant. Michael’s reaction to my pregnancy was negative, and he accused me of trying to trap him into marriage. This accusation, coupled with his erratic behaviour and narcissism, grief, a move overseas and infidelity fed into a toxic situation that ultimately led to me leaving him and taking our young son back home to my parents’ house with me.

However, despite my family encouraging me to leave him out of it, I knew that it was important for our son, Daniel, to have his father in his life. Finding a way to do this has been a difficult journey.   

The help of mediation and creating boundaries

From a young age, Daniel has faced challenges due to ADHD and dyslexia. My primary goal has been to create a home where Daniel feels safe, appreciated and championed, regardless of his academic performance.

Daniel’s educational and medical needs have been points of contention between my ex and me. We sought an independent mediator who helped us develop a parenting plan, which was really important. The parenting plan covered access, maintenance and any big decisions, like religion, schooling, what age phones are acceptable, and medical considerations. It has been hugely helpful. 

I came to a point where I realised I couldn't co-operatively co-parent with Michael and that I had to parallel parent with him instead.

Showing no emotions and keeping communication to a minimum with Michael helps to avoid conflict. This approach is called grey rocking, which is when you purposefully appear uninteresting or indifferent to a toxic person in order to make them lose interest. I also prefer not to phone him but instead use WhatsApp or email to communicate.

It took us a while to come to an access arrangement where Daniel spends alternate weeks with each parent and, even though Daniel has his own phone, we’ve agreed that Michael and I don’t make arrangements through Daniel or through our respective partners.

It became vital for Daniel to have a sense of agency in his life, especially since he had so little control over his circumstances when he was younger. So, we have since made it a point to involve him in decisions about his life; giving him a voice and ensuring he felt heard and respected.

Parallel parenting

After a number of confrontational incidents where Michael raged about how I was parenting Daniel when he was staying with me, I sent Michael a message to let him know that I don't have to answer to him around what I do with Daniel on my weekends and that I’ll consult him regarding the areas we had outlined in our parenting agreement.

I came to a point where I realised I couldn’t co-operatively co-parent with Michael and that I had to parallel parent with him instead. This style of parenting involves minimising communication between parents while preserving their bond with their kids, especially in situations where a high-conflict separation or divorce has taken place.

In parallel parenting, each parent takes care of their day-to-day responsibilities when it’s their turn with the child, without consulting the other person. This is with the exception of important decisions pertaining to their child, such as medical decisions, schools and religion.

Parallel parenting has forced me to let go of what I cannot control in the other household, and instead focus on what I want to build and create in my own.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the people featured in this story.

Tips for how to make such a difficult situation work

My advice to people in a similar situation is to get the necessary support for yourself. Often as single moms we just put one foot in front of the other (because we have to show up for our kids) and so we don’t take the time to work through the trauma of life as the ex of a narcissist. The love bombing, gaslighting and devaluation stages are difficult to reconcile, especially when it comes from someone you thought cared about you; it makes you question your sanity.

Even though it’s exceptionally hard, it’s also important to involve their father in your child’s journey. A boy child, for example, gets so much of his identity and confidence from his dad. I work hard to ensure Daniel understands that his feelings are valid and that manipulation is not normal behaviour. It's a really delicate balance to validate his experiences without feeding into the cycle of toxicity and manipulation.

Despite the difficulties, I believe it's crucial for Daniel to have a relationship with his father. As he grows older, he will see these patterns for himself and decide how to navigate his relationship with his father and those around him effectively.

Most importantly, I pray daily for my child to feel God’s unconditional love for him, that his relationships are modelled on Christ’s, and that God guides and protects him.


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