Co-parenting with a difficult ex

What's Covered

Human beings are relational. We find satisfaction, meaning, and significance in relationships. Relationships are dimensional and diverse. Some are connected by blood while others are purely out of friendship. Different relationships require different levels of commitment. Falling in love is a beautiful thing. This new relationship brings with it joy and endless possibilities of growth and hope. But what happens when those expectations are dashed? How do the people involved parent a child from this union, while they no longer can live together?

Responsibilities of parent(s)

Parents have a God-given responsibility for their children. How well they execute their roles will determine the well-being of their children.

Offer unconditional love

Whether the role of parenting is done alone or as a couple, the need to love your children unconditionally and uniquely is fundamental.[1] Love offers the foundation of who they become. Children thrive when they feel love communicated to them. Be kind in your speech, affectionate towards them, and approachable. Being an actively present parent to your children communicates care and value.

Provide safety

Children need to feel safe for their well-being. You do that by providing a safe environment in the home as well as being present as a parent. Constant absence communicates neglect which creates feelings of anxiety in children.[2]


Exposure to danger and harm in or out of the home is damaging to a child. That said, when there is constant conflict in the home, it is the duty of the parent to protect the children from harm. This involves making tough decisions if need be for their safety. Walking away from an abusive relationship as a parent is a way of protecting your children too from emotional and mental abuse.[3]

Help nurture their self-esteem

Children come with different temperaments and are gifted differently. It is the responsibility of a parent to enhance a child’s sense of worth by investing in their areas of interest. Encouraging them instead of ridiculing them when they fail enhances their worth. Standing for them when their self-esteem is at risk is essential.

Provide basic needs

It is the responsibility of parents to provide food, shelter, and medical care for their children. These are essentials for the general well-being and good health of a child.

What makes for an ex

Relationships are hard work. It takes sacrifice on each other’s part for any relationship to work. While most couples desire a lifelong relationship, certain behaviors negatively affect it rendering it impossible to pursue. Below are some reasons for break-ups.


Seldom will anybody be willing to invest heavily in a relationship that is not exclusive. The act of unfaithfulness in a romantic relationship breaks trust.[4] For whatever reason the infidelity happens, the damage to the relationship is sometimes irreparable.


Abuse[5] of any nature, be it physical, emotional, or psychological will rob the relationship of its life and vitality.


For a romantic relationship to thrive, openness is required from both parties. Secrets breed mistrust in the relationship making it impossible to trust one another.

Substance abuse

When one spouse engages in substance abuse[6], be it alcoholism, it becomes increasingly difficult to forge forward as a couple because you both are no longer on the same wavelength.

Lack of communication

Communication in a romantic relationship is the conduit through which the people involved grow. When that is affected by unresolved issues caused by constant miscommunication, each pulls back to their world.[7] It will take work to bridge the gap that begins to develop, and where that doesn’t happen, separation occurs.


Money is a sensitive issue in a romantic relationship. There is a need to agree on how to invest it. Some people are frugal and others are spendthrifts. Knowing and understanding each other is essential to the life of the relationship.[8] However, a lack of proper stewardship can cause a strain leading to a breakup.


Any relationship worth its salt takes nurturing from both parties. Neglect shows in the lack of concern for one another, being indifferent towards issues that demand your attention, or disengaging from the relationship altogether.

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Breakups are painful and complicated. It gets trickier when children are involved. The decision to end a relationship affects not only the parties involved but also the children. They are mostly affected. However, to leave would be a better option than to stay and endanger your life and that of your children.

The negative effects of a difficult parental relationship on children include the following.


Poorly managed, constant conflict in a home affects children in many ways. Fear created through such difficult circumstances[9] causes them to cower and hide in their rooms. Such an environment causes them to withdraw, they will not express themselves freely for fear of being yelled at. The home no longer is a haven for them, and they feel trapped especially if they are young since they are still dependent on their parents for upkeep.


Pent-up emotions such as anger characterize difficult relationships. Children quickly pick these emotions from their parents.[10] Awareness of damage that abuse has on an individual, a child will exhibit anger on the perpetrator of the abuse. This anger points to something not done or going on right in the home.

Poor academic performance

The negative effects of conflict in a home are far-reaching. Children who would otherwise perform well in school suddenly disengage academically. The mental distress affects their level of concentration in school.[11] This in turn affects how well they excel in life.

Rebellion and peer pressure

It is not uncommon for children to get into the wrong crowd because of conflicts at home. Teenage children can get into crime or other related activities.[12] Anger that is pent up within them for a long time comes out and finds expression in the wrong way. A sense of justice can drive them to injure or even kill the parent who has caused pain in the home.

Low self-esteem

When there is conflict in a home, children will be neglected. They are unaffirmed, and the conflict communicates danger to them. How they respond is a result of what goes on in them. They will feel shame about the issues at home, and might even blame themselves for it. Their level of happiness drops, as they find other coping mechanisms. The general outlook on life from then on is one of sadness and uncertainty.

Emotional damage

Constant arguing at home emotionally damages children. It creates distress levels children are not wired to handle. This damage can range from children yelling[13] at each other at home, to relationally detaching in the future. In older children, vices like substance abuse can occur in a bid to escape from what they are feeling inside.

General sense of insecurity

A loving, stable home offers security and stability to children. On the contrary, one that is rocked by constant conflict destabilizes them. The home, no longer a peaceful place to thrive, provokes fear, unrest, and a sense of abandonment.


A volatile home offers inconsistencies that a child’s mind and emotions find difficult to live with. To live with a sense of not knowing what will happen next causes anxiety and distress. The children in such a home live constantly on the edge. Depending on a child’s temperament, violence in the home presents them with three forms of response; fight, flight or freeze.[14] Whichever form they pick is a coping mechanism for them. Feelings of sadness, gloom, anger, or anxiety are depressive, and when not well-handled lead to depression in children.

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The decision to leave an abusive relationship takes courage. Letting go can be even more difficult when there are children involved. The need to have both parents present in the life of these children paralyzes the parent opting to leave. Questions abound. Is it the right decision? Right time? Am I being selfish in leaving? What happens to my children without their father’s presence in their lives? Will my leaving pose a greater danger to my children and i? When a marital relationship is irredeemable, the one leaving needs to know the following.

It is not their fault

In the event of violence[15], it is not their fault. Being violent is a choice of the will. Your safety and that of your children come first. That you want to live a peaceful, happy life, and you desire that for your children is enough reason to walk away from abuse.

Living alone with the children will be challenging

Adjusting to a new life away from an abusive partner can present new challenges. You will have to deal with the after-effects of the trauma[16] you and your children have, alone. Your new financial status could be stretched as you learn to be on your own.

It is the right thing to do

The decision to leave an abusive relationship that poses a threat to you and your children is the right decision to make. Your life and that of your children matter.

Happiness of children

Your children deserve a happy life, a happy home, and a happy parent. If that happiness is not found while living together, finding happiness alone is a healthy option.

Diversified parental role

Opting to live with your children without your partner will present increased parental roles. For a dad, raising daughters by yourself presents new challenges that call on your sensitivity. You also will be called to provide heightened protection to your children against abuse from the abusive partner.

Co-parenting from the point of separation is a delicate balance, requiring mutual agreement. While it could be clear that the parents want nothing to do with each other, the same cannot be said about the children. Depending on how severe the abuse was, exposure to the abuser would need to be curt


Once the two of you decide to part ways, how to co-parent the children is a decision that must be made. If one partner is difficult, how do you go about it to make sure your children do not feel abandoned by their father/mother?

Tips on co-parenting with a difficult ex

Make the decision

Decide if co-parenting is the way you want to go.[17] Being clear whether or not to involve your ex in the lives of your children helps you prepare mentally for the journey ahead. What challenges will you encounter on the way? What are the risks involved? Are you settled emotionally to let him into their lives, or would you want some time? Such questions need to be answered well for you to make a sober decision.

Set clear boundaries

Boundaries protect all the parties involved. Depending on how difficult your ex is, decide how exposed your children will be to him/her. Will the children go to visit him on weekends? How many hours can they be gone at a time? Setting boundaries[18] protect children from further abuse, and unnecessary exposure in the event your ex has moved on and is dating or already living with someone else.

Avoid discussing him/her with your children

It takes integrity to steer clear of conversations that badmouth your ex with your children. He/she is their parent and you want to uphold that title with integrity. Perhaps your ex makes promises to the children that he/she doesn’t keep. This is frustrating both to you and the children who have to look forward to something that will never come. Allow the children to discover the weaknesses of their other parent, without getting into a smearing campaign.

Put the children first

Co-parenting is not about trying to get together again with your ex. Your children are the reason you both have to be in touch. Keep it professional. Avoid conversations about each other or your past together. You must keep the past as it is so you can move forward.

Find role models for your children

It is not uncommon for children to copy bad behavior from parents. When one parent drops the ball, it forms a negative image in the minds of the children. To correct that, seek help from other parents who are parenting in what you consider the right way. Let them interact with your children to mentor them to become better humans.[19] Getting a role model as a father figure to your sons will help them find the guidance they need, as well as share their challenges with someone who seeks to understand and help them.

Put everything in writing

When you have an agreement on how your ex and you intend to co-parent, write everything down. It is for accountability. Everything documented can help you in the event you want to seek a court order barring further interaction with your ex.

Open communication lines

It is vital to keep in mind that the essence of communicating is focused on the children and their well-being. That said, choosing the mode of communication that does not provoke your emotions negatively is paramount. Instead of phone calls, you can choose emails or text messages. That way, you get to answer when you are ready as opposed to answering on the spot, which can get out of hand. It also gives you time to critically think before answering any question or request.

Your life

For the sake of the children and not the ex, keeping your ex updated on what is happening in your life is helpful. However, only what affects the children is good communication. Are you dating? Is he? In such cases, what happens to the children when they come to visit? How is the new person involved with the children?

To go to court or not

Unless things are critically out of hand and communication is impossible, then going to court can be an option. However, before you go to a legal court, sitting down with the family to see the way forward can be explored. Court cases involving children’s custody can be emotionally draining to all parties involved.[20] Being aware of the pressures involved is being better prepared to handle them if going to court is the last resort.

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Constant present involvement of parents in their children gives them stability and security. However, some circumstances make active participation of both parents impossible.

When co-parenting is impossible


When an ex is violent to the children or has threatened to be, the safety of the children is at stake. Their protection is required and further involvement with the violent parent is curtailed.

Alcohol or substance abuse

A parent who is constantly intoxicated is a danger to the children. Their care towards the children is jeopardized since they are not in the right frame of mind to take care of children.[21]


Co-parenting is difficult when one parent is behind bars[22] for whatever reasons. Getting constant access to him/her for the children is impossible. It is trauma enough for the children to have a parent behind bars leave alone going to visit them!

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Court order

In difficult situations that involve getting a restraining court order against one parent, the children get to move on without seeing the parent. It normally would be in their best interest that it is so.


In the event one parent keeps moving from one location of residence to another and accountability is lacking, it creates suspicion on his/her intentions. The parent living with the children will feel unsafe releasing children to the unaccountable parent.

Toxic ex

Dealing with a narcissist is hard. Co-parenting with one can be impossible. With their inflated self-esteem issues and lack of boundaries, adhering to anything that deflates them is an uphill task. When children are exposed to a narcissistic parent, they suffer harm.[23] Little good if any comes out of it.


Divorce or separation affects emotions negatively. There is anger and deep pain involved. When these emotions are not handled well, one parent can become vengeful. He/she can express vengeance against the children, posing harm to them.[24] It is a way of getting to their partner who has left. In such instances, it proves difficult to allow the children further interaction with the vengeful parent.

Final thought

Parenting is a lifelong journey. Children find stability and security when both parents are present in their lives. However, break-ups or divorce is not only difficult to the parents but to the children involved too. Keeping the focus on them after a breakup is essential to their normal growth and emotional development. Co-parenting aims at this. To be successful in co-parenting, let the past remain so, and focus on the task ahead; raising children together while living apart.

[1]Mullin, Amy. “Parents and children: An alternative to selfless and unconditional love.” Hypatia 21.1 (2006): 181-200.

[2] Lang, Kevin, and Jay L. Zagorsky. “Does growing up with a parent absent really hurt?.” Journal of human Resources (2001): 253-273.

[3] Moe, Angela M. “Battered women, children, and the end of abusive relationships.” Affilia 24.3 (2009): 244-256.

[4] Hertlein, Katherine M., Joseph L. Wetchler, and Fred P. Piercy. “Infidelity: an overview.” Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy 4.2-3 (2005): 5-16.

[5] Hornung, Carlton A., B. Claire McCullough, and Taichi Sugimoto. “Status relationships in marriage: Risk factors in spouse abuse.” Journal of Marriage and the Family (1981): 675-692.

[6] Rowe, Cynthia L., and Howard A. Liddle. “Substance abuse.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 29.1 (2003): 97-120.

[7] Roberts, Nigel, and Patricia Noller. “The associations between adult attachment and couple violence: The role of communication patterns and relationship satisfaction.” (1998).

[8]Copur, Zeynep, and Isil Eker. “The relationship between financial issues and marital relationship.” International Journal of Arts & Sciences 7.5 (2014): 683.

[9] Goeke-Morey, Marcie C., E. Mark Cummings, and Lauren M. Papp. “Children and marital conflict resolution: Implications for emotional security and adjustment.” Journal of Family Psychology 21.4 (2007): 744.

[10] Cummings, E. Mark, et al. “Children’s responses to mothers’ and fathers’ emotionality and tactics in marital conflict in the home.” Journal of Family Psychology 16.4 (2002): 478.

[11] Roeser, Robert W., Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Karen R. Strobel. “Linking the study of schooling and mental health: Selected issues and empirical illustrations at..” Educational Psychologist 33.4 (1998): 153-176.

[12] Hetherington, E. Mavis. “Coping with family transitions: Winners, losers, and survivors.” Child development (1989): 1-14.

[13] Bartkowski, John P., and W. Bradford Wilcox. “Conservative Protestant child discipline: The case of parental yelling.” Social Forces 79.1 (2000): 265-290.

[14] Bracha, H. Stefan. “Freeze, flight, fight, fright, faint: Adaptationist perspectives on the acute stress response spectrum.” CNS spectrums 9.9 (2004): 679-685.

[15] Sorel, Georges. Sorel: Reflections on violence. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[16]Krystal, Henry. “Trauma and affects.” The psychoanalytic study of the child 33.1 (1978): 81-116.

[17] Pruett, Marsha Kline, and Kathy Hoganbruen. “Joint custody and shared parenting: Research and interventions.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America 7.2 (1998): 273-294.

[18] Wuest, Judith, and Marilyn Merritt-Gray. “Not going back: Sustaining the separation in the process of leaving abusive relationships.” Violence Against Women 5.2 (1999): 110-133.

[19] Haensly, Patricia A., and James L. Parsons. “Creative, intellectual, and psychosocial development through mentorship: Relationships and stages.” Youth & Society 25.2 (1993): 202-221.

[20] Crampton, Alexandra. “Ethnographic refusal as research method: Example from a study of a family court child custody mediation program.” Qualitative Social Work 14.4 (2015): 453-470.

[21] Widom, Cathy Spatz, and Susanne Hiller-Sturmhöfel. “Alcohol abuse as a risk factor for and consequence of child abuse.” Alcohol Research & Health 25.1 (2001): 52.

[22] Murphey, David, and P. Mae Cooper. “Parents behind bars.” What happens to their children (2015): 1-20.

[23] Rappoport, Alan. “Co-narcissism: How we accommodate to narcissistic parents.” The Therapist 1 (2005): 1-8.

[24] Alder, Christine M., and Kenneth Polk. “Masculinity and child homicide.” The British Journal of Criminology 36.3 (1996): 396-411.

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Tiffany Biondi

Tiffany Biondi

Mother of 4 kids, Tiffany is a certified childcarer and during her free time, she write posts in thebabychoice to share her hands on experience and knowledge.