Can’t Co-Parent With Your Hostile Ex? Try This Strategy Instead

In a good-enough divorce, exes work through feelings of anger, betrayal and loss and arrive at a place of acceptance. Frustrations over the other parent’s values and choices are contained and pushed aside, making space for the Holy Grail of post-divorce life: effective co-parenting.

Co-parenting is possible only when both exes support their children’s need to have a relationship with the other parent and respect that parent’s right to have a healthy relationship with the children.

But some people never get to acceptance. They become, essentially, addicted to anger. They convince themselves that the other parent is incompetent, mentally ill, or dangerous. They transmit this conviction directly or indirectly not only to the children, but also to school staff, mental health professionals and anyone who will listen.

High-conflict exes are on a mission to invalidate the other parent. No therapist, mediator, parenting class, or Gandhi-esque channeling will make an anger-addicted ex take off the gloves and agree to co-parent.

If this scenario feels familiar, and you’re wondering how you’re going to survive raising kids with your high-conflict ex without losing every last one of your marbles, I offer you this counterintuitive suggestion: Stop trying to co-parent!

Try Parallel Parenting instead.

What is Parallel Parenting?

Parallel Parenting is radical acceptance. It means letting go of fighting reality. Divorce is terrible enough, but to have a divorce that is so hellish as to make co-parenting impossible is another kind of terrible altogether.

It’s helpful to conceptualize Parallel Parenting as an approach many Alcoholics Anonymous folks use when dealing with the addict in their lives: they stop going to the hardware store looking for milk. Why are you trying to have a reasonable conversation with someone who isn’t reasonable, at least with you? Stop expecting reciprocity or enlightenment. Stop needing the other person to see you as right. You are not ever going to get these things from your anger-addicted ex, and you can make yourself sick trying.

How to Practice Parallel Parenting

You tried to co-parent so your kids would see their parents get along, and to make them feel safe. That didn’t work. Now you need to limit contact with your ex to reduce the conflict in order to make your kids feel safe — and to keep yourself from going nuts. So how do you do this?

1. Communicate as little as possible

Stop talking on the phone. When speaking with a hostile ex, you will likely be drawn into an argument and nothing will get resolved. Limit communication to texting and e-mail. This way you can choose what to respond to and you will be able to delete knee-jerk retorts that you would make if you were on the phone.

2. Make Rules for Communication

Hostile exes tend to ignore boundaries. So you will have to be very clear about the terms for communication. E-mail or texting should be used only for logistics: travel plans, a proposed weekend swap, doctor appointments. If your ex tends uses e-mails to harass you, tell him you will not respond, and if the abuse continues, you will stop e-mailing altogether.

3. Do Not Respond to Threats of Lawsuits

Hostile exes frequently threaten to modify child support or custody arrangements. Do not respond! Tell your ex that any discussion of litigation must go through your attorney. This will require money on your ex’s part: phone calls between attorneys, disclosing financial statements, etc. It is quite possible that your ex does not really intend to put her money where her mouth is, so don’t take the bait.

4. Avoid being together at child-related functions

It’s great for your kids to see the two of you together — but only if they see you getting along. So attend events separately as much as possible. Schedule separate parent-teacher conferences. Trade off hosting birthday parties. Do curbside drop-offs so your child doesn’t have to feel the tension between you and your ex.

5. Be proactive with school staff and mental health professionals

School staff and therapists may have heard things about you that aren’t true — for instance, that you are out of the picture or mentally ill. So be proactive. Fax your custody order to these individuals so they understand the custody arrangement. Even if you are a non-custodial parent, you are still entitled to information regarding your child’s academic performance or mental health treatment and the school and therapists want you to be involved. Talk to school staff and therapists as soon as possible. Don’t be defensive, but explain the situation. When they see you, they will realize that you’re a reasonable person who’s trying to do the right thing for your child.

6. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Parallel Parenting requires letting go of what happens in the other parent’s home. Although it may drive you crazy that your ex lets 6-year-old Lucy stay up until midnight, there is really not much you can do about it. Nor can you control your ex’s selection of babysitters, children’s clothing or how much TV time is allowed.

Your child will learn to adapt to different rules and expectations at each house. If Sienna complains about something that goes on at Dad’s, instruct her to speak to him directly. Trying to solve a problem between your ex and your child will only inflame the conflict and teach her to pit the two of you against each other. You want to empower your child, not teach her that she needs to be rescued.

Parallel Parenting is a last resort, to be implemented when attempts at co-parenting have failed. But that doesn’t mean you have failed as a divorced parent. In fact, the opposite is true. By reducing conflict, Parallel Parenting will enhance the quality of your life and most importantly, take your child out of the middle.

And isn’t that what a good-enough divorce is all about?

Virginia Gilbert

Virginia Gilbert

I live in Los Angeles, where I specialize in helping people going through high-conflict divorce. On this blog, you'll find insights to help people who are considering divorce, are going through divorce, or have a high-conflict divorce that never seems to get any better.

15 Comments

  1. Patty on April 19, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    How does the new wife deal with her husband’s high conflict ex when she calls her names and blames her for things that are not even true! ? I don’t want anything to do with his kids because she is insane and I am insulating myself from problems she causes.

    • Virginia Gilbert on April 19, 2018 at 3:42 pm

      That sounds like a really challenging situation. I don’t know if the children are living in your house, but if they are, you can’t avoid interacting with them. I find a 12-step approach is almost crucial in these circumstances: you can’t control a crazy-making person, but you do have choices about how you choose to respond to them and manage your own reactivity.

    • Melanie on June 11, 2020 at 6:41 am

      So I’ve been in my step sons life since he was 2. He will be 11 this year. The birth mom has never been very involved in his life and throws him on my husbands mom on her weeks (we have joint custody). And only mothers him when its convenient for her. My husband doesn’t like communicating with her because it’s like talking to a wall. She thinks she’s always right. He wants us to communicate instead and she doesnt want to because I’ve made a comment about how I’m just as a mom to her son because I’m always picking up her slack. I’ve never threatened her. But she always wants to call our son on my phone and disrespect us by talking about things she doesnt need to know. Like what we do everyday her at our house. That isnt any of her business. So my question is does she legally have to talk to me? If he doesn’t want to coparent with her in the sense of texting or calling because all she does is start drama.

      • Virginia Gilbert on June 11, 2020 at 6:50 am

        Hi Melanie — I can’t advise on legal questions, so you’d have to consult with a lawyer. But if I had to guess, I’d say that unless you’re mentioned in the custody order, you have no legal obligation to talk to your husband’s ex. Have you considered getting your stepson a cell phone? That way you don’t have to talk to her, at least, not as much.

  2. Yvonne on August 11, 2018 at 5:07 am

    I found proof that my high-conflict ex allows his spouse to manage & participate in communications with me. So, I don’t know who I’m emailing with. I’ve addressed this in the past & we were told by a co-parenting counselor that this is inappropriate — but he’s still doing it. What do I do?

    • Virginia Gilbert on August 11, 2018 at 5:48 am

      Hi,Yvonne.

      Did your counselor say why she thought this was inappropriate? I’m not sure there’s anything you can do about it. To my knowledge, it’s not illegal, although you’d need to ask your attorney. I actually advise some people to get help drafting emails to their ex if this enables them to write in a less hostile fashion.

  3. Bhavini Patel on August 29, 2018 at 11:25 am

    My ex husband and I got along ok until last year he got married and the new wife does not want us to talk to each other. since then communication has gone down dramatically and we fight more often about things, which are brought about by lack of communication and trust. Now I realise that his new wife and him are making decisions about my daughter and schooling without including me at all. I am trying to talk to him about it, but he just swats me away and makes me feel like a nuisance. I fear that communicating even less will complete push me out of my daughters life (we are supposedly 50/50 coparents).

    • Virginia Gilbert on August 29, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      Hi Bhavani: If you share legal custody, he should not be making school decisions without you. Have you consulted your attorney?

  4. Givehimabreak on December 19, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    Hi Virginia
    Can you confirm that if I post a question here my personal details are private and secure or is there another way I can post a quick question to you? Many thanks

    • Virginia Gilbert on December 19, 2018 at 3:59 pm

      Hi there — I don’t give out anyone’s personal info but if you’d be more comfortable emailing me a question, you can contact me at [email protected].

  5. Bill on January 23, 2019 at 7:56 am

    Funny reading this because this is what I started doing when frustrations was getting the best of me……then she wanna try reaching out to me but I always tell her long as she has my son as a ward off the state I have nothing to say…….ward off the state meaning letting a judge decide how much time he can spend with me…..79 overnights

  6. Fiona on January 24, 2019 at 11:17 am

    Thank you for writing this. It’s the first time I’ve seen it written by a professional that it’s reasonable to avoid your co-parent. Numbers 1, 4 and 6 are exactly the way I’ve been managing. I went through what would be considered (by my therapist) an abusive divorce and was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of that and another major trauma. Needless to say, being in my ex husbands company is highly unpleasant for me. All around me I see divorced parents celebrating holidays, chatting at sports events, helping each other out and generally being friendly and while it feels like an additional failure on top of a failed marriage, it’s necessary for my peace of mind to dramatically minimize contact. I have had clear boundaries since we were in court 3 years ago and am functioning reasonably well with these boundaries in place. It’s not perfect but it reduces my stress and my son doesn’t seem any worse for wear.

    • Virginia Gilbert on February 4, 2019 at 8:16 am

      Hi Fiona — so sorry to hear about what you’ve been through, but it sounds like you’re doing a really good job of managing the crazy. All my best!

  7. Stacy on July 22, 2020 at 12:52 pm

    Thank you for this information. It has helped me set guidelines in communicating with my ex. My ex is harassing me by text. He knows that it is difficult to prove the validity of text messages in court. I told him I only want to communicate by email as we have before . He says I cannot dictate how we communicate. Is that correct?

    • Virginia Gilbert on July 22, 2020 at 1:05 pm

      Hi Stacy: That is actually a question for your lawyer. Often people have their mode of communication written into their divorce agreement. If you don’t have that, it seems to me that he can’t require you to communicate outside of email, if that’s your preference. But again, I would consult with an attorney on this one. Wishing you the best.

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