When I pick up a co-parenting plan or agreement, it tells me a lot about who the parents were when they came up with it.
Without even reading a word of the co-parenting agreement, the weight of it in my hands can tell me about the state of play between the parents at the time it was drafted.
If it is a thick, hefty agreement then it is likely to be full of details covering different “what if this happens?” scenarios. Arrangements will be set out very specifically. A thick co-parenting agreement may often include lots of “if you do this, then this will happen” type clauses.
The amount of detail you include in a co-parenting plan (and hence how thick it is) often reflects the level to which you and your ex were able to communicate, trust and reach understandings at the time it was prepared. The lower the level of those factors, the more detail that you will feel needs to be included. The higher the level of communication, trust and ability to reach agreement on issues, the less detail you will feel inclined to include in the plan because you will feel confident that you’ll be able to solve future problems, if and when they happen.
A thick co-parenting agreement full of detail tells me that the parents may likely have felt very anxious about the future co-parenting arrangement. Perhaps one or both of them were scared of being “screwed over” by the other.
A thick co-parenting agreement may sometimes signal that one or both parents were struggling to disengage with one another. Going back and forth to come up with such a detailed plan was a way to continue to have some form of connection or communication with one another (I've seen this happen at times when the engagement was negative and even destructive).
A thick agreement tells me that the parents likely went through a lot of time, energy, stress and money to get to their co-parenting plan. Their separation was likely not particularly amicable. A thick agreement is testimony to the parents not wanting to have to endure such a process again, hence they have tried to cover off as much as they possibly can this time around!
That's not always the case though - sometimes parents who have a thick co-parenting plan actually had an amicable separation and were able to work well together to agree on lots to include in their plan. They just may have got bogged down in all the “what ifs”, felt highly anxious to get everything “right” and lost sight of the one reason why they could have eased up on their plan. They would have been served to be reminded that if some of those “what ifs” eventually came into being they’d be all over being able to solve the situation.
When I then look at the details in the co-parenting agreement, this often paints a picture for me of:
whether the parents were able to consider their children as individuals;
the degree to which they were able to facilitate and encourage the children’s relationship with each of them;
their ability to separate their needs from those of their children’s; and
whether they were able to envisage a cooperative and trusting co-parenting relationship.
The level of detail you put into your co-parenting agreement is a fine balance.
Too much and you can easily get overwhelmed and head down a hazy path of trying to crystal ball gaze too far into the future. With the overwhelm can come heightened stress and emotion which makes for negotiations that can become more fractious than they need to be.
Too little forward planning can also be problematic. I mediated with a couple once who, despite my voiced concerns, said about several issues “oh, we’ll be able to sort that out”. You guessed it, things later unravelled for them when they weren’t able to sort some of those matters out themselves. I don’t doubt they genuinely believed at that time that they could have sorted it. Perhaps they were subconsciously avoiding having an uncomfortable discussion or didn’t want to jinx how well they were doing. Either way, taking an approach of “a stitch in time saves nine” could have saved them some angst later on.
The key to getting the right balance of detail in your co-parenting plan is to accurately assess your ability to sort out issues if they arise in the future and your motivations at this time. If you are inclined to say “we can sort that out at the time” or “what if this happens? we need to provide for this!”, asking yourself some of the following questions may help:
What is the reason for having this included in the agreement?
What is the harm in not having it included in the agreement?
Would we better to leave it for now and have a future review of our plan so we can deal with it if then if it has come up?
Is this definitely going to happen? If not, what is the realistic likelihood we can appropriately sort this out if it does happen?
If realistically we are unlikely to be able to sort this out ourselves in the future, aside from our agreement, what else can we do now to improve our co-parenting situation? What help or support may be useful?
By pursuing this issue, am I looking to meet some other need I have? (eg punishing my ex? / engaging with my ex when I am struggling to let this relationship go? / my need for control and certainty in my life?...)
By putting off this issue, am I trying to avoid something? (eg the discomfort of having the discussion now?). What would better serve me? What would better serve my child?
I regularly run through some or all these questions with my 1:1 clients. Going through them with an advisor such as a trusted friend (the one who will tell you what you don't want to hear if you need to hear it!), your coach, counsellor or lawyer, may help you get clarity and avoid a plan that doesn't reflect the co-parenting relationship you want to have and the person you want to be as you move through this time.
So, what does your co-parenting plan say about you? What would you like it to say? Can you change the story it tells?
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