Dealing with a Toxic Co-Parent? Here’s Why Parallel Parenting Might Be Right for You

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Divorce is awful. There’s no way around it. It’s also a given that tempers will flare, especially when kids are involved and custody arrangements have to be mapped out. But what if when the dust settles (or the paperwork gets signed) you can still barely be civil to each other, let alone kind? It makes it difficult to co-parent, which is where the concept of parallel parenting comes in.

In a nutshell, parallel parenting is an alternative approach that puts each parent in the driver’s seat vs. having to consult each other on every move. But does it work? We asked Laura Wasser, divorce attorney and founder and CEO of the online divorce platform, It’s Over Easy, plus real parents actually using the approach, to break it down.

What is parallel parenting? Parallel parenting is a version of co-parenting that’s designed for parents who can’t get along or find themselves in a toxic situation with an ex, Wasser explains. It allows them to co-parent separately—meaning each parent does his or her own thing when the kids are in that parent’s physical custody—but with the same overall big-picture approach when it comes to education, discipline, emotional and physical safety. (For example, your child may spend more time on screens when with your ex, but you can rest assured that your kid’s best interest still comes above all else.)

In other words, you no longer have to consult each other about every child-related move. With parallel parenting, there’s a lot less direct contact, especially in situations where parents have demonstrated that they are unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner. “This is something that can prove helpful during the transition period from one home to two,” Wasser says. “The hope is that as the dust settles and tempers cool, parents will realize that they love their children more than they hate each other and move forward with an ability to communicate better.”

So, how do parents practicing parallel parenting connect? Per Wasser, there are lots of new out-of-the-box methods for this—everything from co-parenting counselors to shared calendars to simply handling all child-related matters via email. (This can help make communication less emotional and more transactional, she explains.)

As for real parents who have tried it, survey says… “My ex and I have been practicing the ‘parallel parenting’ approach for close to 11 years now,” one mom says. “We have court ordered support, but nothing more than a verbal custody agreement—and very lax scheduled time with my son’s dad. Parallel parenting has been much easier for me emotionally, especially in the beginning. When our son was younger, interaction would get very bad, so I started only dropping him off and picking him up in public places or with someone else around so that the situation wouldn’t escalate. Communication was limited to email and a joint calendar for events.” Still, there are pitfalls. “My ex is a true narcissist who only chooses to participate in what serves him. It gets frustrating if you only have one parent actively checking for updates. I think there is always going to be one parent that takes on the bulk of the responsibilities, even with a 50/50 custody split.” But after all this time, they now have a group chat for updates, which has opened up communication a bit. Other parents we chatted with echoed these concerns. “It became important that our communication was limited to just the facts vs. all the hatred and emotion that had a tendency to build up and cause one of us to explode,” a dad of two weighs in. “Parallel parenting really helped.”

Is there a long-term plan? In high conflict cases, the goal of parallel parenting is actually to lessen the animosity between parents with the passage of time. “Neither parent is threatened by having custody of the children taken away entirely or getting ‘less than’ their ex,” Wasser says. “Instead, parallel parenting is meant to help begin the healing process between parents and is ultimately about the best interest of the kids who are involved.”

Still, there are a few places where parallel parenting just doesn’t work. “If parents are dead set against any kind of a shared custody framework, it’s a no-go,” says Wasser. In addition, if one parent has a history of domestic violence or habitually abuses drugs or alcohol and cannot be trusted to keep the children safe, parallel parenting probably isn’t the best plan. Trust is key in this scenario, but so is letting go. “I see a lot of people exercising this option early on during and after the initial separation and dissolution.”

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Rachel Bowie is Senior Director of Special Projects & Royals at PureWow, where she covers parenting, fashion, wellness and money in addition to overseeing initiatives within...