Co-Parenting with an Abusive Ex-Spouse

Domestic violence is a painful and often traumatic experience that victims do not want to relive once they finally leave.  When you have children with your abuser however, it may feel like you are forced to continue to endure the trauma of the abusive relationship even after divorce. In many cases parents are ordered to co-parent regardless of abuse or domestic violence between parents. While this is grounded in the well-intentioned desire to keep both parents involved for the child’s benefit, there are situations in which the risk of harm or repeat abuse could be high as a result of this obligation.

What is Co-Parenting?

Co-parenting is the requirement that both parents work together in a civil, and respectful manner in order to do what is best for the child. Co-parenting is difficult in any case but a history of abuse makes it even harder to want to find common ground with the abuser. You may not want to cooperate with your former abuser, and with good reason. Despite this, your child is watching and needs the security and stability that you can provide through safe and healthy co-parenting. Successful co-parenting sets an example for children on important values such as responsibility and respect, compromise, and patience. Your ability to overcome the hardship and trauma of the abusive past provides your child with the skills necessary to thrive through adversity and a model for what it truly means to make sacrifices. With this in mind, here are some ways to protect yourself while upholding your commitment to co-parenting.

How to Stay Safe While Co-Parenting with your Former Abuser

Know your legal rights and advocate for yourself

If your ex has a tendency to manipulate you or your child to get their way, understanding the legal rights and protection you have as a parent can reduce your risk of harm. In the event your ex was physically abusive towards you or your child, these issues should be raised during custody disputes. Sometimes an abuse victim may be afraid to voice these concerns before the court for fear that it could result in more abuse. However, the court needs to know the full details of the family history in order to determine what is truly in the best interest of the child. A history of domestic violence can determine which parent receives primary custody, as well as result in significant limitations on the abusive parent’s visitation rights. The judge will take all of this information into consideration for the safety and benefit of your child.

Additionally, if you are worried that your abuser may harm you again, it might be necessary to seek a restraining order or protective order.

Create clear boundaries and communication methods

Abusive people are not the most considerate, rational, or logical people. Chances are your ex may try to bend your words, manipulate situations to appear more responsible than you as a parent, or even attempt to turn your child against you. You may be obligated to co-parent with your abuser, but this does not mean you have to tolerate their abuse or manipulation anymore. You should create firm boundaries and know when something is too much for you. This requires some pre-planning and forethought but is worth doing. You cannot trust that things will work themselves out or that you will figure it out later. These boundaries should be clear and established from the very beginning.  Important boundaries include hours of communication, methods of communication between parents, and clear instructions on communicating with the child when in the other parent’s care.

For example, if you know you put your child to bed at 8pm and are asleep by 9pm yourself, it may be necessary to inform your ex in writing that they cannot call or email after 8pm. If your co-parent wants to have regular calls or FaceTimes with your child, setting a clear limit on the quantity and timing of these check-ins will maintain your authority and prevent harassment.

Another way to prevent harm or manipulation when co-parenting with an abuser would be to establish a communication process through scheduling tools. Scheduling tools allow co-parents to coordinate events, set custody schedules, and discuss issues related to their children in a system that is not susceptible to manipulation or alteration. Phone calls can quickly turn emotional, resulting in “he-said/she-said” disagreements. Emails are better but can still be altered or deleted. A scheduling app is a more reliable form of communication with accountability.

Have a self-executing custody arrangement

If you are able to create a separation agreement with the terms of legal and physical custody outlined in a way that fairly represents the desires of both parents while promoting the child’s best interest, then great. This agreement should include a clear and definitive custody schedule. The last thing you want in a co-parenting arrangement with an abusive ex is ambiguity that would allow them to further manipulate you or the situation. For example, if you are going to split Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the arrangement should specify exact times and instructions for pick-up or drop-off and return. This will help prevent the abuser from using the child as a form of control or from depriving you of your parental rights by claiming a miscommunication or misunderstanding occurred. Alternatively, if you are unable to negotiate a separation agreement with your ex, your detailed custody arrangements can be made in a consent order or through a court order. Regardless of the legal process of reaching the agreement, you should insist that the arrangement be clear, detailed, and self-executing.

Maintain safe spaces and protect yourself

For your own safety and the safety of your child, all in-person exchanges should be done in a secure public place. Your child’s school or day care would serve as a convenient location. You may also want to have a third-party present. This would help to dissolve tension and provide you more security and support.

Report breaches and try to remain calm

It is likely that an abusive ex might breach the separation agreement or custody schedule. Your ex is not abiding by the terms of your custody agreement if they are constantly picking up the child late or returning them later than agreed upon, keeps the child overnight when that has been prohibited, or schedules activities with your child that occur during your custody time. In these scenarios you should remain calm and avoid confronting your ex directly. It may be a good idea to start with having your attorney send a letter to your ex that states they must uphold their obligation regarding the child custody agreement. If this does not work, you can request mediation, ask the judge to make changes, or even file a motion for contempt.

Co-parenting is not easy, and the difficulties are certainly more complex when your ex has caused you severe physical or emotional harm. It may prove challenging, but it is not impossible to remain safe while co-parenting with an abuser. We hope that these tips will help as you navigate this troubling time. One of the most valuable things a former abuse victim needs is support. You are not alone in this, and by setting appropriate boundaries you can ensure your own security and well-being while allowing your children to keep their other parent in their life.

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