Love, Lindsay

'My Girlfriend Is Uncomfortable With My Co-Parenting Style. Am I In The Wrong?'

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Lindsay here, A Plus's resident relationship guru/columnist. While I may not know everything, I do know a lil something about love and our seemingly endless pursuit of it. Having written dozens of A Plus articles about dating, relationships, and sex, I'm ready and willing to investigate all of your romantically-inclined questions (submit here!) — because I've asked them myself. What I hope to bring to A Plus's readers is a sex-positive, body-positive, and most importantly, you-positive perspective on modern love. Consider Love, Lindsay your digital Cupid.

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Dear Lindsay,

My daughter's mother and I have been separated for several years now. We didn't work out, but we still get along very well as far as co-parents go. We do things together with our daughter as co-parents on a regular basis. I stay at her mom's house for a plate of food on Thanksgiving, still receive my own individual invite for her mother's aunt's Easter party every year, we attend car shows together, we both attend birthday parties that our child was invited to if able, and just general child-friendly events altogether. This even goes as far as me being invited to spend short periods at their beach house with them if they wish to plan a trip that infringes on my time with her. I grew up with her mom as a best friend and then we dated for six years before splitting. Her family members and I still interact as friends with working on cars and general friendship outside of her and I having a child together. 

Now the issue. Since starting dating I have kept her mother's and my interactions to only local events such as birthday parties, sporting events, and getting a plate at her mom's house this past Thanksgiving. My girlfriend has a lot of trouble with us getting along so much. She has voiced to me we are messing with our child's view of how co-parents should get along and are doing things very wrong. It is at a point in our relationship where this is going to be a deal breaker. She believes we cannot spend this time together with our daughter the way we have been. The most recent argument we had was my daughter was invited to a birthday party with her preschool friends on my time and she [her mother] came along for the duration of the party. This was unacceptable in her [my girlfriend's] eyes. Am I in the wrong?

- Michael

Nobody ever said co-parenting would be easy, probably because every ex-couple is trying to figure it out as they go. So while this concept has begun to gain more attention thanks to social media, it's important to remember the way you and your daughter's mom co-parent is not going to look the same as another couple's co-parenting. Family and Divorce Mediator and Co-parenting Coach Betsy Ross, LICSW, CGP tells A Plus that a healthy co-parenting partnership is best demonstrated by, but not limited to, these general characteristics:

  1. Exes who can communicate productively and respectfully about their children on parenting issues.

  2. Exes who can negotiate effectively and resolve differences.

Exes who can both be in attendance at child oriented activities, family holidays, etc. in a peaceful manner.

  • Exes who wait until a new romantic relationship is solid and 'time-tested' before introducing a new partner into the mix.

  • Considering the circumstances, it sounds like you and your co-parent are already doing a pretty great job incorporating these characteristics into your daughter's life. Even on those days when you might not nail each and every one, take heart in knowing that you and your daughter's mom are navigating a tricky, ever-changing situation, and you're working together to do it. 

    "I believe that the greatest gift a divorced or separated parent can give to their little ones is to have a healthy and productive co-parenting relationship with their child's other parent," Ross explains. "It isn't always easy to make the transition from spouse or romantic partner to 'exes' who are partners in raising healthy children, but enjoying the love and attention of two involved parents is beneficial and makes this a worthy goal." 

    While there's no "one-size-fits-all" co-parenting guidebook you can use to ensure your daughter will be OK, there isn't one for parenting as a married couple, either. Dr. Spock can only do so much; the rest is trial and error.

    Now, on to your girlfriend. Her issue with your co-parenting may not have anything to do with the arrangement itself, but from her own insecurity in how she fits into the bigger picture of your life. 

    Because your daughter is so young, it makes sense that both you and your ex want to spend as much time as possible with her, regardless of the situation. So while I do think a child-friendly event, like a birthday party, is a totally appropriate place for you to interact with each other, the occasion doesn't actually matter. Neither of you should have to sacrifice precious moments in your daughter's life just because your girlfriend isn't 100 percent comfortable with the situation. 

    That said, you can and should do what you can to make your girlfriend as comfortable as possible, so long as it doesn't infringe on your ability to co-parent. It's totally understandable for a current partner to worry that your romance could be rekindled when you're already on such friendly terms with your ex. "Relationships with divorced parents are complicated, especially when one or both partners is an active co-parent and involved with their children's other parent/family," Ross says. 

    She notes a few other potential reasons for your girlfriend's objections. For example, your co-parenting relationship might serve as inadvertent, yet nonetheless painful and frequent, reminders of the life you had before your new love arrived. Additionally, your girlfriend "might feel left out of the deep emotional connection your reader appears to have presently with their child's mother and her family," according to Ross. "It may also be that your reader is not helping their new love to talk about and navigate the feelings of jealousy and envy that naturally accompany this dynamic, thus leaving these to fester and build into resentment," Ross concludes. 

    In anticipation of the next time you, your girlfriend, and your ex are at an event together, give your girlfriend the opportunity to share what has upset her in past interactions and then discuss what each of you expects from the next interaction. When it's your turn, feel free to clarify which elements of you and your ex's interaction — like being cordial and supportive of each other— you believe necessary for healthy co-parenting. This will help you both figure out the negotiable parts of your relationship, and more importantly, the non-negotiable ones. Then, at the event, be mindful of what you and your girlfriend agreed upon and let that inform how you interact with your ex so you don't come off overly friendly. 

    Understand that co-parenting doesn't come naturally and immediately to everyone, and your girlfriend is most likely doing the best she can right now. Her view could certainly change as she becomes more settled in her relationship with you and your child.

    Your girlfriend does have a point, however, that downplaying the separation between you and your ex-partner can influence your daughter's view of co-parenting. Children see and hear everything, and then draw their own conclusions from what they observe that can't possibly account for the nuances in an adult relationship. So if you haven't explicitly talked to your daughter about your relationship with her mom, you should both sit down with her and explain that while you and her mom are friends, you're not married or live together like some other parents might be. Though relationships can and do change all the time, you should make it as clear as possible that you and her mom won't be getting back together so she doesn't hold on to false hope.

    If you're serious about a long-term relationship with your girlfriend and believe it will progress to the point where she's actively involved in your daughter's life, then she should be there for the conversation, as well. Just run it by your daughter's mom first. "It is always helpful, when planning or undergoing a divorce, to talk about how and when a new romantic relationship and the presence of a new partner will be introduced to children after divorce," Ross explains. She encourages co-parents "to create agreed upon 'policies' for gradually incorporating new loves into the parenting relationship to extend the sense of family and create new constellations of closeness for children to benefit from."

    This will also help your girlfriend and your ex view each other as teammates, rather than rivals. If your girlfriend is unwilling to make these strides toward a common goal, then that's likely the relationship deal-breaker.. 

    Ultimately, you should convey to your daughter that you're a family who cares about each other. Sure, you're not the "typical" nuclear family, but you're a family all the same — and that's what matters. 

    Love, Lindsay 

    Cover image via Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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