For the sake of our children, we put our best foot forward– going into divorce with an open mind and a flexible parenting schedule. We do want our children to spend time with the other parent. And sometimes that means we must be accommodating with our schedule.
But in some cases, the well-intentioned co-parenting path can get rocky.
Let’s say it’s the weekend, and let’s say it’s your ex’s time with your child, so you make plans with friends or decide to go on a date. Suddenly, your ex needs to drop off your child early. Frustrated, but choosing your child over your other plans, you agree.
Or, your ex has family in town, and you agree to trade weekends so your child can see relatives. When you ask your ex what time you’ll get your child back on Sunday, your ex responds with “I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know.” But when it’s Saturday afternoon and you still don’t know, your weekend plans are toast.
This is called “Schedule Terrorism.”
The problem isn’t that these incidents happen. The problem is if they happen All. The. Time. To the point where your ex seems to be working the system and taking advantage of your desire to maintain a flexible schedule and healthy relationship. And when that flexible schedule you started with is manipulated and taken advantage of, hurt feelings and anger ensue.
But there’s a workaround to Schedule Terrorism, and it starts with making a plan, sticking to it (when possible) and figuring out how to communicate with a less-than-helpful ex.
Avoid Schedule Terrorism with a Plan in Place
Jacqueline Newman, managing partner at Berkman Bottger Newman & Rodd suggests starting with a solid parenting plan in the first place, building flexibility into it, and always having a back-up plan to default to in worst-case scenarios.
“Live in your worst-case scenario,” she says. And when that scenario becomes reality? “Have language in your plan that says, ‘If this doesn’t work, this is what is going to happen.’ Minimize the question marks because question marks are what cause tension.” For example, if your ex won’t tell you when your child comes back to you on Sunday, defer to the written parenting plan, which clearly indicates what time they are supposed to deliver your child, and hold your ex to it. If they consistently refuse, you can get the courts involved.
That being said, Newman advises trying to work things out with your ex and talking to your attorney as a last-ditch effort. However, “if the power imbalance is so strong that you’re saying yes all the time, you should probably involve an attorney.”
Don’t be a Yes-Ex
When working to maintain a flexible co-parenting schedule, we might be tempted to be the “yes” parent, who is agreeable to every change of the schedule. But be careful about going down this road, says Newman. You’re setting a precedent if you constantly agree to schedule changes, and one that may come back to bite you in the rear. If the day your child returns to you each week is Sunday, but your ex asks if she can keep him until Monday, and you agree continually, your ex could ask the court to change the parenting plan to make Monday the official return date, given the precedent.
Also keep in mind that children need and want consistency. If your parenting schedule constantly deviates from the written plan, your child may get confused or resentful. Make an effort to keep the schedule as consistent as possible, knowing that from time to time you may need to make adjustments.
Tips for Communicating
Parenting schedule changes can cause stress, resentment and frustration, especially when your ex seems to be trying to control the situation. Keep some of these tips in mind to keep your stress level down and better your chances for a friendly exchange.
- Determine the best mode of communication. Stephanie Knarr, relationship expert and author of the book Relationship Repair for Couples, recommends talking to your ex to find out their preferred form of communication. Will your ex respond better to phone calls, email, texts? Use that mode of communication, if possible.
- When in doubt, communicate in writing. Not only will you have a written record of your communication, but you’ll also avoid having to talk to your ex directly. Additionally, if you communicate in writing, you have the benefit of being able to review your communication before sending it to your ex. This can help you take the emotion out of the content, which is vital if you want to get your point across.
- Keep it simple and to the point. Don’t over-complicate matters by adding in feelings or even extended reasoning behind your request. “Avoid bringing up past fights or problems, especially if it’s not really relevant,” says Knarr.
- Use yes or no questions. Simplicity is key here, especially if your ex is difficult to communicate with. Use questions like, “I have family in town next weekend. Can we please switch weekends so Sammy can see my parents?” You gave a quick reason behind your request, avoiding the fact that Sammy hasn’t seen his grandparents in three months or that the last time they were in town, Sammy was out of town with your ex. If your relationship with your ex is volatile, he or she probably doesn’t care. Stick to simple questions that require a simple yes or no response.
- Give a deadline for a response. Waiting for your ex to respond to a schedule change request can produce anxiety, especially if you’re attempting to make arrangements for a business trip or family time. If you’re asking your ex to watch your child on a day that is typically “yours,” let your ex know, “If I don’t hear back from you within three days, I will make other arrangements.” Then stick to it. If you are asking for additional time, you can still give a deadline but know that you may not get the response you want, in the time you want it.
- Don’t respond to attacks—stick to your points. If your ex’s response to your request is volatile, simply restate your request. Don’t get sucked into an argument.
- Stick to the plan. Know that your parenting plan ultimately will determine what happens. If your ex doesn’t agree to a schedule change or won’t respond to requests, stick to the parenting plan.
- Get help. If you and your ex simply cannot agree on a schedule change, consult a third party, such as a psychologist or attorney. For example, if your work schedule changes and you aren’t able to restructure your parenting plan with your ex, a mediator or your attorney can help.
- Use technology. Apps and resources such as Our Family Wizard can help you and your ex stay on track with schedules and house your communication, in case it’s ever needed in the future. This tool can also help you when wording your written communication with a “ToneMeter”—it looks for strong words that might affect the tone of your communication.
Co-parenting when you live in the same house as the other parent is already hard. When you live in separate households and find communication challenging, it’s even more difficult. Find ways to make your interaction less stressful, for the benefit of your child, and your mental health.