Joint custody with a jerk

It might help if you can think of your new situation as a business relationship

Joint custody with a jerk

Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Raising a child is hard enough. Try doing it with an uncooperative ex you no longer respect. The task can feel Herculean, write Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran, authors of a new book for divorced parents called Joint Custody with a Jerk. “Study after study on divorce says that your child will turn out okay if you don’t ask him or her to choose between you and your ex and if you provide your child with a stable home. But if you are like most parents in the throes of divorce, stability might not be your strong suit right now.”

To start, they suggest, try thinking of your relationship with your ex as a business one rather than a personal one. “Consider your children your most valuable assets and your ex a client with whom you must work in order to keep those assets intact.” When negotiating with your ex, ask yourself, “If this were a client I was trying to sell something to, how would I behave?”

When meeting your ex in person, choose neutral territory. Your ex’s house, for instance, puts you at a disadvantage, especially if the house used to be your home, too. “You might find yourself looking around to see what has changed and what hasn’t. It’s typical for old surroundings to trigger old patterns of behaviour.” Similarly, “going to your ex’s office places you in an unbalanced position. If you can’t discuss something on the phone, go to a coffee shop, museum, department store or park bench.”

If your child notices you are angry at your ex, don’t deny it. Saying, “No, honey, Mommy and Daddy aren’t angry with each other; it’s only a little disagreement” will only confuse the child, they believe. “Children who have to deny the reality they see learn to distrust their own feelings. They also stop trusting other people.” Instead say, “I do feel a little angry, you’re right. All people feel angry sometimes, whether they’re divorced or not.”

Expressing your disappointment to your child can also sometimes ease tension with your ex. The book gives the example of a mother who planned to take her son to a movie, but then, unannounced, the father took the boy to the movie. “I wanted to kill my ex!” said the mom. “How dare he? My son knew that I was looking forward to seeing the movie with him and then his father pulls the rug out from under our plans.”

Instead of railing at your ex, talk to your child, suggest the authors. “When you express your disappointment to your child about his part in a decision, you help him begin to think for himself and take responsibility for his actions. The goal is not to make your child feel guilty; it’s simply to make him aware of your feelings as well as of his responsibility to stick with a commitment.”

In another scenario, a mom is angry because her ex never bothers to repack her daughter’s clothes and toys. “She always makes a big scene when she returns home and realizes that she’s missing things.” The authors suggest discussing the matter with the daughter. Say, “Maybe what we need to do here is figure out how you can best remember to pack your own toys and things so you don’t have to go a night without them.”

When your ex hands you a problem, don’t be afraid to hand it back, write the authors, citing Mike, who called his ex-wife, Jill, saying, “I know it’s my weekend to take Kristen and I’m really sorry but I just got invited on a ski trip…”

“Don’t be bullied into thinking you have to give an immediate answer,” write Ross and Corcoran. Instead, tell your ex, “I’ll get back to you in an hour.” When Jill called Mike an hour later, she said, “It sounds like you might have to reschedule your ski trip. If you decide you want to hire a babysitter, it’s okay with me. Here’s the number of one we’ve used before.”

Finally, as with a client, “actively watch for opportunities where you can admit that your ex has a good idea.” For instance, one mother realized she was prejudiced against everything her ex-husband said. When he called with a suggestion for the holiday, she tried this experiment: “I pretended that it was a mother from my kids’ school calling with the same suggestion. And you know what? It didn’t sound so stupid coming from her.”