How to Set Boundaries with a Combative Co-Parent

How to Set Boundaries with a Combative Co-Parent

Divorce or separation may mean the end of your partnership with your former spouse or significant other, but if you have children in common, your co-parenting relationship will continue. In the best cases, two people who decide to end their intimate relationship can continue to cooperate for the children’s sake. However, if there are lingering romantic feelings, or the relationship ended badly, you may find yourself trying to raise children with a combative co-parent. If this is the case, you will need to learn to set strong boundaries. Learn some strategies below. 

Why Setting Boundaries is Important

Before exploring solutions for coping with a combative co-parent, it is helpful to understand just how important it is to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship. A 2016 study in Child Psychiatry & Human Development found that cooperative co-parenting results in better family functioning and greater psychological wellbeing for children, whereas conflictual co-parenting relationships result in inconsistent parenting. If you can work to set boundaries and reduce the conflict between you and a combative co-parent, your children will fare better, which makes it worth the effort to attempt to get along with your former partner. 

Strategies for Boundary-Setting 

When your co-parent engages in combative behaviors, you may be tempted to fight back, but the best strategy is to set, and stick to, strong boundaries. If you’re having a hard time determining where to start, consider the strategies below. 

Ignore Toxic or Controlling Behavior


A combative co-parent may utilize toxic tactics, such as name-calling or starting fights via text message. It can be difficult to place your emotions aside, but in the end, reacting to this behavior or showing that it affects you will give the combative co-parent a sense of satisfaction. They will continue to engage in toxic behavior if they know it gets a rise out of you. Instead of responding to an accusatory text message or becoming emotionally reactive when they belittle you, simply ignore the behavior.


If you’re discussing a matter related to the children via text, and your former partner begins to belittle or attack you, you can simply refrain from replying. If you’re having a phone conversation, you might tell them that you are ending the conversation until they’re ready to have a mature, respectful discussion  After you’ve shut down their abusive behavior enough times, they will realize that it doesn’t have an effect on you.

Set a Schedule and Stick to It

Chances are that if you’ve gone through the courts for a divorce, you have a court-ordered visitation schedule. If you don’t have such a schedule, sit down with your former partner and devise a schedule outlining when each of you will have the children. Include start and end times for each visit, including who will pick up and drop off the children, and where exchanges will occur. For instance, your visitation schedule may dictate that your former spouse will pick the children up at your house every other Friday at 6:00 pm, and you will pick them up at their house at 6:00 pm on Sundays. 


It is important that you commit to upholding the schedule and avoid being late for assigned visitation exchanges. Unfortunately, a combative parent may escalate the conflict if you are just a few minutes late picking up the children. If you want them to uphold their portion of the schedule, it’s important that you do the same. If conflict is high, you might consider exchanging the children at a neutral location, like the parking lot of a local community center or restaurant. 

Keep Emotions out of the Equation 


Even if your relationship ended badly, you may have lingering feelings for your ex. Allowing these feelings to creep into the co-parenting relationship sets you up for conflict. What this means is that you should limit your interactions with your former partner only to necessary discussions surrounding the children. Keep communication simple and to the point, and avoid discussing any matters outside of the children’s needs and schedules. 


You should also avoid discussing your former significant other’s new partner unless the conversation directly involves the children. It is natural to be curious about whether they are dating again, or how their new relationship is going, but the truth is that once your marriage or partnership ends, your former partner’s personal life is simply not your business, and it is a boundary violation to inquire about their love life.


Involve a Third Party

In some cases, you might do all that you can to set boundaries with a combative co-parent, only to find that they continue to engage in controlling, manipulative, or harmful behavior. In this case, you may consider adding a neutral party to diffuse some of the conflict. This could mean utilizing a family member, such as a grandparent or aunt/uncle, to exchange the children or sitting down with a mediator to attempt to come to a mutual agreement. 


You might also consider a co-parenting program, which can provide you and your former partner with education and resources to improve your parenting skills. Research has shown that these programs have significant effects on both parental wellbeing and the quality of co-parenting relationships. You may have a difficult time convincing a combative co-parent to attend a program, but you will have more success by framing it as something that can benefit them personally. 


In the end, you can only control your own behavior, and while your co-parenting relationship may never be perfect, especially if you have an abusive or controlling former partner, you can reduce some of the conflict by remaining mature and placing the children’s needs at the forefront. Even if your former spouse continues to be combative, you can keep conflict to a minimum by remaining minimally reactive and approaching them in a business-like manner. They may eventually soften if they realize that you’re not going to give in to their manipulative behavior. 





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