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  • Sam Tetzlaff, MS, Counseling Intern

Navigating Co-Parenting with a "Difficult" Ex - Part 1: Setting Boundaries

Co-parenting with a difficult ex can be incredibly frustrating and draining. Everything from deciding where your child will attend school, to what is an appropriate bed time, to if their clothes match can be an uphill battle. Unfortunately, when you share custody of your children with your ex, you need to maintain communication with them, (avoiding will ultimately not help you or your child). So, what can you do?

Well, lots of things. Two of which are very important and will be discussed in this 2-part blog series, the first being:

Set Boundaries.

Boundaries are so important that I’m going to spend a whole post on them (seriously). Setting boundaries will help to limit your frustration and, ultimately, only benefit your child’s future.

First, let’s define what a boundary is:

“Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules, or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.”

Check out this guide for more on different types of boundaries.

The following is a list of the boundaries for when you need to talk to your ex—you may need to tweak them for your situation (as they are, at the end of the day, personal). These are also preventative in that, even if sh!t isn’t this real currently, they can prevent things from escalating between you and your ex.

1. Topics of Importance (AKA Your Child is the Only Topic)

First, have a goal of what you would like to communicate going into a conversation and do your best to stick to that. Some might suggest that you avoid "hot topics" with your ex, but this could be nearly anything! I would recommend steering clear of topics about anything other than your child—your ex’s day, your day, any excess of explanation—isn’t required.

At the end of the day, communicating what is going on with your child is your only responsibility. (Read that last sentence again).

If there was abuse present in your relationship, you may feel like listening to your ex is your responsibility or you’re somehow being “rude” or “unfair” for (calmly) redirecting the conversation—this is not the case. (If this is especially difficult to grapple with, I encourage you to examine the root of these feelings with someone you trust or a professional).

Setting a boundary for what you're willing to discuss (your child) is healthy and may save you a great deal of stress and time. When redirecting the conversation, it may help to empathize with your ex in some way by saying: "I understand what you mean..." or, "I hear what you're saying..." and then immediately shift back to your goal for the conversation (your child).

2. Mode of Communication (Limit Calls and In-Person Exchanges)

Sometimes, in-person communication or over-the-phone conversations are simply not effective (you probably didn't need me to say that). Before you know it, things get too heated and you somehow have still not established what needs to happen with your child. If possible, setting a boundary and limiting exchanges to text and/or email might be your best bet. If your ex calls, you can choose not to answer and text them back instead.

If need be, establish rules about when phone calls are necessary, so you can be sure nothing is wrong with your child. For example: two calls in a row means there’s an emergency. (Keep in mind, you may need to define what an "emergency" is).

If an in-person encounter cannot be avoided, some additional questions to consider might be:

Can you arrange a pick-up schedule at school or other “safe place”? What can you do for yourself if things escalate? (How can you step away?) Who could you bring with you that will help you remain calm and confident?

3. Zero Tolerance for Disrespectful Behavior (When Sh!t Goes Down)

Speaking of when things get heated, I suggest a firm boundary when it comes to being yelled at, belittled, etc. You might calmly say something like, "If you continue to talk to me like this, I'll need to end the conversation," (and then hang up or stop responding if they don't stop). Remaining calm is especially helpful, as two escalated people only leads to combustion. (I know it sucks that you have to be the one to take the high road when they literally never do, but you’ll thank yourself in the end). Keep in mind that if you choose to ignore, be prepared that they may get more upset before they calm down. They may blame you, call you selfish—you name it—for setting a completely reasonable boundary. Rest assured, this says much more about them than it does about you.

Finally, after a heated encounter, make sure to take care of yourself (Click here to read more about starting a self-care routine).

4. Be Consistent (Walk the Talk)

This is the “your response when someone crosses your boundaries” part. This is WAY easier said than done, AND consistency on your part is of utmost importance. Once you set a boundary, it needs to remain that way. If a crossed boundary is tolerated, your ex will know exactly what works to push you to that point, and they WILL try it again (or accuse YOU of inconsistency...backwards, right?). Again, self-care on your part will be extremely helpful in remaining consistent (stay tuned for part 2 of this blog series next month for more).

5. Boundaries with Your Child

Lastly on our boundaries list, and most importantly, be there for your child(ren). Try to keep potentially heated conversations private. Don’t bad mouth your ex or attempt to create a “good parent vs. bad parent” dynamic for them (even if it’s true). Children need consistency and they are also dealing with a lot of change. They need you to be present for them so they know they are loved. They are not to blame for what is happening and will need to be reassured of this. Always remember—they are your first priority. When you need to talk to your ex, remind yourself, you're doing it for your children.

Part 2 of this co-parenting series will look more at how to take care of yourself as someone that is not only trying to co-parent, but actually being a parent yourself, and living your own life after separation or divorce.


If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Sam, you can reach her via email:

or call our intake line: 608-709-6972

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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]

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