When parents who aren’t married agree to share the responsibility of raising a child together, it’s called co-parenting. We think of co-parenting duos most often as divorced parents, but they’re not the only types of co-parents. Some unmarried couples have children together, and if they decide to continue raising their children together when they break up, they’re also considered co-parents. There are additional permutations of the co-parenting dynamic: an individual may adopt a child and enlist a close and trusted friend to share the parenting, or two individuals may want to raise a child together without entering a traditional or romantic relationship.
There are many possible co-parenting combinations. In this article, we’ll discuss our ideas about how co-parents – regardless of type – can successfully manage the intricacies of the holiday season. By our definition, a successful holiday season means one where everyone – not only the children – feels loved, honored, and respected. There’s a small paradox here, though: this article is more about the kids than the parents, but it’s directed at the parents, because they’re the ones who set the tone, make the decisions, and ultimately determine how the winter holidays unfold.
That’s the first tip: it’s all about the kids.
Before we discuss the rest of our tips, we’ll offer a quick summary of the different types of co-parenting relationships – and identify which type(s) are most likely to lead to a happy and fulfilling holiday season. But if you stop reading now, you already know the most important tip we have to offer: the holidays are, indeed, about the kids. When co-parents allow this principle to guide their decisions, their children benefit on many levels: not only do they get to experience the best of the season, they get to see cooperation and collaboration in action – and that’s important.
Types of Coparenting Relationships
In 1979, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of Wisconsin launched a long-term study to examine “how families respond to and manage divorce and remarriage.” Called the Binuclear Family Study, this ambitious project spanned 21 years and took place in four waves. To give you an idea of the breadth and scope of the study, we’ll now share the type of information researchers collected from a total of 98 binuclear families – meaning families with more than one set of parents – over the duration of the study.
One year after the end of the marriage, researchers asked questions about:
- Reasons for divorce
- Custody arrangements
- Communication with exes
- Relationship satisfaction
Three years after the end of the marriage, researchers asked questions about:
- Household composition and family membership
- Living arrangements
- Co-parenting relationship
- Current partner
- Former spouse’s current partner
- Current partner’s former spouse
- Children involved in the binuclear family
Five years after the end of the marriage, researchers asked questions about:
- Their current partner relationship, Including their current partner’s former spouse and current partner’s former spouse’s current partner
- Stepchildren and stepparenting
- Household composition and family membership
- Former spouse and children
- Former spouse’s current partner
Twenty years – yes, you read that right, twenty years later – researchers asked the children of the divorced parents questions about:
- Changes in their family structure
- Their own marriage and relationships
- Their parents’ transition to divorce
- Family relationships
- Their current feelings on divorce
We share all this information because we want you to know the types of co-parenting relationships we’re about to describe are based on real answers from real people, derived from questions posed to parents and children of divorce over a period of twenty years. In other words, this is practical – not theoretical – information gathered from families who lived through divorce and co-parenting.
The Five Most Common Coparenting Styles
Based on the information they collected over the 20 years of the study, researchers identified five distinct co-parenting relationship styles. We condensed a helpful summary of these styles from this helpful pdf published by Coparenting International:
1. Perfect Pals
Coparents of this type interact and communicate often. After divorce, they continue to stay connected, and continue to support one another as friends might. These co-parents often do holidays together, and almost all have joint custody of their children.
2. Cooperative Colleagues
Coparents of this type communicate frequently but interact less often than perfect pals. After divorce, they stay connected, but their connection revolves solely around the children. These co-parents stay in the parenting lane and rarely talk about feelings or their personal lives. Cooperative colleagues typically do holidays separately and have joint custody of their children.
3. Angry Associates
Coparents of this type interact when necessary and do not communicate often. When interacting or communicating, things are often tense, hostile, and characterized by conflict. One of these co-parents typically has sole custody of the children, and any type of cooperation or collaboration – holidays included – is the exception rather than the norm.
4. Fiery Foes
Coparents of this type almost never interact, and when they communicate, they typically fight over something. These divorces often involve intense legal action, and the co-parents rarely reach agreement without the help of a moderator of some type. These co-parents are likely to exchange their kids at the door without talking.
5. Dissolved Duos
Coparents of this type neither communicate nor interact. In fact, they’re not co-parents, because one parent is typically absent altogether, and often lives in a different city or region. Dissolved duos almost always result in one parent becoming a single parent, with the other parent does not participate in the parenting at all.
The co-parenting style the experts – and the children of divorce interviewed in the study – identify as the healthiest might not be the one most people expect: it’s the Cooperative Colleagues style. Cooperative colleagues are on the congenial side of neutral. They adapt to their new circumstances and don’t rely on their exes for emotional support, because this can be confusing both for them and their children. Cooperative colleagues find a way to put the marriage behind them and embrace their new reality – which includes active, collaborative parenting.
How to Be Cooperative Colleagues During the Holidays
The foundation of a successful co-parenting holiday season is respect: leave the past in the past and prioritize the moment for the sake of the children. As we mention at the beginning of this article, kids come first. It’s incumbent upon the parents to create an atmosphere of love, gratitude, and togetherness that makes the winter holidays special. These five tips are time-tested ways to achieve this very worthy goal. Since every family is different, and every co-parenting situation is different, these tips are meant not as a prescription, but rather, to get parents thinking about how they can plan the kind of holiday season they want in 2020.
1. Shared Time
This may be the single most challenging thing to accomplish, but kids revel in being in the same place at the same time with both parents. It doesn’t have to be on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but when kids see their parents together even, treating one another well, it has a significant impact. It makes them feel whole and teaches them that adults with differences can work things out.
2. Neutral Territory
If shared time at home can’t happen, then plan shared time in public. During COVID-19, this may be a challenge, so we suggest being creative and resourceful. Bundle up and do it outdoors. Look for a festival of lights, a hayride, an outdoor skating rink, or the warm-weather equivalent. Divorced co-parents might consider attending a church service as a family – depending on local public health and safety guidelines, of course.
3. Double Up
Some families do things in a way the kids love: they have “Christmas with Dad” and “Christmas with Mom” on different days. The scheduling can be tricky, but it’s worth it, because kids get to celebrate the holidays twice.
4. The In-Laws
Some divorced parents work things out and become cooperative colleagues – but the holidays get tricky because their parents hold on to negative emotions about the marriage. This is never easy. There is, however, a simple and effective fix: leave the former in-laws out of any shared holiday time.
5. Be Practical
Coparents want the chance to move forward and share the holidays in a way that’s best for their kids. That’s a noble goal. At the same time, everyone has their limits: after all, the divorce happened for a reason. Coparents should know what they can handle and be realistic about what their ex can handle. Keep the shared time manageable, and make it something that works for both co-parents. Stay optimistic while setting everyone e in the family up for success.
The Holiday Spirit
Children learn by example. In terms of the winter holidays, the example co-parents set forms the template their children use for the winter holidays for the rest of their lives. These holidays matter because holiday rituals matter. They ground kids in the present and connect them to the past and the future. The holiday season is when kids learn that what matters in life are the things money can’t buy. They learn gifts themselves do not matter. What really matters isn’t things – what matters is people. And in the end, how they treat others – starting right at home, with their families, whatever form those families take – is the most important thing of all.
Co-parents who learn to set the past aside and cooperate during the holidays teach their children to approach life with this collaborative, inclusive spirit. Co-parents who become cooperative colleagues teach their children that during the winter holidays, the most important thing they open is not a present: it’s their heart.
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Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.