If your divorce is marked by an intractable high-conflict relationship, it may simply be impossible for you and your spouse to co-parent your children at this point. Instead, a solution called parallel parenting may be the best option for you.
What is Parallel Parenting?
Parallel parenting is a no-contact, predetermined type of parenting that prevents conflict between parents by creating disengagement. The parents have no meaningful face-to-face contact with each other and have completely separate relationships with the child. They do not attend events or activities together and do not work together as parents.
Asynchronous, impersonal communication is used to inform each other of information about the child. A set schedule is created, and there is no deviation from it and thus no negotiation about the schedule. The goal of this type of parenting is to remove all conflict and reduce contact between the parents.
Spheres of Influence
A key component of successful parallel parenting is spheres of influence within the custody arrangement. While the parents might share joint legal custody, the divorce judgment or custody order can designate spheres of influence in which only one parent has decision-making authority. Thus one parent might be granted exclusive authority to decide educational matters while the other might be given exclusive authority over medical matters.
No consultation or discussion is required about these topics, and the parent with jurisdiction handles the decisions and implementation. The other parent is informed only of what they need to know that impacts their time with the child.
Hard and Fast Schedule
A parenting schedule with a high degree of specificity is determined by the court or by an arbitrator, and the parents must follow it to the letter. There is no flexibility in the schedule and no discussion about making changes with the other parent. If a change is necessary, the decision is made by an arbitrator, court, or other third-party (such as a parenting coordinator) who has been designated to handle the questions and requests. There is no negotiation, pleading, threatening, or arguing involved in a change. The request is submitted and the person managing the visitation makes the decision.
During their parenting time, each parent has complete control over what the child does, where they go, who they see, what they eat, how they behave, and what activities they participate in. There is no need to consult with the other parent about any of this. Each parenting has individual freedom to parent as they see fit, as long as it fits within the larger decisions that have been made within the spheres of influence.
It is impossible to parent together without some communication; however, it is usually in these kinds of exchanges that problems flare, and conflict creates issues between parents. The challenge of parallel parenting then is how to parent a child without inciting discord. The solution is to use a form of communication that is not immediate and does not allow escalation into a rapid-fire back-and-forth that creates friction.
There are several options available. Some parents simply write in a notebook that travels back and forth with the child. Others use a parenting app designed for this purpose. Email might be another method. Whatever the medium, it must ensure that both parents cannot access it at the same time, so text messages or a shared Google doc will not work. Information is shared this way, allowing the parents to communicate essential details, such as the fact that the child is running a fever, had a disagreement with a friend, or is cutting a tooth.
The sharing of information is reduced to a business-like exchange of simple facts. There is no editorializing, blaming, or emotional appeals. Personal lives of the parents are never discussed. The communications are kept to a bare minimum and are meant only to share necessary facts and not to stimulate conversation or argument.
If face-to-face or real-time communication becomes necessary (such as in an emergency), rules are in place to manage it. Often time limits are set and strict standards are in place about behavior and language.
To further reduce animosity, parallel parenting usually requires that each parent is responsible for gathering information on their own about the child's school or activities. Neither parent is required to pass along this kind of information to the other parent. Each parent must create a method for accessing this information completely on their own.
For children who are young enough to require direct hand-offs between parents, third parties are often utilized to avoid face-to-face encounters. A nanny, doorman, housekeeper, or other domestic employee can be used to transfer the child from one parent to the other, allowing one to remain in a car or on a sidewalk while the other remains inside.
Alternatively, transfers can take place in a public space, such as a park, parking lot, or playground where quick, wordless delivery can occur. Children are never asked to carry messages to the other parents, such as requests for a schedule change or a reminder that child support is late.
Transitioning from Parallel Parenting
In many families, parallel parenting is needed only on a temporary basis, often in the first year or two following a divorce while tempers are still hot. Nearly all families settle into a routine, and conflict eventually dissipates as the parents move on with lives. For that difficult beginning period though, parallel parenting can provide a much-needed breather, creating a timeout during which the parents cannot continue to aggravate each other and escalate the discourse.
The distanced communication allows them to learn how to share information without attacks. Eventually, most families are able to relax their parallel parenting restrictions and gradually begin to communicate more openly with each other, rebuilding trust and devising a new parenting relationship that carries them forward through the remaining years of childhood.
Benefits of Parallel Parenting
Parallel parenting provides a variety of benefits for the family, including:
- Keeping the focus on the child's needs, not on the parents' ongoing conflict
- Safety, if there is domestic violence
- Reduction or elimination of the child's exposure to the conflict between the parents
- Predictability about parenting and the parenting schedule for the parents and child, without ongoing changes or problems
- No waste of time trying to achieve mutual cooperation
- Abatement of stress for the entire family
- Direct, simple to-the-point communication
Drawbacks of Parallel Parenting
While parallel parenting can solve many of the problems evident in a high-conflict parenting situation, it has detriments, including:
- Lack of information and details about the child due to limited communication
- Inflexibility to schedule changes
- No resolution of the underlying hostilities between the parents
- Absence of coordination between parenting which can make it hard for a child who may face two sets of rules and expectations
- Difficulty for children who may be confused by the lack of interaction between parents, particularly at important events when both parents cannot be present or speak to each other
- An inability to grow together as parents and resolve the underlying conflicts
Parallel parenting can offer a path forward when there is seemingly no avenue of agreement between parents. Reducing conflict and completely disengaging warring parents can benefit all members of the family.