How Do You Co-Parent With a Difficult Ex? (Without Drama)

Co-parenting after a divorce has its complications. And sometimes when the marriage ends badly, the couple ends up at odds with each other. So, how do you co-parent with a difficult ex?

Here’s how to co-parent with a difficult ex without drama:

  • Recognize patterns.
  • Establish boundaries.
  • Maintain respectful communication.
  • Look at your own behaviors.
  • Do not engage in petty arguments.
  • Keep a record.
  • File for a court order.
  • Keep things professional.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Put your kids first.

Sadly, not all divorced parents put their kids first.

With multiple routes to navigate, including custody, visitation, and even religious, educational, and medical decisions, unreasonable ex-partners exacerbate the stress of the process.

Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to co-parent successfully, even with a toxic ex.

This article examines the necessary steps to establishing a positive, healthy co-parenting relationship with an uncooperative co-parent, as well as what to do when it seems that there’s no resolution in sight. Read on to learn more.

1. Recognize Patterns

Before establishing a co-parenting plan with a problematic ex-partner, it’s essential to recognize the current communication patterns. This allows the two of you to communicate better and understand one another, without blaming, arguing, and verbal attacks.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you and your ex argue a lot?
  • Are you or your ex reactive when dealing with one another?
  • What’s the extent of your communication?
  • What is making things worse between you and your ex?

If your ex-partner is willing, ask them to write down their answers to these questions as well. Sometimes, exes seem difficult only because they feel attacked and excluded in the decision-making process.

You show them that you care about their feelings and value their input regarding the children by including them, which might quickly resolve any internal anxieties they may feel.

Starting with these questions allows you and your ex to examine your fears regarding co-parenting. It allows you to look at the negative behaviors you two might’ve exhibited during familial discussions.

For example, if the extent of your communication goes beyond co-parenting and leads to arguments, discuss avoiding unnecessary conversation and only circumstances relating to the children.

In some instances, you may find that your ex-partner is insensibly unreasonable. In that case, you may need to take more extreme measures and let the courts do the work. We’ll discuss this more in-depth in step seven, as well as toward the end of the article, but the additional steps in this article may help to some degree.

2. Establish Boundaries

Daily routines, consistent boundaries, and harmony between two parents all play an important role in the well-being of your children.

When only one parent maintains a safe, consistent home with specific rules and boundaries, it opens the door for children to pit parents against one another, often to the child’s detriment.

If your ex-partner appears open and willing to communicate, sit down with them to discuss the following issues.

Home Rules and Restrictions

In most co-parenting situations, the children travel between two homes. As such, home rules and restrictions in both locations are critical when co-parenting.

They are vital to a child’s physical safety and emotional well-being.

While it’s not realistic to expect your ex to enforce the exact same home rules and restrictions as you, it’s best to have a general baseline to work with, one on which you both agree.

For example, in your home, you may allow the children to use their phones only once they’ve finished their chores. While you might want your ex-partner to instill those same rules, you should be willing to compromise.

The other parent may have rules regarding phone and electronic usage, although slightly different from yours. but they’re rules just the same. Rules are beneficial as they provide structure and guidance for the children.

Developing a Co-Parenting Plan

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of co-parenting is the co-parenting plan upon which both parties agree.

Developing such a plan takes time, effort, and patience, but it’s critical to the well-being of the children. Additionally, it reduces conflict among parents, as schedules, routines, and communication are entirely laid out in writing.

Write out an agreement outlining everything, including:

  • Drop-off and pick-up procedures.
  • Requests for time modification.
  • Summer/holiday parenting schedules.
  • When you’ll communicate.
  • Important events.

Ask the other parent to contribute to this list. By involving them, it shows that their input matters as well. If they refuse to participate or are totally unwilling to compromise, draw up the plan anyway.

You can use this plan when petitioning the courts for a custody agreement in step seven.

Help The Kids Transition

Divorce, separation, and breakups are difficult for children, so it’s important that you do whatever you can to make the transition easier on them.

Once you’ve developed a co-parenting plan that’s agreed upon, stick with it. This ensures that children don’t have to constantly readjust their lives to accommodate an ever-changing schedule.

Additionally, whenever children are preparing to leave to spend time with the other parent, inform them ahead of time. Keep them in the loop with what’s happening, help them pack their belongings, and let them know when they’re to return home.

When An Ex-Partner Refuses To Accept Boundaries

Sometimes an ex is difficult just for the sake of making life more challenging for you.

If the other parent refuses to work with you to establish boundaries and routines for the children, there’s not much that you can do aside from involving the courts.

If, however, the other parent allows the children to do whatever they want, potentially putting them in harm’s way, keep notes. You may also need to file an emergency petition with the courts.

A lack of boundaries is detrimental to the well-being of children. Parents should have consistent rules and routines at both homes. They needn’t be exactly the same, but consistency is key.

3. Maintain Respectful Communication

While some ex-partners remain friends after a divorce, separation, or breakup, many do not.

Divorces are often messy, leading to bitterness and resentment, but not being “friends” doesn’t mean that the two of you cannot be civil with one another. Mutual respect as parents is essential for the health of the children.

Therefore, it’s crucial that you maintain respectful communications with your ex-partner at all times, even if they’re being particularly hurtful or hostile. It’s best to remain silent than engage.

Never bad-mouth your ex-partner in front of the children, and never engage in arguments, on the phone or otherwise, in front of them either.

Be respectful and understanding.

If schedules change, which happens in life, don’t get angry. Be more understanding and willing to go with the flow sometimes, especially if your ex-partner shows that they’re trying to work with you. Life is unpredictable, and as long as your ex isn’t refusing to remain flexible, then a few hiccups here and there should be acceptable.

Keep The Other Parent Involved

Sometimes an ex-partner may seem difficult regarding co-parenting because of the fear of missing out on significant milestones in their children’s lives. This is an understandable fear and one that can be easily remedied.

Show the other parent that you’re willing to include them in these important events and activities. For example, if your child is taking their first steps, record a video and send it to your ex-partner so that they, too, can revel in the moment.

For major celebrations, such as a karate competition, graduation, playoff game, or sending your child off to prom, invite the other parent along. This act of civility among parents means a lot to the children.

Communication with an Unreasonable Ex

Respectful communication isn’t always possible on both ends.

Sometimes, the other parent holds onto hurt feelings, resentment, or unresolved anger and subsequently uses these feelings to justify difficult behavior regarding co-parenting.

If your ex refuses to maintain respectful communication, they’re only hurting the children.

You may need to cut contact until the courts handle everything. Once everything is in legal writing, only communicate when necessary for the children and to uphold the court agreement.

4. Look At Your Own Behaviors

If you and your ex experience clashing during co-parenting, take a look at your own behaviors to determine if they may negatively impact the situation.

Sometimes, we get so bent out of shape about our ex-partner’s unwanted behavior that we don’t look inward to see what we can change and how we might be better able to handle a situation. After all, you can’t change another person. You can only change yourself.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you react instead of respond?
  • Do you get angry due to unresolved feelings?
  • Are your expectations unrealistic?
  • Are you being unfair to the other parent?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then look inward to see what you could do differently to impact the situation positively.

5. Do Not Engage in Petty Arguments

One of the most important things to remember when co-parenting is that it’s about the children — nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes we get caught up in the past, leading to arguments that have nothing to do with the situation at hand.

Never forget the reason that you’re engaging with your ex-partner, and it’s not to discuss why things ended. It’s not to argue with them about the past.

Do not argue, name-call, or engage in any hostile behavior or battles with your ex, especially in front of your children. If your ex attempts to engage you in these arguments, remain silent and move on until they can address you calmly and respectfully.

You need to maintain respectful communication, as we’ve discussed in step four. If you cannot remain civil, you must only communicate about the kids and emergencies.

6. Keep a Record

If, despite your best efforts to remain civil and respectful, your ex-partner continues to allow things to get out of hand, start keeping a record of the uncooperative parent’s bad behavior.

Save emails, text messages, hostile voicemails, and keep documentation of any major issues or times when they express their unwillingness to compromise. These records may potentially help you during court proceedings for custody.

Everyone wants their ex to change for the benefit of their children, but this doesn’t always happen. Once you end up in court, you need to have evidence to support your points and back up any claims that you make.

7. File For a Court Order

Before filing for a court order, consider mediation. It’s best to avoid a drawn-out court process, especially if there are only a few points in which the two of you disagree.

Instead, seek out a mediator to iron out those last few details.

However, sometimes two parents simply cannot reach an agreement regarding custody, decisions, and the care of the children. In many cases, the other parent is wholly uncooperative and hostile, leading to dead ends regarding co-parenting discussions.

If that’s the case, a court order is the next step.

Custody Agreement

In step two, we discussed creating a co-parenting plan. You’ll need this when you file for a court order. Alternatively, you can have a lawyer draw up a custody and co-parenting plan for you.

Once you’ve drafted a co-parenting plan, you’ll typically file a formal motion with the county court, including the proposed parenting plan. In some states, the process is different, so check with your local county court.

A motion for custody covers legal and physical custody.

  • Legal custody: Legal custody involves religious, educational, and medical decision-making regarding the child.
  • Physical custody: This form of custody involves the daily care of the child. Sole physical custody means that only one parent or guardian is responsible for the daily care of the child. Joint custody means that both parents share physical custody.

Some parents agree on different custodial combinations. For example, one parent may retain sole custody of a child, whereas both retain joint legal custody so that they’re both involved in major decision-making regarding the child.

If, however, things seem totally out of hand and you feel that your child’s security or safety is in jeopardy, file a motion for emergency custody. This is also known as a verified motion for temporary custody.

Parenting Agreement

The co-parenting plan or parenting agreement must outline everything from schedules to decision-making.

Here’s what you should include:

  • Schedules, such as visitation, weekends, holidays, or school vacations.
  • Pick-up and drop-off times, and who’s responsible for transportation.
  • Decisions relating to religion, education, or extracurricular activities.
  • How to deal with time modification requests.

If you’re applying for joint legal custody, you need to specify who’s responsible for each type of decision-making. Beyond the basics, you may want to include additional provisions, such as the care and return of a child’s property or transportation to extracurricular events.

Finally, draw out a plan for resolving any disputes. Some parents agree to meet with a mediator in the instance that custody conflicts arise to prevent having to return to court.

Be very specific when drawing out the parenting agreement to prevent misunderstandings.

Court-ordered custody agreements are highly recommended in the case of difficult ex-partners. If the court decides in your favor, then the custody agreement and parenting plan stand in a court of law.

As such, if the other parent refuses to abide by the court order, they’ll be held in contempt of court and will bear the consequences of those actions.

8. Keep Things Professional

Once you’ve hashed out a plan and established a court order for custody and visitation, keep things professional.

A lot of times, courts may leave one or both parents feeling even more frustrated, angry, and resentful. Restrict communication to “strictly business.” Keep it down to the most basic details, including what was agreed upon in the parenting plan.

9. Take Care of Yourself

Co-parenting is difficult, and it’s even more problematic when dealing with a difficult ex. As such, you may end up constantly feeling stressed out and nervous. Therefore, it’s important to recognize your own personal needs.

You must take care of yourself so that you can be there to care for your children. You cannot pour from an empty cup.

Perform self-care rituals, such as:

  • Use guided meditation to help you regulate your emotions.
  • Go to sleep at a decent hour.
  • Eat healthy, balanced meals.
  • Drink enough water.
  • Take long baths.
  • Try indulging in creative activities like writing or painting.
  • Find support groups for single parents in similar situations.

If none of this helps, consider talking to a therapist.

10. Put Your Kids First

When feeling stressed out or aggravated, we often forget that our children are the ones who suffer the most after a breakup, divorce, or separation. Putting your children’s sense of security ahead of the differences with your ex is the key to a successful co-parenting relationship, or at least to the well-being of your kids.

Be willing to do whatever it takes to keep them happy, healthy, and safe.

When Nothing Else Works

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you do or what steps you take to successfully co-parent. The ex-partner just continues to wreak havoc on your life and refuses to collaborate. In many cases, an ex may be controlling and abusive.

If that’s the case in your situation, then it’s best to start with the courts and avoid all of the other steps.

To successfully co-parent, both parents must be wholly willing to share the effort. As much as you may want to get along with your ex, if they refuse to participate, alienate you, or completely block you out, then there’s not much that you can do aside from letting the judicial system handle things.

Should You Consider Parallel Parenting?

Parallel parenting is a co-parenting arrangement where the former spouses have as little interaction as possible; the absolute minimum.

Now, I suppose if it’s at least cordial, that is OK. But I suspect most of the time it gets put into place because of drama, tension, and high-conflict personalities.

Ultimately what our kids need from us is to be good role models.

And while in an ideal world that would have couples never getting divorced, I recognize that isn’t always possible. But having a relationship and parenting schedule where the child almost literally never sees their parents together and does 2 of everything (holidays, birthdays, vacations, etc), we aren’t being a good role model.

Now, I also know you can’t control an uncooperative ex.

And if they have a condition like narcissism or borderline personality disorder, there is very little you will be able to do to to create a healthy co-parenting relationship with them.

So you may need to implement parallel parenting as a means of setting healthy boundaries and not allowing their toxicity to impact your life any more than possible.

But there will be a toll on the child, so look to avoid parallel parenting if at all possible.

What Makes an Ex Become Difficult?

Co-parents can become an uncooperative parent for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. When the other parent is behind on child support
  2. If they feel the other parent doesn’t have the children’s best interests at heart
  3. They have radically different parenting styles
  4. One is a high-conflict co-parent
  5. Substance abuse
  6. Undiagnosed mental illness

In my own life, in my relationship with my ex-wife, she actually has at least 3 of those 6 things going on. But as was the case when we were still married, she has all but refused to own her behavior and instead has decided to make me the bad guy.

Unfortunately, she’s trading our children’s peace of mind for her own ego.

But at the end of the day, the only thing you can control is yourself. So while it’s painful to see a toxic co-parent minimize the kids’ needs, you can’t change them. They can change. And your former partner can choose to make different choices and start to have a healthy relationship with you, it ultimately has to be their choice.

And trying to force them to change or really take a look at their destructive behavior is very unlikely to bring about change. And it will just make direct contact with them near impossible.


In a perfect world, we’d stay with the person with whom we bore children. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world.

Sometimes, we simply grow and learn that we’re no longer compatible. Ending a relationship is never easy, but it’s especially difficult once children are involved. As such, it should be the first priority to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship whenever possible.

Understand, however, that sometimes this isn’t possible, and in that case, it’s best to reach out to the courts.

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