John & Charlotte: Why Can’t We Just Be Friends?

John and Charlotte came to see me voluntarily because they both realized that their conflict was out of control and hurting their three children. Unlike many co-parents who are ordered to see us, they actually wanted things to change, so they were motivated. After I had an individual session with each of them, I had a good idea about what the issues were. Primarily, Charlotte couldn’t let go of her relationship with John, even though they had been divorced for 3 years. I learned that she was sending him an average of three emails and multiple texts per day. Most of them were harmless and meant to keep John “in the loop” about the kids’ activities. Charlotte had primary custody, and John had time with the children every other weekend (Thursday through Monday). The conflict usually erupted when Charlotte would get frustrated by John’s lack of response to her communication. When he didn’t say “Thank you” to a photo she sent him of the kids or he failed to answer her texts immediately, she would get anxious and say something sarcastic to him, which always led to a fight of some sort. It became clear to me after spending a couple of sessions with them that the conflict was not about the children, but about their relationship.

In our second joint session, Charlotte asked John, “Why can’t we just be friends?” He reluctantly and appropriately said, “Because there were reasons for our divorce. You don’t just put those aside and act like everything is better now than it was before.” With my prompting and help, John went on to explain that trust had been broken in the relationship for a variety of reasons and that the divorce was meant to give them relief from the turmoil, not continue in it. He was able to tell her that although he thought she was a great mother, she was not someone he wanted to be friends with. She had hurt him deeply in the marriage and he wanted to move forward with his life. This was difficult for her to hear. Because I had spent an individual session with her weeks before, I knew that Charlotte felt guilty about how she had treated John in the marriage and was struggling to accept that he had gone through with the divorce. They had a volatile relationship in which alcohol was a major factor. She said they fought and made up most of the time, so she never dreamed he would actually leave. When he did, she was devastated and had a strong need to blame him because she was ill-prepared to be a single mom. With that knowledge, I helped Charlotte talk about her fear of the future. She was able to tell John that she was having trouble thinking about a life without his approval. That session ended in some tears, but they were cleansing.

By the fourth joint session, Charlotte had a better understanding that their co-parent relationship didn’t need to include daily communication, and in fact, went more smoothly when they limited their interaction to a weekly phone call. When Charlotte was able to minimize her communication, John was more receptive and responsive, which helped her to feel they had more of a co-parent partnership. John was able to understand that a little kindness and respect did wonders to keep Charlotte from overcommunicating. Ultimately, in only four sessions of joint counseling and adopting a communication structure, they had learned to focus only on the children’s needs, which were relatively minimal once the parents made their own individual parenting and routines the primary focus.

Unlike Parenting Coordination, in which months and sometimes years of assistance is needed to help toxic co-parents stay child-focused, Co-Parent Counseling is designed to help co-parents who simply need a third-party to understand the emotional roadblocks that might be keeping them from moving on with their own adult lives while maintaining a productive co-parent relationship.