Why should I let my co-parent walk all over me?

Yesterday I posted a response to a mother who asked this question in a specific context, and I realized I have a bit more to say on this subject that may apply more broadly.

To refresh your memory, here's the part of her question I want to address in more detail:

I read your post "Ten Strategies for Co-Parenting with an Uncooperative Ex" which really hit home. I strive to do all those things, but do not believe my ex does.  Why should I keep letting him walk all over me? I believe that teaches our daughter bad self-esteem. 

There's so much to this issue that I'll probably have even more to say down the road.

But for now, I want to start with how children really learn to treat other people.  It's not primarily by being taught.  It's by watching what we do. 

Children pay attention to the little day-to-day behaviors that we think (hope?) they won't notice:  how do we treat the bank teller?  the waiter?  our loud neighbor?  our whiny or recalcitrant pet?  the door-to-door solicitor?  the elderly person taking forever to cross the street in front of our car while we have the green light at an intersection? 

We may think that we can teach our kids what we haven't yet learned ourselves, but this is rarely the case.  And this can make many of us squirm under the pressure of being role models.

Am I saying we have to be perfect ourselves to raise decent kids? Goodness, no.

Since our kids will inevitably witness us at our worst, and there will be plenty of times when we demonstrate behavior that we hope they will not emulate, our best approach is to be honest about the gap between where we are currently and where we are heading, and transparent about what we are learning and working on.   

How does this look in real life?  After a particularly high conflict phone call, it might sound like this:

I'm sorry you had to hear me talking to your dad that way, honey.

I know he loves you so much and is doing what he thinks is best for you, and sometimes it's not the same as what I think is best for you.

I want to treat your dad with respect, and sometimes big feelings come up in me that get in the way of me doing that.

I bet a good cry will help those feelings come out and make me feel better, so I am going to go cry and rake some leaves for a little while and let some of my upset pour out in my tears.

And when I am feeling better and thinking more clearly, I will try talking with him again.  I know we can figure something out.  
So .... Why should I let my co-parent walk all over me? 

The question itself contains a part of the answer.  If you see a co-parent "walking all over you", your vision is most likely not quite clear at that moment.  Big feelings may be clouding your perception.

If your perception was clear, you would see a father doing the best he can at that moment to take care of himself and his child.  Please note, this does not mean you will agree with him!

Nor does it mean he's doing the best he's ever done, or that you have to 'give in'.  It simply means you do not attribute negative intention to his actions.

If you truly can find no common ground with him in your mind, not even one tiny little square inch, then you have some inner work to do before you are ready to engage in another conversation. Because there is always some common ground, and it's usually pretty easy to identify with co-parents:  You both love your child and want the best for her. 

What's the inner work?  Releasing the feelings that are clouding your vision.  Divorce triggers a whole bunch of 'em:  anger, abandonment, grief, rejection, insecurity, fear, spite, shame, and yes, rage. 

For some, venting verbally to a counselor or friend who will not judge or try to fix anything is the key.  Finding someone who will listen while you spew out everything you wish you could say to your ex, as well as any feelings that feel unacceptable within you, can be incredibly cathartic and healing. 

For others, a good workout or physical activity will help the feelings to release their blinding grip.

Whatever strategy you decide to use to facilitate emotional release, you will know it is working if you find yourself feeling kinder and more tolerant and maybe a little bit worn out afterwards.  It will probably feel like the calm that comes after a storm.  

Parenting is hard work even under the best of circumstances; within the context of a loving partnership.  Remove that container and replace it with a divorce that triggers conflict and intense emotions, and it gets messy real quick.  I get that.  I really, really do.

But the primary place to intervene here is with ourselves, not with our children.  We need to figure out how to get the emotional support that allows us to process these feelings so we can see life and each other through clearer eyes.

We need to build that support in on a regular basis, because things will come up over and over again that will trigger us.

And when we get that support, we see things differently.  We no longer fear that our daughter will learn to be a doormat.  We instead trust that our child will observe us learning some skills to deal with messy situations -- which we will sometimes do gracefully, and sometimes not so gracefully.  We know that she will learn how to take responsibility for her feelings, her responses, her words, and her actions.

We trust that she will learn to cool down before acting, to disengage and take a break when she's upset.  She will learn to monitor her own clarity and take steps to restore it before engaging in negotiations.

She will watch and learn that things don't always happen perfectly, that we don't always act like our very best selves, but we can apologize, make amends and move forward.  She will learn to communicate her position with confidence and respect, and listen while others do the same. 

And yes, she will learn to say no when it is truly necessary.  She will learn to say it kindly, with respect and compassion, from hearing your side of the phone conversation with her father:  "I hear that you really want me to change the pickup time on Friday, and I'm sorry, I am not able to do that.  Let's look at some other options."

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