123: How To Overcome Co-parenting Conflict
High-conflict co-parenting is a common struggle in blended families. Ron Deal speaks with Diane Dierks & Rick Voyles on how to improve co-parenting conflict as you prioritize what you're fighting for, change your response, & consider your kids first.
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High-conflict co-parenting is a common struggle in blended families. Ron Deal speaks with Diane Dierks & Rick Voyles on how to improve co-parenting conflict as you prioritize what you’re fighting for, change your response, & consider your kids first.
123: How To Overcome Co-parenting Conflict
Diane: You probably spend a lot of time trying to save your marriage. It's a rollercoaster. There are ups and downs. We try, we stop. We try, we stop. Think about that rollercoaster and then all of a sudden it just comes to a screeching halt, and then how do you let go of the need to try to make it right.
The DRAGON Method is not a way of communicating so that you can be best friends, or you can be great co-parents. The DRAGON Method is how you have to change your mindset, in order to communicate with the other parent.
Ron: Welcome to the FamilyLife Blended podcast. I'm Ron Deal. We help blended families, and those who love them, pursue the relationships that matter most. Today, we are once again standing in the gap for children. Because kids—and I mean kids of all ages, adults, young teenagers—kids need caregivers who understand how important cooperation and peace really are to a child's emotional world.
Co-parenting is at the heart of that. And when I say co-parenting today, I'm talking about non-married biological parents. Co-parenting is at the heart of that but here's the deal. For the past 30 years that I've been working with blended families, co-parenting issues are at the top of the list of struggles for couples in blended families for co-parents. The conflict seems to be common, and we need to do something about it.
So today, we're going to talk to two people who specialize in helping co-parents. We're going to get to that shortly, but let me just add quickly, if you were widowed or you're married to somebody who was widowed, keep listening. Even though your kids don't have another home, I think you're still going to find some principles here that apply to your situation, in particular about how you can help children deal with the grief of a parent who is no longer with them.
A quick reminder, if you're looking for my speaking schedule, which we hear from people often and asking where they can find that, you can find that live event schedule or live stream schedule at SmartStepfamilies.com. Just click events. It really would be fun to meet you in person.
We love hearing from our listeners. We heard from a woman on Apple Podcasts. She says, “Highly recommend this podcast. It has been such a blessing for me, even in areas where we were doing pretty good, at least I thought we were. Their down to earth, candid style helps you identify and change issues before they become chasms.
I can't say thank you enough.” Well, I want to say thank you for that. I appreciate you taking the time to write us a note. By the way, submitting a review to Apple Podcast helps other people find us, so we appreciate you doing that as well.
We also heard from Tiff who was watching on YouTube. She says, “So many great takeaways. Thank you so much. Do you offer virtual counseling?” The answer is no, we don't do that as a part of our ministry. I have in the past, but I've been training therapists and coaches to take over that work. We've created a network of providers that you can find on my webpage. The show notes will tell you how to get connected to that.
You just click “Find a counselor” and you can look around the country and around the world for people that have gone through the training.
And if you happen to be a therapist or a counselor or a coach who wants to upgrade your skills in working with blended families, again, the show notes will tell you how you can get connected to this training coming up pretty soon.
Okay; Diane Dierks is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Georgia. She's the Executive Director of the Center for Navigating Family Change, which is a non-profit that provides co-parent education and other services for the courts. Rick Voyles is CEO of the Center for Dispute Solutions. He's an author, a mediator, and an anger management specialist. Together, Diane and Rick co-host the podcast, Co-Parent Dilemmas, and that's what we're talking about today, Co-Parent Dilemmas. Rick, Diane, thank you so much for joining me today.
Diane: Thank you so much for having us.
Rick: Yes, thank you.
Ron: You know, co-parents, generally speaking, I think they have some awareness, some cognitive awareness, that they need to get along for the sake of their children.
But many just don't, so I want to start with this: what in your experience makes co-parenting so difficult for some people?
Diane: I think that it's the same thing that sometimes makes marriage so difficult, for a lot of people. You have two individuals from two different backgrounds who get together, maybe sometimes for the wrong reasons. They end up married. The marriage doesn't work. Then it's as if there's some magic dust that ought to be sprinkled on them and suddenly, they should become these co-parents that get along so well.
We always say there's a reason the divorce happened to begin with, right? I try not to judge people because I do understand that what got them to the divorce is also going to make co-parenting very difficult for them. What got them to a divorce, or a separation, often is a difference in values, a difference in how they view the world, a difference in parenting, a difference in how they look at money and politics and you name it. And so now we're divorced, but everybody around us expects us somehow to be best friends or you know, go out with our kids on Friday night and act like nothing's wrong. And that's just totally unrealistic.
I think recently, maybe in recent years—at least for me in the last ten years—it seems like high conflict co-parenting, however, has been enabled—and we can talk more about that—by society or culture and I think that's really what really hurts children going forward.
Ron: I appreciate that perspective; that's really good.
Rick, I'd love to know your thoughts. I've often thought, in reaction to what Diane just shared, I've often thought the irony of helping people to become good co-parents is they have to overcome some of the problems that led to their divorce in the first place. And if they could have gotten over those problems earlier, they might still be married, but you know, it's too late for that now and here they are. But still, just as you said, the problems that led to the demise of their relationship, if you will, are often the things that continue to lead to the demise of their co-parenting relationship over time. Rick, I'm wondering what thoughts you have.
Rick: I agree. And you add to that the whole grief process of, one person can often struggle with the rejection or the bewilderment or the unfairness and the loss of the dream going forward, and unless they are able to manage that grief process, the children suffer.
Ron: And that's so good because the crazy thing about grief, in my mind, is people always ask questions like, “Well, have you had enough time to grieve?” “Have you really grieved that?” And of course, what we say is, “Yes, I think I did.” But how do you know? Like, it's really life that sort of shows you, “Well, I guess I haven't grieved that because I'm still angry, because I still am very reactive toward my co-parent, for example.”
So what does good grieving look like?
Diane: Well, I think that's, actually, it's funny that you say that about anger, because that's kind of the sign for me that you have worked through it and come to some sense of acceptance that you're no longer angry or bitter or resentful. And trust me, people can hang on to those feelings for 20 years or more.
Someone who's really interested in moving forward and putting their grief behind them, usually, we say it takes a couple of years. We often say we expect people to have trouble in the first couple of years after they separate. And then after a couple of years go by, and if things still feel as hot as they did before, or worse, you might be dealing with somebody who either can't get past their grief or maybe they thrive on conflict.
And that's when we really look at, what do they need as far as setting boundaries?
And that's where Rick and I come in with the podcast in working with high conflict co-parents is teaching them that it's really okay. You don't have to feel guilty after a couple of years of trying and it's just not working for you to set appropriate boundaries. Because it's not whether or not you get along with your co-parent as much as how much you can reduce conflict for the sake of the kids. And we teach a model that it's really okay to set boundaries to eliminate conflict, rather than trying to reach some sense of societal goals about co-parenting that are unrealistic and will probably only keep you stuck.
Ron: We are going to spend a little time talking about the DRAGON Method in a few minutes, so let's just hang on to that. We'll come back to that thought. If you're listening right now, you went “The what, method?” Yes, it’s the DRAGON method. Hang on; we'll get there.
Rick, I want to throw one at you. I often find that the questions people ask sort of reveal their misconceptions or misguided beliefs. When it comes to co-parenting, I'm curious in the podcast that the two of you do, what are the common questions that you get? And what are the sort of misguided beliefs about co-parenting that are revealed by those questions?
Rick: Yes, I think that one of the biggest misguided is that my other parent is going to change; that they're going to get better; they're going to improve. And they keep persisting in trying and trying, and “If I just say it one more time or I say it this way, that suddenly they're going to go, ‘Oh yes, I've had that wrong all this time. I think I will put the kids first from now on.’” And it just, the frustration goes on and on, so we have to teach them to take the eyes off of the other parent and focus on your power base. Because if you keep focusing on the other parent, you end up giving your power away.
Ron: Okay, whoa, whoa, whoa, unpack that. That's really good; say more about that.
Rick: Well, if the thing that is going on in your life is something that only someone else can change in order to improve, then you've named yourself powerless because you can't change them. You can't make them do the right thing. So therefore, I'm a victim of these circumstances and I'm powerless to change it.
But if you will look at your own power, “Well, what can I do? How can I respond to this? How can I make a difference in this despite what the other people or the other person is doing?” now you're focusing on your power. And when you do that, you can have an impact on your children, even though you can't have an impact on the other parent.
Diane: One of the things we teach, Ron, is that it only—kids only need one parent to be the predictable, consistent, dependable parent who's got the stability in mind for the child. That does not mean they don't need both parents in their lives. We believe strongly that kids need to have both of their parents in their lives but if only one of those parents can provide the unconditional love, can be the stability for them psychologically, emotionally, financially, physically, can be dependable and predictable, that keeps your child safe.
We really try to focus on telling parents, stop worrying about that the other parent's not stable, the other parent's not safe, the other parent's not doing all the things he or she should be doing, because it's been proven that a child has one parent like that they can count on, they'll be okay.
And that's a really hard message for parents to accept because they're convinced—in fact, Rick and I just did a workshop called, Will My Child Be Okay? And we spent an hour and a half with these people, with all of their questions. “Well, but he does this, and she does that,” and “Is my child going to grow up and become a narcissist?” “Is my child going to grow up and be as selfish as they are?” “Is my child going to become a criminal?” “Is he going to”—and the answer is, not if he has you.
At the end, I asked the question, so what have you learned? And I got all these kinds of answers and then I said, “I hope what you learned is your kids will be okay because they have you.” And even after 90 minutes of instruction, they still couldn't bring themselves to say, “Yes, my kids are going to be okay because they have me.” A lot of times people don't believe they have that power, like Rick says, to be the one their children need, despite everything else the other parent is doing.
Ron: Yes. This really is good news for our listeners and viewers because—and I'm aware of that research and I agree with it. I do think one person can be what is needed in a child's life. And yes, it's always advantageous to have two that are good, high character, quality parents that are trying to lead and guide a child in a common direction.
But in the case when you can't get the other person to be who you want them to be—and by the way, let me just say, I just made overt one of the reasons you may have gotten divorced—I hate to say it that way—but you couldn't control them then, you can't control them now. And sometimes the process of you trying to get the other parent to be exactly who you think they ought to be is part of the power conflict dance going on between the two of you, so finally let that go and focus instead on who you are and the influence that you bring to the child's life.
Diane: And sometimes you have to do some self-reflection. Maybe that's your control issue.
Ron: That's exactly right.
Diane: I need the other person to do things the way I need them to do, and so some of that may take some individual therapy to work through your own issues, whether it comes from childhood or just as a result of this poor relationship that you were in.
You asked a question, too, Ron, about what are some misconceptions, and we can't let it go without talking about misconceptions that therapists and mental health people have about co-parenting. We've encountered this a lot, Rick and I, and if you're not trained specifically to deal with high conflict co-parents—I mean, let's face it, every therapist is going to run into divorced people because half the marriages are going to be divorced, right?
But they don't often run into some of the high conflict situations that we do. And sometimes they can do some damage when they are, you know, doing therapy with an individual and say, “No, you have to get along. You have to get along with the other parent for the sake of the kids and if you don't, your kids won't be okay.” And we've had more than our share of people come to us and say, “But my therapist said we need to get along, but I can't make us get along by myself.”
And so there needs to be some education if you have some mental health people listening that it's not about getting along, like I said earlier. It is really about teaching people how to manage the conflict so that they don't become part of it. I can set boundaries for myself. I can do the right thing by my child, and I don't have to engage in the negativity. I don't have to engage in the toxicity, which is what the DRAGON concept is about.
Ron: Yes. Okay, so we're teasing that again, and we are going to get to that. You guys have this interesting, titled document called I Am NON-Impossible. I'm curious, Diane, where that Non-Impossible phrase came from. What are you trying to communicate there?
Diane: Well, you know, there wasn't a whole lot of thought put into it. I think the first time Rick and I sat down to record; we didn't have a script. We just said, “Let's talk like we do in a regular staff meeting when a case comes up and let's just process the case.”
I got on and I said, “Well, we kind of have to have a tagline to this thing.” Rick's the one who came up with, providing practical solutions to those with impossible parents—or co-parents. And I said, “Oh, I love that.” And the more I thought about that; what's the opposite of an impossible parent? I just made up a word, non-impossible. So that's really kind of how it came about. I didn't go to AI and ask it to come up with a suggestion. [Laughter]
Ron: Well, I like it for one, because it is shifting that focus as Rick said a minute ago, back to who I am, not what I can't get the other person to be.
Diane: Right. And I love it when people email us and say, “I'm the non-impossible,” so they're identifying. We also see the non-impossible is not somebody who's perfect, but somebody who's trying, trying to do the right things by their kids, including all the things we talk about.
I think if I had a point that I would want to bring up to non-impossibles, it has to do with putting things in perspective, prioritizing conflict. One of the mantras I always say to parents is, your kids won't remember who had spring break in 2024, but they'll remember the fight you had about it.
I think parents can get this tunnel vision to where they feel like, life won't be okay for my children if I don't get these three extra days around winter break, or life won't be okay for my children if I don't make sure I have final say on all their activities, or whatever it is that they're fighting for. And put that in perspective many years from now, chances are—and when Rick and I have done classes together, we often ask people, “What do you want your kids to say about you in ten years?” or twenty years, depending on how old your children are.
And you know what? We write it down on the whiteboard, and we've done this for years, and people always say things “I want my kids to remember that I listened to them.” “I want my kids to remember that I stood up for them” or “that I unconditionally love them.” Those are the kinds of things that they say but yet we see all of these people fighting about everything else that they don't, they know in ten years their kids aren't going to care about. So, if you take a moment to put it in perspective and say, “Why is this so important that I'm going to fight for it?”
And granted, there are things that are important to fight for, but who takes the birthday cupcakes to school on the child's birthday isn't one of them. I try to remind parents to really be cognizant of the priorities around the conflict and, how is this going to affect my child long term? And if you think about that long enough, you can brush off a lot of things.
Ron: That's a good perspective because it recalibrates what you think is important rather—it's important to you to fight over the cupcakes, but is it important to the child that you fight over the cupcakes, and maybe—
Diane: They want the cupcakes, but they don't want you to fight about it.
Ron: Exactly. So maybe that's the decision point. The hard thing to swallow though, there is, I imagine somebody listening right now going, “Hey, I want to take the cupcakes because I'm the dad and if I don't get this opportunity then I never get any opportunity, so it matters to me. I need to fight about the cupcakes.” How would you respond to that?
Diane: I would tell him, “I understand that you feel that way right now, but kids don't care. They really don't care.” And that sounds like a conflict of, “I never get an opportunity. He or she is always taking the opportunity away from me.” And I know that's how it feels in the moment, but time after time after time, we see this happen as kids grow older.
I'll tell a personal story. When my kids were young and I was a single mom, I used to feel bad because I didn't have as much money as my ex-husband had. He was able to do a lot more for them than I did and so I tried to provide opportunities like going to the park or just doing silly things with my kids.
And do you know, to this day—my kids are in their thirties now—do you know, to this day when they talk about my single parent years, this is the story they bring up. “Remember mom, we went to that car wash where you put a couple of quarters in, and we only had two minutes to wash the car. We all ran around the car and tried to do it really fast. Then we'd have to go home with a little bit of soap on our car, but it was really fun.” And I'm thinking, “That's what they remember.”
Diane: Why did they remember that? Because we took something simple, and we just sort of made a good time out of it. You have to understand that what you think you need to do for your kids is maybe because it's something you lacked as a child or whatever. You might be surprised to find out that kids will remember some of the silly moments where you just let your hair down and became a kid with them.
Ron: And if I may, what seems to be driving that feeling of inadequacy for you as a parent in those moments was, I don't know, guilt or shame or feeling less than or comparing yourself to the other household. “They've got more money.” That's just a lot of stuff we put on ourselves as parents. And by the way, married parents do the exact same thing, because everybody compares themselves to the family next door.
Ron: What a good reminder that what matters to kids is not that and sometimes we just need to let go of what we're afraid of.
Diane: My husband and I took our granddaughters to Disney World; went with their parents and granddaughters and spent an ungodly amount of money. We came back. I asked my oldest granddaughter—and they were like six and eight at the time—"What was your favorite part of Disney?” And you know what she said, “Jumping on the bed in your hotel room.” [Laughter] And my husband looked at me and he said, “We could have done that at the Super 8 down the street.”
Ron: That's right and saved a whole lot of money.
Ron: Okay, Rick, Diane, I want to talk about—let's get into the boundary stuff. Let's get into the DRAGON Method. I'll let you guys, kind of lead us through the DRAGON Method, but I want us to spend a little bit of time talking about boundaries with time, boundaries with values—you know, what if values are different—but your thoughts around time, in terms of with kids or time in each home. For high conflict couples, the DRAGON method is one of your strategies to help them navigate through that space.
So have at it. I don't know where we start. Tell us about this.
Diane: Let's talk a little bit about how we came up with this. It's so funny. We didn't say, “Let's do a DRAGON method and figure out what that looks like.” One day, Rick and I sat down and said, “How do we actually work through these cases?” We kind of made a list and then from that list, I started to notice some letters coming together. I was like, “You know when you look at how we step by step go through this, it does form these letters.” Of course, we changed a couple of them so they would fit in. But the DRAGON method is how we teach parents to go from, “She or he doesn't deserve my respect,” to “My child deserves two parents who don't hurt them.”
The DRAGON Method is not a way of communicating so that you can be best friends, or you can be great co-parents. The DRAGON Method is how you have to change your mindset, in order to communicate with the other parent. Because if you didn't have children, you would never need to communicate again. Because you have children, really, the only thing you're required to do is communicate. You don't have to hang out. You don't have to go on vacation together. You don't have to rely on each other. You don't have to trust one another. But you do have to communicate; the court requires it.
There are certain areas—I know in Georgia there's four areas that the court requires you to make decisions about, and that is your extracurricular activities, your medical, your education, those kinds of things. Religion is one of them. There are requirements, and how do you go from a bad marriage where, keep in mind, you probably spent a lot of time trying to save your marriage. Very few marriages just one day somebody wakes up and says, “I don't want to be married to you.” And then, you know, three months later, they're done.
It's a roller coaster. There are ups and downs. We try, we stop. We try, we stop. We try, we stop. Think about that roller coaster, and then all of a sudden, it just comes to a screeching halt because somebody says divorce and you get on the divorce track. And then how do you let go of the need to try to make it right. We see that all the time, especially one of the parents who maybe wasn't the one who wanted the divorce to begin with is still working hard.
One of the things we see parents do after their separation or divorce is they still have all of that repair energy going. “I still want his respect.” “I still want him or her to approve of me.” “I still want them to see me a certain way.” And it's part of that grief process to give that up.
So what we teach people is don't let that show up in your communication. Don't let all the bitterness and all of the, or all of your emotional needs and all—when that starts to show up in your communication, it still feels like marriage, and not just marriage, but toxic marriage. And it doesn't invite the other person in to communicate with you about your children.
I don't know if you want me to go through each of the steps, or Rick, do you want to say something else about what the purpose of this method is?
Rick: It's a pair of glasses that we put on to look at the situation in a particular way that will lead to healthier negotiations. And if you go through each of the steps, you actually end up in a position where you can't lose. It really doesn't matter what the other parent says. I have a way now to address my child's need regardless of whether the other parent says yes or says no.
Ron: Okay, I'm going to lead you through. Let's start with the D for DRAGON; that's for dilemma. Alright, tell us about that.
Diane: Dilemma is just what it says, what is my dilemma? So, let's use the birthday cupcakes. What is my dilemma? “Well, it's my child's birthday on Monday. Last year, the other parent took the birthday cupcakes; they got all the glory for taking them. I think it's my turn, but it doesn't happen on my day. I think it's fair if he or she would let me do the honors this year just so I can be in a position of fairness in my child's eyes.” So it's just about naming it. If you have to write it down, write it down. What is it that I'm struggling with? What is the conflict?
Ron: And so you're just putting words on it for yourself because you're trying to figure out, “Really, what is my issue here?”
Diane: Right. And you know, rare, but sometimes people will stop there because they're so reactive. You get a text, and you want to react to it and the other parent's motivation is going to be much different than your motivation. So they may be trying to trigger you, but you know how texting is. They might not be trying to trigger you at all, but your filter is so sensitive. “He said the word the, and I know what that means.” [Laughter] You're so sensitive you can't hear anything without interpreting it in a very toxic way.
If you can stop for a minute, don't respond right away, and just say, “What is the dilemma here? Why do I need to even address it?” Maybe you don't need to address it. So it's possible you stop at the D, right? But if you do, then you probably need to go on to the R, which is reframe.
Ron: Got it; reframe. Rick, why don't you take a run at reframe for us?
Rick: Yes, reframe is, “Could there possibly be another reason why they're saying, no, I can't take the cupcakes?” Or “Could there be another reason that they might say no?” And it causes us to pause and reframe it. Can we reframe it in a way that neutralizes the triggering, the hostility, the emotional rage that is suddenly triggered?
Now, once we've done that, “Well, okay, maybe they're taking the cupcakes because”—we come up with another reason—"they've already made them,” or I don't know, some other reason. Then I can go on to the next steps. But it's the hardest because that whole history of the past negative relationship, this puts it on pause so we can go to the next step.
Diane: And keep in mind, we've gotten a lot of backlash around the reframe concept because people say, “Well, do I have to reframe abuse?” Of course not. We're not talking about abuse. We're not even talking about reframe it so you can think of them differently. We want you to reframe it so you can communicate. If you really think that that person wants to take the birthday cupcakes because they're just trying to spite you once again, and that is your attitude and your communication, that's going to come out in your communication.
We always say give the other parent the benefit of the doubt, in your mind, even if that's not how you really feel, right? There's a big difference in communicating, “Oh, that's just like you to not let me take the birthday cupcakes when it should be my turn because you're such a spiteful blah, blah, blah,” whatever. That's one way to communicate.
Another way to communicate with a reframe in mind is, “You know I know that you took them last year. I'm going to trust that you have a pretty good reason to do it this year and so if that's what you think is best, then I'm okay with you taking the cupcakes.” Or “Can you explain to me why it's different this year than it was last year?” Something because in your mind you've already reframed and said, “Let's just communicate as if there is a better reason than what I think.”
Ron: So the benefit of the doubt is not so much to honor them, or because they've earned that benefit of the doubt, but it's more to put your heart in a different place so that when you approach them, the tone is different, the messaging is different.
Diane: Yes, probably a better example, and this is the one that we always use in our class, is, you know, John sends Jane an email that says, “Johnny told me he never brushes his teeth at your house, and that's just wrong,” and then sends her a—you know the American Dental Association's website about how she needs to read about gingivitis. We call that the attacking email, right, and so the dilemma is, “I feel like Johnny's teeth aren't getting brushed at mom's house and so I need to address this with mom.” Which you have to remember nobody likes to be instructed by their ex. It's just, it's a bad negotiation position to start with.
So instead of John saying the attacking words, if John just rethinks it, “What other reason might there be for Johnny telling me this?” Well, maybe Johnny's lying, you know? Duh. Do you think your kids would ever manipulate their parents? Of course, they would.
So if John writes the email and says, “Johnny told me he never brushes his teeth at your house. I really doubt that's true, but I just wanted to let you know in case he's trying to manipulate us.” The whole difference between those two emails is one, number one, mom won't read it. She won't get past, you know, the “but you need to” phrase, yes.
The second email, if he says it like that, she's now open up to, “Oh, he's giving me the benefit of the doubt.” And it really doesn't matter whether Johnny's brushing his teeth or not, he, John is more likely to get from her what he needs or wants, which is obviously the goal would be for Johnny to get his teeth brushed more often, right? I mean, that should be the ultimate goal, not to control my co-parent.
If she's not brushing Johnny's teeth, we hope she sees that as an oops. “Johnny's telling dad that we're not brushing teeth, but you know John is being kind of nice about it so maybe we ought to start brushing Johnny's teeth,” right? Or she might say, “Wait a minute, we brush our teeth all the time over here.” So next time she sees Johnny, she's going to say, “What are you doing telling dad we don't brush our teeth over here?” and then Johnny says, “Oops, you mean you guys talk to each other?”
Ron: “I can’t play one side off the other?”
Diane: So if you really want it to be okay with your kids, then own up to that and make your communication such that you actually draw the other parent into the issue with the child. The issue is not between the two of you; it's the two of you trying to figure out how to solve the issue with your child. And you just change your mindset, a little bit about that. That reframe is so valuable, even though when John writes that email like we suggest, “I really doubt it's true, but just wanted to let you know,” that doesn't mean he feels that way. It just means that he feels one way, but he's choosing to write an email this way so that he has a better opportunity for negotiating with her and getting Johnny’s teeth brushed.
Ron: The next letter is anxiety, and I can see how that plays into this. Are you trying to get a hold of your anxiety or the other parent?
Rick: Yes, yours. You're trying to get a hold. What's got you anxious about this? Like the illustration you gave earlier, the father responded, “No, I need to take the cupcakes because I don't get very much exposure.” That's a choice or response out of fear. It's afraid that “I'm never going to get enough time with my child for them to remember me or to have a positive impact or to be the kind of dad that I want to be.” If you're projecting that fear, then that's going to influence your communication.
So if I can get a hold of my anxiety, “What am I afraid of here? If they say no, if I don't get to take the cupcakes, what am I afraid is going to happen?” And if I can name that, “Well, is it true that I'm never going to get to see my child? I'm never going to have that influence. Will this one event of cupcakes make or break my child's wellbeing in the future with their relationship with me?” It's unlikely. So to be able to name it, goes a long way to finding a way around it.
Diane: And I think it also helps you to understand it's not about the cupcakes; that this anxiety probably permeates a lot of things that you think and feel about the co-parent relationship and how much time you were awarded through the court to be with your child and all of that. I think it helps people get in touch with what is really going on with me so they can then turn around and do the G, which is the goal.
Is the goal for me to manage my anxiety? Or is the goal for my child to get what he or she needs? And that's where you have to really put it in perspective, and you know people should take a lot of time on this anxiety piece because there's probably a theme in it that has been there since you were married; that you always feel like you don't have any power in the relationship, or you always feel like you give in and the other parent gets to do what they want to do, or you always feel—those are adult issues. That has nothing to do with what your child needs, which is just probably, even if he never gets any cupcakes, to not have mom and dad to show up with two dozen cupcakes each and fight in front of the class.
Diane: We know he doesn't need that so though we say the absence of conflict is more powerful most of the time than the agenda that you are trying to push.
Rick: Yes, that shift between anxiety and then movement to goals actually makes possible that movement away from fear and into love. Because if it's just anxiety, that's about me. But if I'm looking at the goal, the goal is, what is the goal for my child? Then I can shift to, what does my child need? That's a loving response. And I'll do just about anything in order to accomplish what my child needs, including giving up something that I wanted.
Ron: Yes, and I can see that's where the moment of realization that I need to sacrifice, a goal that will help eliminate my own anxiety for a goal that will help my child thrive.
Ron: And sometimes that's a really hard decision to make, but my goodness, what a beneficial decision to make. Rick, go ahead and talk about O; that stands for opportunity.
Rick: Yes. I think this is probably my favorite. You get to that point where I can figure out what my goal for my child is. And what's fascinating about basic human needs is there's always more than one way to meet a need and so if I can figure out what does my child need in this, I can start to look at various options. What are—"I could do it this way. I could do it that way. I could do it this way.”
One of the examples we give is the parent that put their child in a baseball team that was way far away from dad's ability to get to the practices or get to the games.
And the first thought is, “Well, they did that on purpose so I couldn't come. Well, that's back to the reframe, right? But down here at the options, “Well, what can I do to still participate in my child's sporting events?” And “Well, I could send a video camera then I can watch it afterwards,” or there's just many, many different ways to think about, how can I meet my child's need? And that's the whole options section. And that starts to be empowering, where “I could do this,” “I could do that,” “I could do this,” but right there at the beginning, when we have the dilemma, we start out feeling powerless.
Diane: I think the opportunity is really the saving grace of all of this because we call it the Plan B when we're teaching it in Parenting Coordination. But like Rick was saying, what are the opportunities that you have to meet your child's goal without the other parent's permission? I don't need my other parent's permission to contact another team member's parent to say, “Hey, when Johnny is up to bat, would you please video it for me and send it to me?” I don't need the other parent's permission to get a day off to drive down there and, you know, be there for Johnny. I don't need my other parent's permission to do a lot of things.
One of my favorite examples is we had a mom in a class say that she was getting very frustrated because her child was eight or nine years old. At that age where every kid has a birthday party and invites the whole class. Her son's best friend was having a birthday party, and traditionally, Dad would never let him go to birthday parties on his weekend, because “That's my time. You can't go to see your friends on my time.” She said she knew the best friend's birthday party was coming up, and the child came home with the invitation and just rolled his eyes and said, “Well, his birthday party's this weekend. It's a sleepover, but it's Dad's weekend.” She could just see the dejection in his eyes.
She said typically she would write dad an email and say, “Hey, Johnny got an invitation to so and so's birthday party. I know it's your time, but he really wants to go. I'll go to Walmart and buy the gift. I'll even come pick him up. I'll take him to the party.
I'll bring him.” She was bending over backwards to say to dad, “I'll do everything I can to facilitate this,” and dad got enjoyment out of saying, “Nope. It's my weekend, don't do it.”
And so what she did, and I thought this was profound, really, she said, “I finally figured out that that wasn't working, and I told my son, ‘You know what, your dad might not let you go, but I'll tell you what we'll do if you don't get to go the weekend that you're here with me. The next weekend you're back, we'll invite that boy over and we'll have a couple of your friends over and we'll have our own little birthday party for him.’”
Is that a perfect solution? No, it's not perfect, but I'll tell you what, that kid will remember that forever; that she did that. Because what she's saying is, “I know what you need. I know you want to celebrate your friends and especially your best friend and you're feeling like you're not allowed to do that. I'm going to facilitate that, and I don't have to ask dad if that's okay.”
It changed her mindset when she finally wrote the email to dad and said, “Hey, Johnny's best friend is having a birthday party; it’s happening on your weekend. He can go or not.” Her mindset was “I know I'm in a better negotiation position because I already know what I'm going to do when dad says no.”
Ron: I'm already empowered.
Diane: I'm already empowered. It's not maybe exactly what I want. It might not even be exactly what the child needs. But I have the power to give my child what he or she needs even when the other parent denies that.
Ron: What I hear you guys saying is, when you, in a high conflict situation and cooperation has been lacking,—you know that's the history; you know that's the pattern—when you continually try to put yourself in a dependent position, that is, ask the other parent to come through for you so plan A happens, you're just asking for frustration and difficulty and more of the same. Plan B becomes the empowered choice you get to make, you get to be in charge of, and you're independent of the other parent's “yes.” In other words, you, even if they say no, you can move forward with that.
Diane: If they say, “Yes,” it's icing on the cake. And I in no way want your listeners to think that we're not proponents of cooperative co-parenting. We absolutely are. And cooperative co-parents, they operate on a plan A most of the time. Cooperative co-parents don't need to look at their court order where high conflict co-parents have to carry it around in their back pocket all the time because they're constantly having to kind of monitor what the court order says.
We're not against cooperative co-parenting but we also know only about 20 to 25 percent of the population of divorcing parents can pull that off and pull it off well. And we know that about 50 percent can do what we call parallel co-parenting, which means we really don't spend a lot of time communicating other than about the kids and we do it without conflict.
And then the bottom 20 to 25 percent are the ones that we speak to, that we want to change, that we want one person in that couple to listen and become an impossible and if—or non-impossible. If they become a non-impossible, then they're going to drag the impossibles along with them, and that's what matters.
Ron: Let's get to the end. DRAGON has an N on the end of it, and that's for negotiate. You alluded to that a minute ago in your example of the mom who had a plan B, even if her former husband said no to the birthday party. Negotiate is part of the equation. You are going to leave the door open for that. So how does that work?
Rick: I think you said it well, Diane, when you mentioned mom can now ask dad about the birthday party, or you can make it cupcakes for school. “Hey, I'd really like to take the cupcakes this time. I know you did it last year. If you have any problems with me taking the cupcakes,” and you don't care what they say. They say, “Yes, I don't—I have a problem with you taking cupcakes. I'm going to do it this year; don't even ask.” “Well, that's okay because I thought of another way to make sure my child's need gets met,” and maybe it's the next weekend, or “I have the whole school come over to my house and we all have cake and ice cream, not just cupcakes.”
Diane: And you don't say that to the other parent.
Rick: No, no, you just say, “Okay, thanks.” If they say “Yes,” go ahead, take the cupcakes. “Well, thank you.” If they say “No,” don't take the cupcakes. “Okay, thank you.” The response is the same either way.
Diane: Yes, and here's what could happen, is when you take someone's power of “no” away from them, they actually might say, “I don't have the power anymore; maybe I can negotiate this.” So you want to be open to the other parent saying, “Oh, you're not going to get mad that I'm saying no?” You may find five hours later after they've thought about it, they write right back and say “Well, I've thought about this.”—because in their heart of hearts they love their child, and they really want their child to attend the best friend's birthday party—and they may make a suggestion They may actually decide to come to the negotiation table because you no longer are affected by their power. When you take away the reward, and they no longer have a reward, it actually might shift their thinking to their child for the very first time, and that could be a great bonus.
Ron: Yes. There is a paradox that happens when we change our body. If you've been stuck in a dance with somebody, whether you're married to them or not, and you all of a sudden do a different dance move—
Ron: —it kind of makes it silly for them to keep doing the same dance without you doing your part of the dance. Like it just makes no sense anymore so it might open possibilities. And I want to emphasize the word might to all of our listeners and viewers, because we don't know, we can't guarantee, but the point is you're trying to bring your best self to the equation and the little, small changes on your part can make a difference in the outcome.
Ron: Hey, guys, I want to ask you a couple of probing questions. First of all, love the DRAGON Method. Thank you so much for that. It is empowering, and I can see how that process would be really helpful. I think we're going to point people to some of your resources, and so they can look in the show notes for information about how they can get more familiar with your strategy, your training, your podcast and the like.
I want to ask you a couple of pointed questions. And again, I'm asking on behalf of high conflict co-parents who have asked these questions of us. So let me just toss them at you. Rick, I'm going to throw this one at you first of all. Legally, when can you record a conversation or an interaction with the other co-parent in order to show that they're being belligerent or verbally abusive to you or the children?
Now, there's two sides of this and you can speak to both of them. The first side is you run a risk at recording. Does that somehow come back against you hard in terms of making the relationship even more difficult with your co-parent? If you're really, really concerned that something's happening, you really feel like you've got to prove something to the courts, can you do that? How should you do that? What are the rules around that?
Rick: Legally, I don't know.
Diane: Every state is different.
Rick: Here would be my bottom-line answer to that question. It's appropriate to take video or audio of the other parents under the advisement or along with the advisement of your attorney. I wouldn't do it unless there was a strategy somewhere that an attorney already has in mind to take to court to win a battle. I would want the strategy and the backing of my attorney.
Diane: So let me speak to it from a child's point of view. I just had this conversation with the guardian ad litem yesterday, who was telling me all about this child who's stuck in the middle of her parents. Her parents are fighting about her and custody of her, and she's, I think, 14 years old. And the guardian said to me, who's also an attorney, “I've got this great recording of things she's saying about mom to dad.”
The stepmom apparently recorded the recording and told the dad later that she had it. And now the dad gives it to the guardian. I said to her, “Is anybody thinking about how the 14-year-old might feel about that if that's used as evidence against her in the court?” Because the story was that, the thought was the 14-year-old was being alienated by the mom, and she's having a private conversation with her father to where she's actually being honest with her father, but now all of a sudden, it's seen as some sort of gold.
It's akin to another case that I had where a teenager, her page out of her diary was presented as evidence in the court without her permission. And let me tell you, that ruined her relationship with her mom. So, I don't think the question is, should I record, or shouldn't I record? The question is, why do I need to record and how is that going to affect not just my child, but the case in general? And how does that affect my relationship with my child and the trust issues that go along with that?
So I would be very, very careful about recording. I know we have the ability these days, but here pretty soon it won't matter because AI can make up anybody's face and voice and recordings won’t be trusted anyway. I always think “How is that going to be perceived by a child if it's used in some way to make a case?”
Ron: That's great; good thoughts. Bottom line I'm hearing, if you have concerns for the well-being of a child, then you talk to your attorney and work in concert with them but don't do this on your own, or it may really have pretty serious repercussions for you.
One other question we hear from people is, when do you know that a frustrating co-parenting situation is something that's crossed the line and you need to go back to an attorney, or you need to somehow inform the court about it? I think a lot of people, there are common frustrations and then there are like more serious matters. How do you know when you've gone from one to the other?
Diane: Yes. It's a gamble and I've been in the court system for decades and it really is a gamble on whether or not your investment is really going to produce the final result. Even here in Georgia we have a statute that says when a child is 14 years old, he can elect who he wants to live with primarily. And that is like part of the law, right? It gives them a lot of power. And then the judge has like 20 some criteria that he or she can use to determine whether that election is in their best interest.
Some people think that's great. But I also think that that can be a big problem as, you know, should we take it to court just because my 14-year-old doesn't like dad's rules and wants to go live with mom instead? Now we're going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe, and my experience, I've had so many of those kids in my office who didn't realize when they were taken to an attorney's office and said, “Just sign this affidavit and you can go live with me or come live with me.” They signed it because they thought, “Yes, cool. I'll be there, next weekend.” That only works if both parents agree.
When the other parent doesn't agree and says, “No,” we're going to court over that. It's 18 months to 2 years of investigation before it comes to fruition. Well, by that time, the kid's 16, going, giving both parents the middle finger, saying, “I'm done with you guys, had I known”—and I've heard these exact words, “had I known it was going to turn into this, I would have never signed that paper.”
So what people think the court is going to do for them, versus what the reality of what court can do for you, are two completely different things. So yes, if you feel your child is being abused, put all of your energy and money into that, but honestly, short of that, it's a gamble whether or not it's really worth it to. Rick and I both think there are so many other steps to go through to get your kids what they need before you ever get to that decision.
And, you know, this is where I think our culture has enabled high conflict because the culture is kind of saying “You deserve to get what you want and need at somebody else's expense.” When I got divorced 30 years ago, I not only didn't have the money to go to court, but I wouldn't have thought, dreamt in a million years that I would ever ask my parents for the money. But that's what we see people doing now. They're not only going bankrupt; their parents are going bankrupt. They're maxing out their credit cards and asking for loans and then they spend all this money and then they end up in our office crying, saying, “I don't know why I did that, because nothing really changed. I'm still stuck with this high conflict co-parent. That didn't change him or her,” and we're going, “Duh.”
Ron: Not only did it not change, but your contributions probably made it worse in some ways. Again, I get somebody who's listening who is legitimately really worried about the well-being of their child. That's not what we're talking about. I think we're back to the DRAGON Method here and back to the D. What's my dilemma? Is it really my need or is it something that's my child's need? If it's your need as an adult, think it through, really be careful, be cautious and guarded about where you want to take this and what you do because it may have pretty negative consequences.
Rick: Yes. A lot of people have a misconception of what the court is. They think that the court is going to punish the other parent for not doing the right thing, or can make them, a judge can make them do it. When really all they end up with at the end of the day is another order. And what makes you think this new order they're going to follow?
Diane: Yes, I've seen people get thrown into jail because they didn't follow the order and then they get out of jail, and they keep doing what they were doing. There's only so much power the court can have to force people to do the right thing.
Ron: And at the end of the day, it's more of the same strategy of, how do I get you to do what I want you to do?—to be what I need you to be? And that's one parent trying to change the other parent. Whether you include the court or not, it's all the same strategy.
Rick: That’s right.
Ron: What you guys are advocating for is, no, you take your power back, and you change how you respond and what you do. And that is a game changer. I appreciate that so much.
Hey guys, I want to give you one last thing. Rick, we're going to let you go first, and then Diane. Here's what I want you to do. I want you to share what kids wish their parents knew; speak for the children for a minute. What do you hear them saying to you? What's the thing that parents need to hold on to that kids need from them?
Rick: I think that response would be, what about me? The parents are arguing, the parents are fighting, but the child is standing there, “Well, what about me? When are you guys going to stop fighting over me or about me? Why can't you just pay attention to me?”
Diane: I had a little boy in my office, seven or eight years old, once said, “Well, my mom says she has to go through court in order to fight for me. Would you please tell her to stop fighting about me?” And I had to tell that mom until that child becomes a parent himself, he has no idea what fighting for means. They just feel fought about.
Ron: Rick, Diane, thank you so much for the work that you do. I appreciate you being with us today.
Rick: Thank you.
Ron: If you want to know more about their podcast, check the show notes. And if you'd like to leave us a question or an idea for a future episode, you can certainly do that as well. Again, the show notes will point you to how you can do so.
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