Co-Parenting: Conflict & Cooperation with a Former Spouse: Mary Jeppsen
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Mary Jeppsen PhDMary was born and raised in Connecticut. After graduating from Vassar College in 1975, she married Michael, and concentrated on raising a family as a stay-at-home mom. She has 11 children. (Eight daughters and three sons ranging in age from 23 to 50). She homeschooled the children for 22 years. Her oldest daughter is adopted and her youngest daughter has Down Syndrome. Being a stay-at-home mother for all those years has been the greatest privilege of her life.
Need tips on parenting with a former spouse? Dr. Mary Jeppsen literally wrote the book on constructive, cooperative coparenting. She’ll help navigate.
Co-Parenting: Conflict & Cooperation with a Former Spouse: Mary Jeppsen
Ron: Here’s your hope: your hope is in striving toward cooperative coparenting. Sometimes, I hear people say, “Well, we’re divorced. We can’t do anything about that; therefore, my kids are sunk.” No!—that’s not true. There’s a lot you can do, even under these circumstances, to improve their overall well-being. It has to do with how you manage the coparenting relationship between homes. That’s what we’re after; that’s why we’re talking about this today.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
Dave and Ann: —Today!
Ann: Have you ever been in a circumstance, where you were standing near two people, and they started hitting each other in a fight?
Dave: Yes, several times.
Dave: Detroit Lions’ locker room, half time.
Dave: Yes, and there were a couple times, where I saw violence in my own home, when my mom and dad were going through a divorce. Either way, when violence is that close to you—it is not only scary—it can be traumatic and leave marks for a lifetime. I think, today, we’re going to talk a little bit about how that affects a home and affects a blended family.
We’ve got Ron Deal with us, back at FamilyLife Today. Ron is the director of our blended family ministry at FamilyLife. Welcome back to FamilyLife Today, Ron!
Ron: Hey, guys; always good to be with you.
Dave: I guess I should ask you the same question Ann asked me: “Have you ever been that close to a couple of people going at it?”
Ron: Yes, I’ve been on a crowded bus when a couple of people started pushing and shoving. I was close enough that I felt the movement, and thought, “Alright; I’m about to get hit also. Something’s going to happen here. How do I avoid what’s going on? How do I step out of the way?”
- Imagine if it was two people, you really cared about? —whether they were friends or maybe family members.
- Or imagine you’re a child, and you’re seeing this hostile act between your parents?—there you are, close enough to be on the receiving end of some of the blows, perhaps, if they go awry.
- Or you just care about the people, and you want them to stop.
This is all a metaphor. It’s a way of thinking about the conflict that takes place between parents, whether they’re married—or in the case of our conversation today, if they’re divorced from one another, but they still have to continue to be parents/we call those coparents—coparenting, raising these children, even though you’re not living in the same household.
Our conversation today is from a FamilyLife Blended® podcast, where I was talking with Dr. Mary Jeppsen. She’s a therapist, who specializes in working with hostile coparents; as a matter of fact, court-ordered coparents is her specialty. You know, these are people, [for whom] it’s even [been brought] to the legal system; they’ve been required to go see somebody to help them not do that so much.
She authored a professional manual for therapists around this subject that I endorse, by the way; I think it’s really great. She and her husband, Michael, have 11—count them—11 adult children. Let me just say: this conversation is applicable to a lot of people:
- single parents;
- it’s applicable to blended family couples;
- to grandparents, who have grandchildren that they may care deeply about;
- extended family members, obviously, who care about nieces or nephews connected to their family;
- and to ministry leaders, who work with kids. My goodness!—a fair percentage of children, who are coming in and out of your children’s ministry/your student ministry every weekend, have experienced something like what we’re talking about today.
I invite everybody to listen for how you could help a friend or help your own situation.
[Previous FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Mary: Parents are the most important people in a child’s life—right?—your mom, your dad. I don’t know about you; but I tried to please my father until I was 54, for goodness sake.
Here I am—a younger child in a divorce situation—I’m pulled between two parents; my world has been rocked. My safety is based on my home, and my home is based on mom and dad being together. That home breaks up, and my sense of safety is totally rocked. I’ve got to find another sense of safety. In situations, where moms and dads continue to fight—at least, openly in front of the children—I’m not sure that the children ever feel or get a sense of safety in either home; so they’re going to look somewhere else for a sense of safety. That’s not what we want.
I think parents have to be really, really mindful of the fact that it’s their responsibility to provide their children a sense of security/a sense of safety, even after divorce. That is basically based on the children seeing positive civil interactions between mom and dad; and the kid’s knowing: “I’m going to get to see Mom,” “I’m going to get to see Dad,” “This is where we’re going to be; this is what it’s going to look like.” I think, often, parents are so hurt, and so in turmoil themselves, that they have a hard time expressing this to the children.
Ron: Yes, I want to be clear about that. It’s about conflict between the parents, whether you’re married or divorced. Children, who grow up in an intact home—where mom and dad are still married to one another but miserable—they are dramatically impacted by that level of conflict as well. It’s as much about the conflict as it is as to whether or not you’re still married or in a divorced situation.
In other words, do you think it’s generally true that divorced coparents—who do a really good job, managing their hurt and their anger toward one another, and they coparent relatively well—that that creates a fairly safe and stable environment for their children? They’re still moving between homes; there’s still complications—but if the conflict is low—children benefit from that; yes?
Mary: Yes, I think that’s true. I think a lower-conflict situation, or no-conflict situation, is ideal. I think children feel like they have to take sides all the time—even adult children—that’s stress-producing; that’s anxiety-producing. That’s really not their job! It’s our job, as parents, to manage our own conflict.
Ron: To the listener—I just want to be really clear about this—"Here’s your hope: your hope is in striving toward cooperative coparenting.” Sometimes, I hear people say, “Well, we’re divorced. We can’t do anything about that; therefore, my kids are sunk.” No!—that’s not true. There’s a lot you can do, even under these circumstances, to improve their overall well-being. It has to do with how you manage the coparenting relationship between homes. That’s what we’re after; that’s why we’re talking about this today.
What, in general, makes that difficult for coparents to cooperate? What are some of the emotions? What are some of the things that get in the way of good coparenting?
Hurt is the first one that comes to mind, for me.
Mary: Hurt, betrayal, mistrust—all of the things that come between moms and dads—unless those things are somehow addressed, then I always tell my clients: “It’s kind of like you’re dragging a ball and chain into that relationship. It’ll come up and poison your coparenting relationship.”
I do suggest to my clients that they allow themselves to grieve over their losses. I always tell them, “It may have been a great idea for you to divorce—sometimes, it’s necessary—I get that. But that doesn’t mean there is no loss. The worst thing that you lose is time with your children: because never again will you see your children every day.
Added to that is, when two people are married, you know how much hurt there is—marriage is powerful; it’s really powerful—so the love is powerful, and the hurt is powerful. You take a divorce situation, and there are so many offenses that people carry against their ex-spouse. I try to suggest that they almost even go down the list of:
- “The time you came home drunk,”
- “The time you betrayed me,”
- “The time you said this to me,”
- “The time you didn’t listen,”
- or “The time you were online shopping and you made us totally poor,”—
—all these things.
If you can go down that list—look at it; face it—and say, “Okay; I’m releasing this. I’m not going to let this get in the way of my relationship with my children,”—sometimes, I think facing those things, and letting them go, is kind of essential; otherwise, those things—the minute you look at that person or hear their voice—it’s probably a trauma response that’s in there; and it just comes out again, and again, and again, and again. That’s not helpful for the children, particularly; they need you all to give each other a clean slate.
Ron: This is an important connection you’re making: “My forgiveness work towards my former spouse has everything to do with my ability to be a good coparent,” and “At the end of the day, children are going to be impacted if I can’t forgive/won’t forgive—whatever that is—that gets in the way of creating a good parenting climate.”
Mary: Exactly; some parents will tell you: “I can’t forget. You’re asking me to just forget?” I always say, “Forgiveness isn’t necessarily forgetting. It’s facing the offense, and for your own sake and the sake of your children, letting go of that offense.”
Ann: You’re listening to FamilyLife Today. We’re actually listening to a portion of the FamilyLife Blended podcast with Mary Jeppsen. Ron, as I listen to that, I’m like, “Oh, this is so important for all of us to understand and to get it.” Why is forgiveness so important to good coparenting?
Ron: First and foremost, it releases you from the pain. The irony there is, when we hang on to resentment, it locks us into the pain that keeps us stuck; it ties us, emotionally, to the person who’s hurt us. It sort of keeps their power going over us.
That’s one of the blessings of forgiveness—is you release that—you say, “I release that. I’m separate from you. No longer are we in the prison cell together; I’m walking out! Now, I have choices; now, I can respond differently toward you. I’m not re-acting out of hurt; I’m responding out of”—Wow; here’s a thought—"out of love/out of mercy. The mercy I’ve received from God, I’m now going to extend to you.”
Walking out of that prison cell opens up that ability, and that’s what we want from coparents. Now, your kids are not standing next to two people, who are fighting all the time.
Dave: I think, watching my mom and dad, my mom never got there. Isn’t that interesting? She never spoke really poorly about my dad in front of me; but as I even got to doing his funeral, as the pastor in the family, my mom didn’t even come. She had never forgiven. As her son, I saw that and experienced that, even though I had to get to the point, as an adult man, to forgive my dad.
Ann: It affected your whole family.
Dave: Yes, everybody.
Ron: I imagine, even while you were doing your dad’s funeral, there’s a part of you that’s sad that your mom’s not there.
Ron: So again, you’re caught in the middle of their hostility. It was a quiet hostility; it was a cold war—maybe it is a way to say at that point in the game—but still, it impacts you; because these are your parents. That’s an important thing people need to hear: “How you react and respond—no matter the age of your child, whether they’re adults; it doesn’t matter—they want civility between their parents.”
Let’s listen to more of my conversation with Mary. I want people to know that there’s a whole lot more in this discussion; you should probably listen to the entire podcast if they want to learn. At one point, she started talking about the games that coparents play. I think this part of the conversation is really important for parents, grandparents, and extended family. We’re going to share that with you here.
[Previous FamilyLife Blended Podcast]
Mary: What I call “pain games” is when one or the other spouse/ex-spouse tries to really punish the other person; more commonly, changing schedules constantly:
- “I’m late,”
- “I’m early,”
- “I’m not going to see him this Friday; I’m going to change to next Friday.”
Now, changing schedules is like a broken promise to the children. They have a particular visitation schedule; and when we don’t meet it, we’re breaking our promise to them. All of those things have a negative effect on kids. When I say I’m going to be there at 9:00 on Saturday morning, I need to be there at 9:00 Saturday morning, not at 2:00 Saturday afternoon. How is the child supposed to trust me?
Ron: For some people, it’s sort of a passive/aggressive: “Oh, I’m sorry I’m late,”—that’s creating pain in your life; maybe it’s a payback; maybe it’s hurt and anger spilling over—I create pain in your life, and that makes me somehow feel better; but—
Mary: —in the meantime, you’ve got a child, who’s crying, or upset; and guess who has to deal with the upset child?—the one who’s waiting/whose life has been disrupted. That’s when parents use the child as a messenger/as a detective. Sometimes, coparents will have their relationship through their child.
I’m working with a couple now, who never speak; but the child is the one who mitigates everything. I met with the child, and she said, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” Because when she’s put in that position, she can’t have a relationship with mom and a free relationship with dad. There’s always something she’s got to balance; there’s always a piece of information or something.
“I Spy” is when you use your child as a messenger, even if it’s about changes of plans; or when you’re asking your child things like: “Oh, is Mommy dating?” or “Is Daddy dating?” or “Did Daddy go to work?” “Did Daddy get a new car?” Those things, in and of themselves—there’s nothing wrong with them—but when you ask a child, they feel a sense of betrayal; you’re asking the child to be put in a situation that they don’t need to be in.
Ron: Definitely avoid that one. Let’s do one more game; you call it “Set Up.” Tell us about that.
Mary: I say that “Set Up” is common, and it’s when you set one of the coparents up as the bad guy. Often there is a bad guy—sometimes, there’s somebody with a drug problem, or a drinking problem, or they had an affair, or they have a bad temper—but the child does not need to be privy/the child doesn’t need to be privy to that. What that does is:
- It puts the child in a position, where they feel like there’s something wrong with the other parent. And if there’s something wrong with the other parent, there must be something wrong with them; because their whole life, they’ve been told they’re like that other parent; or “This is like their other parent…”
- Or they don’t feel like they should have a free relationship with that other parent. If that plays out farther down the line, you could be developing an alienating situation from a parent. Parental alienation is a bad thing—because what it does is—it produces a sense of abandonment in your child by one or the other parent. Abandonment is really destructive to children.
I think it’s natural, at the beginning, to say mean things or react. But it’s really important, if you see that you’ve done it, apologize to your children; and go forward with a positive attitude.
Ron: And certainly, stop setting up the other parent as being the bad guy.
Again, as you were talking, I had a thought: “What is implicit, in negative comments about the other home, that set them up, is a request.” It’s almost as if you’re saying, “Because your father”/“…mother”—whatever the case is—“is an alcoholic, you should be more loyal to me. You should want to spend more time here. You should listen to us. Our values should trump their values.” It’s an implicit request for loyalty to a child. Whether you mean it that way or not, that’s something they hear and internalize.
And then—I love the way you said it—they’re not free at that point to love the parent. And what a bind: because they do love their parent; they do want to be close; they do want to maintain that relationship.
Mary: And some parents would say: “But my values are better. Here we go to church,” and “We do this,” and “We do that.” “In that house, they don’t go to church, and they drink in the evening,”—dah-dah-dah-dah. If you’ve got a problem with that, sit down and talk with the other parent; don’t use your child to express that issue. And don’t assume that, because you have Christian values, does not mean the other family is destructive; because often in divorce, there’s a difference in value systems.
Ron: If the tone is speaking truth in love, then you’re gracious about the other home—you’re kind and respectful in your tone about the people in the other home—you can have a difference of values, and you can explain that. It’s very different when you say: “Our values are better, because we love Jesus,” “…because of this,” “…because of that. Therefore, you should reject them,”—that’s the nature of what you’re saying.
That’s very destructive, and ironically enough, just shows that you don’t live your own values. [Laughter] I think that’s a message that a lot of Christian people really need to take to heart. Just because you espouse those Christian values, doesn’t give you the right to be malicious in how you deliver or speak about those values in the other home.
Dave: We’ve been listening here, on FamilyLife Today, to a FamilyLife Blended podcast that Ron Deal had a conversation with Mary Jeppsen.
I tell you, Ron, that last thought—I lived that—watching my single mom talk about my dad’s life. His life was not representing Christ; and when I would go down to see him, my mom had to juggle this: “He’s going to have girlfriends,” “He’s going to go out.” That was not part of my life with my mom.
I remember her coaching me, as a young 12-year-old/13-year-old boy, to just be careful. And somehow, I remember she did it with grace. Man, she could have ripped him pretty badly; she actually did it honorably. But I knew I had my antennae up, because my mom prepared me.
Ron: We all face situations with our kids, where we send them into the world; you know? They get to be teenagers, and social media brings that right in through their phone these days; and we have to equip our children to understand the world’s values and the Christian values that we want them to live by.
Some people, in the case of your mom, the world is dad’s house. For her to season her words and her teaching to you with grace is what it’s all about. I really cringe when Christian people have this spiritual one-up hubris that says—“Because we’re Christian; they’re not…” “Because we go to this church, and they go to that church, you should listen to us,”—and they’re just exuding pride; and then, expecting their children to not see that pride.
I think the irony is, in that moment, you’re really not demonstrating the humility of Christ; and I think you’re losing your voice with your children. You’re making it harder for them to embrace your values. Don’t elevate yourself just because you believe you have the right truth. Does that make sense?
Dave and Ann: Yes.
Ron: That’s the delicate space here. Yes, teach truth—yes, say in effect, there’s a judgement how they believe/what their morals are—I think you simply say, “But this is what we believe…” It’s very much like what you’re going to do when children go to other homes and engage the world with their friends. Most parents wouldn’t speak horribly ill of: “You’re going to your friend’s house. Be careful because their parents are going to go to hell.” You wouldn’t present it like that.
Ann: I hope not!
Ron: But Christian people, who have a lot of pain and hurt over a divorce, from a former spouse, will do that; and they shouldn’t. That’s where this forgiveness piece comes in; that’s where the letting go, and acting divorced piece comes in. Now, it’s really living your values in front of your children; so that, what you’re teaching them feels more acceptable.
Dave: Yes, I’ll tell you: there’s a lot of great wisdom in this podcast with Mary Jeppsen. You’ve only heard a portion of it, so go ahead and get the entire podcast; listen to it, and share it with others.
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron Deal on FamilyLife Today. We’ve been listening to clips from the FamilyLife Blended podcast, episode 69 with Dr. Mary Jeppsen. You can hear the rest of the podcast episode by searching for FamilyLife Blended wherever you get your podcasts. Or you can get the link in today’s show notes at FamilyLifeToday.com.
If you’re interested in becoming a better coparent—and who wouldn’t be?—you’ll want to know about Blended & Blessed®. It’s our live event and livestream just for couples in stepfamilies. The event is coming up next April, on the 29th. The best news is you don’t even have to leave home to attend. You can learn more under the show notes section of FamilyLifeToday.com.
Tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson talk about how small issues in marriage can easily turn into bitterness, anger, and an overall feeling of constantly being offended. We hope you’ll join us for that tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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