What to do when co-parenting with your ex turns toxic

Two parents arguing while boy covers his ears

Toxic co parenting: now if that isn’t an oxymoron if I ever heard one. After all, co-parenting means working together to do what’s best for your child, right? As a family law attorney, I regularly hear complaints from clients about disagreements with their child’s other parent. From general “my ex refuses to co parent” stories to grievances about an ex manipulating visitation schedule guidelines and more. Has your co-parenting journey turned down a toxic road? Here’s how to get back on track.

In the early stages of a child custody battle? Be proactive

One of the best ways to avoid a toxic co parenting situation is to work with an experienced divorce attorney to create a child custody and visitation agreement that sets boundaries and includes remedies to address any valid concerns you have about the other parent’s potential behavior or actions.

That’s why we believe it is essential to have a lengthy discussion with clients to identify key issues and trigger points between the two parents. For example, if you know that the other parent isn’t good about sharing information, we could include provisions in the custody order giving you the right to have access to that information.

One common co-parenting issue that comes up is a parent withholding medical information from other parent. If it’s important to you to have equal access to information about your child’s medical care, then your attorney should make sure your agreement gives you the right to access medical information. If you want to receive a 48-hour notice of a medical appointment so you can make arrangements to be there, you could include that provision in your orders as well.

The point here is you need to make your concerns clear to your attorney so he or she can make sure to include provisions to address those concerns, as well as consequences the other parent may face if they don’t abide by those provisions.

Even with provisions in place, don’t some parents still break the rules?

Yes. However, when you make expectations clear and both parents have a well-defined roadmap—so they know what rules to follow—that reduces the likelihood for toxicity later. Now, the other parent does need to read and understand their custody orders, which isn’t always the case, but at least you would have provisions in your orders that will be enforceable in court.

Keep in mind, that you should be reasonable with your requests regarding child custody, visitation schedules and child support in Texas—because you will need to come to an agreement with the other parent or convince the judge the provisions you request are warranted. The judge will only agree to requested orders if they are in the best interest of the child.

When pinpointing key issues with a client, it’s also important for the attorney to determine if those issues are “real.” A lot of people operate with a fear mentality, where they’re afraid their ex is going to do something to their child but there is no valid evidence to support those fears.

The reality is, and I tell clients this all the time, we can’t lock up criminals because we think that they’re going to commit another crime. We have to address things as the circumstances arise unless a valid threat exists. And what I hear a lot is, “Okay, do I have to wait until my child gets hurt?”

That’s why we put provisions in place regarding possession, access, time and counseling, among others. However, if you’re living in fear that isn’t justified and feeling anxious all the time, you could be the one who ends up fueling a toxic co parenting environment.

What if you’re struggling to co-parent under existing custody orders?

We hear all sorts of complaints about inappropriate co parenting. Clients tell us they have issues with parental alienation, harassment imposed on them by the other parent, claims of the other parent using the child as a pawn or failure to comply with custody orders. Following are a few tips for handling these toxic co parenting issues. 

Parental alienation: There are two types of parental alienation, passive and direct, both of which can make co-parenting difficult, and even worse, compromise the relationship between parent and child. When one parent is openly talking bad about the other parent in front of the child, calling that parent a jerk, alcoholic, psychotic, dangerous or another derogatory term, that’s direct alienation.

Passive parental alienation is more subtle, where the other parent slowly plants seeds of doubt about the other parent. And as we said in our past blog—How parental alienation affects child custody outcomes in Texas—passive alienation also involves NOT planting reinforcing seeds of love about the other parent (see examples in the aforementioned blog).

What can you do about it? If you believe parental alienation by your ex is occurring and want the court to alter your current custody agreement, you will need to provide evidence that the alienation has occurred. This may include evidence of complete conversations that prove the alienation or evidentiary statements from a counselor or parenting coordinator who has evaluated the situation. Your attorney can guide you on evidence gathering and how to get a counselor or coordinator involved.

Harassment by an ex that makes co-parenting difficult: If your child’s other parent is legitimately harassing you, making verbal threats, showing up at your place of work uninvited, leaving harassing voicemails or text messages or messaging you through a court ordered co-parenting website like My Family Wizard or Talking Parents harassment of that nature could be a punishable offense under the law. Harassment charges in Texas range from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on the nature and severity of the crime.

What can you do about it? Gather evidence of the custodial or non custodial parent harassment and speak with your attorney immediately. He or she can help you take steps to press charges and modify your custody orders if warranted.

Ex using the child as a pawn in an effort to manipulate or harass you: If your complaint is my ex is harassing me by using our child, that could tie into parental alienation and/or be a situation where the child is put in the middle to enable the other parent to sidestep the custody orders.

For example, the other parent may promise the child a fun-filled trip to Disneyland for spring break, when it’s your turn to have the child during that time. Of course, the child is super excited to go to the Magic Kingdom, so you look like the bad guy for saying no. Whether the other parent is deliberately trying to make your life miserable or simply wants to treat your kid to a great vacation, they are out of line.

What can you do about it? While we encourage parents to be flexible with their exes when possible, it’s really important to set clear boundaries at the outset of your custody negotiations and follow your custody orders and visitation schedule as closely as possible afterward. Again, if we foresee the potential for this type of manipulation when preparing our client’s custody agreement, we will include injunctions in the orders to help prevent such actions from occurring.

Ex failing to comply with custody orders and visitation schedule. When we hear clients complain of an ex manipulating visitation schedule requirements, we often find out it’s been going on for a while, and many times the client is guilty of not following the schedule as well. If that is the case in your situation, you’re not going to find a judge who will sympathize with you and enforce orders against your ex because you’re not following rules either.

If, on the other hand, you’ve kept your side of the street clean and you can prove your ex consistently keeps your child longer than allowed or doesn’t show up to pick up your child when they’re supposed to, most child custody lawyers will say you have a legitimate reason to file for a custody modification.

What can you do about it? If your scenario involves the slippery slope of both parties getting lax about following the custody orders or visitation schedule and you want to get back on track, it’s time to sit down for an honest conversation with your ex. While this can be difficult in a toxic co parenting situation, using a non-confrontational approach could help.

You might start by saying, “We’re getting off script here, and I don’t want to get into an argument with you. I definitely want to try to work to get back to where we were, but we need to clearly draw the lines again.” If your ex isn’t open to a discussion, then you need to start cleaning up your side of the street, which means abiding by the rules, even if he or she won’t.

Once you can show that you’re in compliance (or you have been all along) but your ex is withholding possession or taking the child around bad third parties or whatever the case may be, then it will be easier to go back to court for an enforcement against your ex. That enforcement could require he or she goes to jail, pay attorney fees and fines, gets restricted access, loses certain rights and duties, or whatever is appropriate in your case, should they fail to comply in the future.

Co-parenting isn’t easy, we can help you take legal steps

At the Sisemore Law Firm, our child custody lawyers get it, co-parenting with someone who hurt you or wants to make your life miserable isn’t easy. If you’re preparing to divorce and anticipate a rocky child custody battle or your child’s other parent isn’t abiding by your existing orders in Texas, we’re here to help!

To schedule a thorough, confidential case review and strategy session with our founder attorney Justin Sisemore, please call our Fort Worth law office at (817) 336-4444 or connect with us online.

Photo Source: Canva.com

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