The continued post- divorce acrimony that plays out in the arena of parenting is the probably the most aggravating and stressful part of divorce for all involved. Parents struggle with a sense of wanting to make this transition easy for their children but when left over marital issues continue to play out in the co parenting arena, the adults often throw up their hands in frustration. The continued conflict is worrisome as it is the fighting, not marital status, that hurts the kids.

So, here you are embroiled in a constant struggle of trying to play “nice.” Ideally we would all like co-parenting to be like silly sit-coms with mad-cap situations leading to easy going resolution. The parenting books tell us how it “should” go, but is it too idealistic to believe this is possible all, or even most, of the time? After all, if you had good conflict resolution with your former spouse, you might not have gotten divorced in the first place. Also, we need to consider that the crumbling of a marriage and the subsequent divorce process can be extremely hurtful- containing aspects of betrayal, unkindness and deception. The emotions are even stronger if there was abuse, addiction or cruelty. In those cases, can we really expect cooperation?

The courts are filled with cases of couples who do not comply, no less cooperate. Absent or late child support, bickering over visitation, battles about decisions ranging from major to minute plague post-divorce parents. In Atty Mues post on this site last week, he discussed what the courts can and cannot do. He also stated that in spite all our best efforts, cooperative co-parenting may not be possible.

And I agree. But does the improbability (or impossibly) of cooperation mean that all divorce families are sentenced to years of anguish, stress, anxiety and drama?  I hope not. However, we need a different model if we are to have peaceful co-existence.

In truth, there are people who do not WANT to play nice. Whatever the reasons-maybe left over acrimony and bitterness or perhaps as Atty Mues suggested a Personal Disorder such as Borderline (or Narcissicism), this may be the sad reality.

So rather than banging your head against the wall and spending gadzillions of dollars on therapists, attorneys, coaches, a Guardian ad litem, mediators and such, maybe it is time to consider a Parallel Parenting Plan.

Parallel Parenting derives its name from Parallel Play. When young children play together without interacting, this is parallel play. Think of two toddlers in a sandbox playing quietly side by side “doing their own thing” but without interaction. Trouble only ensues when one gets into another’s space and tries to mess with the other’s bucket and shovel.

While Cooperative Co-parenting depends on interaction, Parallel Parenting depends on minimal interaction between the parents. There is no illusions here–these folks don’t get along, can’t work together and are encouraged to keep their distance from each other.

So, what is involved in a Parallel Parenting Plan?

  1. Emotional Detachment-Separate your feelings about your marriage from your parenting. Deal with the other parent as if this were a business arrangement.
  2. A Detailed Parenting Plan-One with no room for ambiguity, negotiation or compromise. Everything is well defined. This includes day to day schedules and clearly spells out who will be responsible for haircuts, activities, school events. It  includes defined dates for birthday celebration, holidays , vacations, sick days, school vacations. Nothing will be negiotable. The plan can be renewable or revised after a year.
  3. Minimal Contact between the adults. Transfers from one house to another can take place at school, day care, a neighbor’s house. The less the adults see each other the less chance for negative interchanges.
  4. Strict Adherence to the parenting plan. Absolutely no deviation from the schedule except in emergency.
  5. No Interfering with the other parent’s style of parenting. You do your job, let them do theirs.
  6. Reliance on Technology— No texting or talking on the phone. Rely on e-mail or family wizard. They allow for mindful responses and create documentation.
  7. Verbal Communication– Only for “big” issues of health and education and then preferably with a third party present.
  8. A Guardian Ad Litem–Used to mediate and insure adherence to the agreement rather than explore how couples can better cooperate.
  9. Acceptance- For right now you cannot change the situation.

 The emphasis in this plan shifts from Cooperation with each other to Compliance with the legal contract. These may sound extremely rigid, but, in reality, your situation is out of control and needs some strict rules. Sometimes accepting what is impossible can help you focused on what is possible. This plan may not be forever- hopefully, the relationship will grow and develop, not unlike children themselves who eventually learn to interact and communicate. But for now, it may be simpler, less costly and less emotionally draining to simply accept this fact that Parallel Parenting is a viable alternative to banging your head against that unmovable, inflexible wall. The less stress you feel, the better off your children will be.

Currently, the popular model is Co-operative Parenting but it may not be the best solution for every family. All of us who care about families in transition need to constantly explore creative ways to support each unique post -divorce struggle. Pushing high conflict couples to adhere to a predetermined template can create more conflict rather than reduce it.

  Please share your post divorce parenting experience and how you felt about it. Are you someone who could have benefited from a Parallel Parenting Agreement? In your situation, what would have made it less stressful?


Donna F. Ferber, LPC, LADC is a psychotherapist in private practice and is the author of the award winning From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life: A Woman’s Journey through Divorce now available in Kindle format for $9.99 as well as in paperback. Click here to purchase.



  1. Chip Mues on the 03. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    I enjoy collaborating with you on divorce and parenting issues! Co-operative parenting just sometimes isn’t possible. The Parallel Parenting model can actually be liberating and reduce the acrimony with the Ex. Eliminating this friction should foster the positive emotional health of the kids. I commend you for discussing this model! Way to go Donna! Excellent post!

  2. Cindy on the 04. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    Seeing it on your blog makes me realize I am not the only one this approach did not work for. Thank you

  3. Laurie on the 04. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    I have definitely taken the parallel parenting route. Once I stopped trying to do things to be nice to benefit the kids (which it never did, it just modeled the art of acquiescing)parenting became a lot less stressful. Sure there are still bumps but far less. I hope newly divorced ppl can know that there is a way to parent your kids without giving yourself up.

  4. Wendy on the 05. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    Ooooh, this brings up a LOT of bad memories. I think the Parallel Parenting Plan is a great idea in theory, and for MOST people, it should cut down on friction. But, if one of the parents has an underlying and/or undiagnosed mental illness – borderline or otherwise(Oppositional Defiance Disorder), #2 could be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
    In the mind of the oppositional person might they not look upon #2 as a grand way to instigate more conflict? Look at all the opportunities for the ex NOT to comply. I know MY ex looked at it that way. The more constraints or guidelines that were given, the more ways he found not to comply. No one was going to tell him what to do.
    And, having lived that experience – there is absolutely NOTHING that the court can do about it. All those little non-compliances are just that; little annoyances that couples try to use the court to resolve. And the court did try to resolve this non-compliance issue in the first place by trying to have the couples participate in Parallel Parenting. Now we have come full circle.

  5. Alice on the 05. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    thanks for the article. it really helped me a lot.

  6. Sharon on the 06. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    I wish I had heard about parallel parenting a few years ago when I was struggling to co-parent. After spending thousands of dollars on attorneys, therapists, a guardian ad litem and having a thorough evaluation at family services, I tried to play “nice”. I tried because I was told it was in the “best interest” of my kids. As a result, I lived with continuous anxiety and stress that took a toll on me as well as my children.

    I decided that it was impossible to co-parent in my situation and found that the courts were of little help to me. If one parent has an undiagnosed personality disorder (or is a narcissist) and doesn’t want to cooperate with the you or with the courts, they don’t have to comply unless you are willing to pay thousands of dollars for psychological evaluations and have an in-house attorney to be sure your agreement is followed.

    By finally accepting these facts, I have developed my own parallel parenting plan to alleviate much of the stress on myself and on my children.

    Today, I am emotionally detached from my ex, and our communication is minimal. We rarely speak; occasionally email (his goes directly to my junk mail and I check it once in a while) and we communicate through text if necessary. I have no expectations from him so I am rarely disappointed. If there is any cooperation is it’s a pleasant surprise for all.

    I do have a therapist who helps the kids and I deal with different issues. My children have adjusted fairly well to our circumstances. They are able to empathize with other kids who are going through divorce and offer support. Kids are much more resilient than we know. They also know there is peace at home, no matter whose home they are in.

    Yes, my ex and I lead very separate lives; like strangers. We attend the kid’s activities at the same time but not with each other. I do not provide him with information that he is capable of obtaining on his own. If he is interested he will find out. I avoid all confrontation. I do not come to the door or answer the phone even when he insists. I never put myself in a situation where I feel I have been compromised. We are civil in front of the kids, and allow one another our time with our children with little interference.

    Parallel parenting is not the ideal situation but it works. Divorced couples are able to co-exist without confrontation resulting in less stress in their lives. The kids don’t exactly like it, but they don’t dislike it either. There is peace within the home. Teaching lifetime coping skills to our children is essential. Having a standing appointment with a family counselor is also advantageous. For me, it’s like having to deal with a “bully” in the sandbox.. I don’t have to play “nice” with him but I can still “play” in my corner of the sandbox as long as we don’t cross boundaries.

    • zam on the 28. Nov, 2017 remarked #

      how do you deal with ex if her husband doesnt want her to contact you by phone or meet.. how d you then do exchange? especially when school ro daycare is closed?

  7. Kari on the 08. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    Wendy, I completely agree with you. Fighting for so long trying to co-parent and being true to your beliefs on who you are is the hardest part.
    Believing the my ex has some sort of personality disorder is the worst part about the process bc he is so defiant about ANY recommendations myself or our counselor suggests. I’m in the phase of realizing that I might have to possibly parallel-parent and not allowing that as an ‘excuse’ for him. While I do think that in some cases its best, I’m still not 100% convinced it should be brought to the court system, because sometimes those things evolve into being viewed as a cop-out or excuse in the litigation process. The definition has the possibility of getting easily skewed and people might write it off as not willing to work on co-parenting first.

  8. Sharon on the 09. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    You have a good point about not being 100% convinced. I have gone to court several times and have learned some of process.
    Unfortunately you must document all of the efforts you make trying co-parent. Keep all communication with your ex in email format. This way you have a record of your conversations. Print it and file it in a binder. Make bulleted lists of their actions. Find therapists who are willing to talk to your attorney if it goes to court. To support your case you have to prove that you are in therapy, as well as the children. You are there because you are trying to work with someone is not cooperative. He really looks bad if you get therapy and he doesn’t. I found that having a full evaluation from Family Services to be to my advantage.
    Finally, keep doing the “right thing.” Your children will see it and his “colors” will eventually show. Be patient, it takes time and make a plan.

  9. Maria on the 10. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    I agree that working with an ex-spouse who is not co-operative is frustrating. I like the ideas brought forth in parallel parenting but the biggest obstacle I can see is that the other parent has to be agreeable to do even that much.
    In my case we spent time developing a parenting plan that was agreed upon and signed by both of us. Time was spent and careful consideration , at least on my part,to be sure our children would be cared for in an appropriate manner. My ex agreed to everything that was written in our divorce decree, but as we left the courtroom his first words alluded to the fact that he felt he could do whatever he wanted and that the courts did not need to know how we were or were not complying with the parenting plan.
    So what I am trying to get at is everything looks good on paper but if he just does not want to co-operate then what good is even this model of parenting if the other party could not give a hoot?
    The most sanity saving idea of this style of parenting is the detachment that you need to have to be able to live day to day and carry on with your own life independent of that uncooperative ex.
    Now that my children are 21 and 18 I have less contact and even more detachment from their father. A wonderful blessing for sure!!

  10. Chip Mues on the 15. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    Glad you facilitated such a great conversation on these difficult parenting issues. Nice job!

  11. Tiffany on the 31. Mar, 2012 remarked #

    Wow, so glad I found this article! Very helpful, thank you.

  12. Kandice on the 15. Nov, 2015 remarked #

    I am dealing with an ex that is extremely verbally abusive. I have been researching ways to have minimal contact with him, due to it being highly stressful to deal with him. I have some sense of relief after reading this, including the comment section. They were all helpful. Thank you

  13. Antionette on the 13. Feb, 2016 remarked #

    What do you do if the other parent my ex spouse leaves all communication with our child regarding school, medical etc? The ex spouse seems like he’s playing the parrell parenting because there isnt any co- parenting at all going on. I find this unacceptable and crazy!!

    • Donna Ferber on the 22. Feb, 2016 remarked #

      Try using family wizard. It is a program/app that gives parents the opportunity to communicate without having to talk with each other. It helps parents in crisis to co-parent with reduced conflict. Good luck!

  14. Bec on the 05. Jul, 2016 remarked #

    Some great advice here but what happens if you’re narc ex doesn’t comply with the parenting plan regarding sticking to specific days & times etc? My circumstances, we don’t have a legal document, just what we’ve agreed between us and written down, but my ex often doesn’t turn up for my 4 year old. She’s oblivious as it’s always been just me and her while he’s flitted in and out when it suits him, she rarely mentions him and I don’t make her aware that she’s supposed to go with him until he’s actually at my door so as not for her to be disappointed when he doesn’t show. I know he will break her heart as she grows up and it’s so hard to make the call between allowing him to continue flirting in & out or whether to put a stop to any contact, which I’m reluctant to do as I’m not convinced this is the right option. Im not in a financial position to apply for a court order, just wondering if anyone has any advice. Thanks

    • Donna Ferber on the 10. Jul, 2016 remarked #

      As long as he is active in his addiction, you are probably better off with his staying away of your child. This keeps her physically safe. It sounds like you are doing all the right things; not telling her of visitation ahead of time ,etc. Not sure he will break her heart when she is older. They don’t seem to have a relationship now; she won’t grieve for him but rather some idealized version. If she has other positive and consistent male role models in her life, that can be extremely helpful. Good Luck!

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