A blog from our guest blogger, Teresa Lodato, CPCC, Founder of Becoming Aware®
People who know my ex-husband often ask me how I managed to create such an amazing co-parenting relationship with such a difficult person. I laugh inside every time someone says this because he’s not a “difficult person,” he’s toxic! Navigating negotiations with my ex-husband feels more like a chess match where I am constantly having to think two, three, or more moves ahead to navigate “reasonableness” with someone who doesn’t seem to know what that word means. I’ve had a lot of experience co-parenting with toxic people. My current husband and I share a daughter with his ex-girlfriend who is toxic, and professionally I help other adults navigate co-parenting with toxic people as well. Here is what I have learned:
1) Knowledge is Power!
As I learned watching SchoolHouse Rock as a child, knowledge is power. Understanding that toxic people lack self-awareness, think everything is always someone else’s fault, and lack empathy, helps you to know with whom you are dealing. As anyone skilled in negotiations will tell you – when it comes to adversarial bargaining, you want to negotiate the process. This is critical because you will never be on the same page in negotiations with a toxic person. Knowing they will never change enables you to stick to what is important and not get carried away by emotion or tactics they may use. This relieves you of any stress you may feel to be giving or empathetic. The negotiations become a business decision, no emotion, only the goal of an outcome where your children are the winners.
2) Get Some Rest.
This one usually gets questioning stares, rolling eyes or looks of panic. “How can I rest when (the other co-parent) is causing me so much stress?”. Well my friend, that is precisely why rest is needed! No matter who you are, stress and good decisions do not tend to go hand in hand. When under stress, the human brain doesn’t communicate well with its prefrontal cortex, where access to high level functioning occurs. So, the most important first step to take is to calm your overstressed brain and body down so you can access all the tools you have available to you. You are going to need them!
3) Plan Your Encounters.
Planning is important because you want to make sure every negotiation you have will not only leave you unscathed, but with your children’s best interests met. Negotiations with toxic people require strategy. You need to have considered your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), listen actively, ask good questions, search for smart tradeoffs, be aware of anchoring bias (the person who makes the first demand sets the stage for the negotiation), present options so the other parent feels like they are in control (key for a toxic personality type!) as well as planning for contingencies, to again appease their sense of control. Enter your negotiations knowing what you can do to make your toxic ex feel like they have the upper hand or are in control and you are likely to walk away feeling less battered and bruised than you normally do.
4) Know Your Values.
Values are important because they are critical in making healthy decisions that are aligned with who you are and what is really important, your children.
5) Remember When You’ve Overcome.
Evidence of how you have handled stressful events in the past is critical to help your brain tap memories where you have been successful. This helps you to feel confident and more neutral so you negotiate from a calm, clear headed space.
6) Get Solid Guidance.
Good advice is wisdom, lessons from others who have navigated these waters themselves. Ask questions of people who have weathered the storm before you. Ask what worked and what didn’t work, then consider how different options will play out with your toxic co-parent.
7) Trust Yourself.
Some people say that trust must be earned, but I think trust must be learned. When you have experienced relational trauma, trusting can be hard. Learning to trust yourself by listening to your body, calming your stress response, practicing presence exercises, all help you to be in the moment, so you have access to the highest amount of brain functioning possible. Thankfully being calm and listening to your body is inherent in practicing presence, so aim to regularly practice presence exercises so you learn to trust yourself during stressful encounters. The gift of presence is that you become aware of subtle cues a toxic person cannot mask, which empowers you to see them clearly and make decisions from a place of confidence and authority. Toxic people hate that. They much prefer you to be indecisive, insecure, and unstable so you don’t catch on to the control and manipulation tactics they are keen on using.
Dealing with a toxic co-parent can be one of the most challenging relationships you will ever have to navigate; and yet it is one of the most vital because protecting your children’s wellbeing is critically important. There are so many ways a toxic co-parent can attempt to control and manipulate your life, so if you are struggling to manage your relationship, please find yourself a trusted professional therapist or coach who specializes in relational trauma. Having someone to ground you, provide you tools and resources, as well as remind you of how incredibly powerful and capable you are of dealing with your toxic co-parent can mean the difference between being “hoovered” back into the cycle of abuse or living freely. Life will get better, at some point, but until then make sure you are prepared for the battles headed your way. The more aware and stronger you become the less of a target you will be to the toxic co-parent. You’ve got this!
Teresa guides stressed out adults and teens to navigate the complexities of relational trauma and the chronic health challenges that accompany stress, burnout, and betrayal. For more information about the transformational work she does, please visit: http://www.teresalodato.com