The Co-Parenting Status Quo: How It Can Keep Us From Moving Forward

October 12th


Co-parenting Status-Quo

Have you ever heard of the “status quo bias?” Researchers first coined this term in 1988 to describe the natural human tendency to maintain present states or conditions- even when they’re negative. This phenomenon explains some of our relationship behavior; we often feel safer with things staying as they are, even when we’re not happy, rather than stepping out of our comfort zone to change. Do you notice this in your co-parenting? Many parenting partners get stuck in the same old dynamics day after day, essentially choosing to accept the status quo rather than move forward. Before those days become years of frustration, let’s explore this concept and see how to counteract it to improve our co-parenting relationship.

The Gist

  • The status quo bias refers to our natural preference to maintain our current state of affairs rather than change them- even when we’re dissatisfied. Researchers who have studied this bias found that it plays out in all aspects of our lives- including our relationships.
  • Parenting partners sometimes internalize the belief that co-parenting is supposed to be very hard. They may also be dealing with resentment or other unresolved issues from the past. These factors can make them feel stuck in a negative pattern in their relationship.
  • Maintaining an unhealthy co-parenting “status quo” can have serious physical, emotional, and mental health consequences for parenting partners and their children, and can impede their growth and satisfaction.
  • You can conquer the status quo through self-awareness and reflection. Examine your life and co-parenting behavior in detail, get comfortable with questioning yourself, and be open to fresh ideas and feedback from others. Allow yourself to envision your co-parenting “ideal” and set goals for yourself.

What is the “Status Quo?”:

At Koh-Parenting, we often explore the concept of conflict and how it can be an inevitable part of co-parenting. We do this to normalize the idea that all people struggle from time to time, so that you feel less alone in your challenges. But what we don’t aim to normalize is the idea that co-parenting has to stay that way!

In today’s society, co-parenting gets painted in a negative light. Most of what you hear people talk about, see online on social platforms, or even read or watch in the media, portrays a high-conflict situation between two exes fighting to coexist. This presentation is so pervasive that it sometimes warps our perspective and expectations. We begin to accept an unhealthy, unhappy dynamic as the “status quo” in co-parenting relationships. We may even assume there’s no real way out of this dissatisfying scenario.

Once we have internalized this belief, we may then go on to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, we expect that co-parenting is going to be miserable, and we’ll never get along easily with our ex, and then act in a manner to make it so. And once we have nestled in to this behavior pattern, we get comfortable there… even when we know that it doesn’t feel good.

This doesn’t seem to make any rational sense, right? But it does make some sort of biological sense regarding our adaptive skills. We humans are wired to (a) seek understanding of our world, so that we can “crack the code” and know what to do to survive and (b) use as little energy as possible so that our tank is full in emergency, “life or death” situations. The “status quo” bias fulfills these two goals; it gives us a quick formula for interpreting situations or people (in this case: “Co-parenting = hard, stressful, fighting’) and allows us to coast by with little effort (since we’re not trying to change anything about it).

The “status quo” bias also buffers us from risk and allows us to “save face.” Challenging our habits or assumptions might feel like admitting that we’re “wrong,” which damages our ego and causes us pain. And if we were to take a step further and actually do something differently, there’s a chance we might fail. Our self-protective mechanisms step in, and the status quo takes over. You can read more about the status quo bias here.

When the “Status Quo” Has You Under Its Spell:

Most people find themselves “stuck in a rut” at one point; it can happen to anyone, in any aspect of life. Here are some signs that you’re entrenched in the co-parenting “status quo:”

  • You don’t speak up about aspects of your custody agreement/schedule that don’t work well for you.
  • You don’t speak up about something that your parenting partner does or says that bothers you.
  • You see your parenting partner struggling with something with your child but don’t find any ways to help.
  • You’d like to have a more friendly pattern of interaction with your parenting partner when you do see each other, but you clam up and don’t say anything.
  • Your child has been talking about missing time with all of you together but you don’t try to brainstorm ways you could make this happen. You rule out the idea of doing things jointly because you’ve decided that your family time has to end along with the romance (which, by the way, isn’t true! You can still find ways to spend time together peacefully).
  • You resist getting support for yourself (or your child) to process your feelings about the separation or divorce or co-parenting in general.
  • You find yourself shutting down anyone’s ideas or suggestions - because “what’s the point?,” “that won’t work for us- maybe for other people but not us”.
  • You have your own ideas for changes but you struggle to follow through, or procrastinate, or find excuses not to take action.
  • You continually badmouth your ex or rehash old arguments.
  • You have established a pattern that financial support and time with the other parent must go hand-in-hand. You withhold time with your child if your ex hasn’t been providing monetary assistance.
father talking with daughter

Status Quo in Co-Parenting: Coasting versus Crashing

Realistically speaking, the status quo does serve a purpose. During times of stress (mental, physical, or financial struggles, health or career setbacks, etc.), your resources may be depleted and the best that you can do in your co-parenting is survive. In this case, sticking with the status quo can help you conserve energy.

However, there will likely come a time when hanging on to the same old pattern in your co-parenting could impede your family’s functioning. Operating on autopilot may close your eyes to any opportunities for improvement, or, even worse, to ways that your co-parenting behavior causes harm to others (yourself, your ex, your child). An example would be if you and your ex frequently rearrange your custody times at the last minute to suit your respective schedules but don’t notice how upsetting and confusing this is for your child.

Furthermore, the “status quo” can rob you of your sense of agency; if you’re stuck in your current dynamic, you may simultaneously feel like you lack control over your life, which can lead to frustration and resentment.

Ultimately, you, your parenting partner, and your child may end up frozen in time, unable to move on from your past or form healthy relationships in the future.

Beyond the Status Quo:

If you’re wondering how to shake things up and get out of this rut, we have some daunting and promising news for you. The daunting part is that stepping out of the “status quo” typically requires extra effort and can bring discomfort. The promising part is that despite the degree of difficulty, you DO have the power to change things for the better- and once you do, you’ll feel more confident in shaking things up in the future. Here are our top tips for moving beyond the status quo:

  • Practice mindfulness and self-reflection. Awareness is a prerequisite for change. But we humans can get so good at functioning that we don’t even realize what we’re doing from day to day. Many habits or thoughts are so deeply ingrained in us that we respond automatically. Develop your mindfulness skills to slow things down and become conscious of what’s happening. Conduct regular bodily check-ins: are you holding tension anywhere? How are you feeling? What thoughts are going through your head? You can keep a log or journal to help you track behavior and analyze patterns.
  • Get comfortable with questioning the status quo. Take apart your life and your co-parenting routines and ask yourself, “Why do we do things this way?” and “Is this working?” or “Does it feel right?” This might mean revisiting your parenting plan or agreement, if you have one. On the flip side, for real change to happen you’ll also need to give your parenting partner and your child permission to question things as well. Work on welcoming their (respectful) feedback about how things are going without getting defensive.
  • Outline, in direct terms, what you WANT. One of the reasons we get stuck in the “status quo” is that it gives us a recipe for what to do. So when we seek to upend that status quo, we’ll need a clear plan to replace it with. We can’t just talk about what we don’t like about how things are; instead, we need to draw a detailed picture of what we want to see happen instead. Outline concrete, actionable goals for your co-parenting; ideally, you would do this with your parenting partner. For example, let’s say your “status quo” has been that you both drop your child for custody exchanges without even getting out of the car or speaking to each other- but this interaction feels cold and unfriendly. Your goal could be “Each of us will escort our child into each others’ homes for visitation and spend ten minutes talking before we leave.”
  • Reframe changes in a positive light. Mindset can be hugely influential. When we perseverate on the hard parts about changing- we’ll be uncomfortable, we might fail, it’ll sap a lot of our energy- we might set ourselves up for failure, or talk ourselves out of even trying. Instead, try to focus on the positives: changes are opportunities for growth, they build resilience, mistakes are a normal part of trying something new, etc. Engage in positive self-talk; you can even repeat an encouraging mantra (like “I can handle this” or some other suggestions that you can find in our learning guide, Essential Mental Health Mantras for Co-Parents). Remember also that as you’re muddling through these changes, you’re modeling healthy behavior for your child.
  • Give it a try, starting with baby steps. Your goal may be to change the “status quo” of your co-parenting relationship, but that doesn’t mean you have to start there. Even switching up something completely unrelated- such as trying a new restaurant or taking a workout class you’ve always wanted to try- builds confidence that you can apply to other areas of your life. You can also start small, setting a goal for yourself that you KNOW you can reach and moving up from there. For example, let’s say you and your parenting partner would love to take joint vacations with your child and your significant others one day. You could start by agreeing to sit together at your child’s soccer games, and then set loftier goals as you get more comfortable.
Going it Alone:

The suggestions we’ve given above take for granted that your parenting partner will be amenable to making changes, together. However, we know that isn’t always the case. In fact, we often find that in co-parenting relationships with the greatest need for change, at least one partner is unwilling to do so. If you’re finding yourself in this situation, we’d like to offer the following words of encouragement:

  • Do it anyway! As we’ve said before, the only person you have control over is you. So don’t let anyone else stop you! Embrace your freedom and forge ahead with whatever changes you wish to make to realize your dreams.
  • Pivot and prioritize. Readjust your perception of your parenting partner and try to embrace the positives. For example, perhaps you and your ex won’t be planning joint holidays anytime soon, but you can appreciate that you’re civil to each other and both great parents to your child. You can also prioritize your co-parenting goals; maybe you won’t be able to accomplish all that you had hoped for with your co-parent, but you can find a few things that you’re both comfortable changing.
  • Embrace the power of “yet.” Remind yourself that things can and will change! You may be hitting a wall with your ex on a particular issue for now… but that doesn’t mean you give up on healthy co-parenting altogether! You and your parenting partner will evolve and adapt as time passes, and your relationship will also. Keep hope alive!

Push Past the Status Quo, Gain a Healthier Relationship

Growth and Comfort do not coexist.

This quote perfectly captures what it’s like to push past the status quo to try new things in life. When it comes to co-parenting, making change is hard… but so is standing still. At Koh-Parenting, we encourage you to have the uncomfortable conversations and to challenge yourself; on the other side, you can find the healthy co-parenting of your dreams.

Use this post to get you started, and let us know how it goes; we’re here to help guide you through!

Do you struggle to set boundaries with the people in your life? Next week’s post is for you! We’ll be discussing the challenges of establishing boundaries in co-parenting relationships. Be sure to check it out!

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By Koh-Parenting Services LLC

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