The Power of Boundary-Setting in Co-Parenting

October 19th


Coparenting Boundaries

Got boundaries? You should! Healthy co-parenting relies on mutual respect, which is easier to achieve when both parenting partners clearly define what that means to them. To treat each other how we want to be treated, we need to know what those preferences are. At KohParenting, we understand that establishing boundaries can be challenging, but we also know how important they are to forming an effective co-parenting partnership. Read on to learn more about boundary-setting and how it can be useful in your relationships with your co-parent… and everyone else in your life!

The Gist

Relationship boundaries refer to invisible lines that help define our emotional or physical space. They set parameters for how we wish to be treated by other people.
Boundaries are especially useful when we’re flooded with emotions or struggling with our self-control because they remind us how to behave when we’re having a hard time thinking logically. At the same time, however, our emotions can also make it hard to maintain boundaries.
Boundaries are essential in co-parenting relationships. You and your ex are adapting and processing the transition from romantic to parenting partners, and this can be confusing. Clear boundaries spell out your expectations of yourselves and each other and make it easier for you to get along.
To set boundaries with your co-parent, first reflect on your own preferences. Then, work with your co-parent to review both of your expectations and set guidelines. Lastly, be sure to monitor those boundaries and handle any violations in a respectful but prompt manner.

Boundaries: A Balance of Emotions and Self-Control

Boundaries are essential in human relationships. Boundaries are also exceedingly difficult to maintain, especially when going from romantic partners to parenting partners. The reasons why it’s so tough to set boundaries are the same reasons they’re so important, and it all comes down to our emotions versus our self-control.

Our survival depends on our ability to read what’s happening to and around us and formulate a plan of action. Our brain, which plays a huge role in this, seeks coherent patterns in the information it gathers because they make it easier for it to do its job; if similar conditions predict similar outcomes, then it knows what to tell our bodies to do. For example, if we hear the roar of a lion, we know to run for our lives, or if we see smoke from a fire, we know to keep our hands away from the flame so that we don’t get burned. In both scenarios, our knowledge allows us to act quickly, without wasting precious time thinking about what’s going on or what to do.

Relationship issues

These judgment calls get more complicated when it comes to human interactions. Relationships aren’t always so clear-cut, and our emotions often take over. These emotions, while important and advantageous in their own right, can cloud our judgment and impede us from making logical choices. Our antidote to this? Structure. Rules. And boundaries.

Boundaries in relationships refer to invisible lines that define emotional or physical space. They govern how we interact with other people. Examples include:

  • How close we get to people when talking to them
  • The type and amount of physical contact
  • What types of questions we ask
  • What types of decisions we allow others to make for us or make on their behalf, etc.
  • What tone or language we use

Boundaries themselves are passive; they exist in our minds as we envision them ourselves or hear about them from other people. They don’t really mean much unless they’re enforced. But once we begin to get into setting boundaries, we turn them into tools for taking charge of our lives. Setting a boundary involves (a) awareness of one’s personal preferences, (b) communicating the expectation to others, and ( c) enforcing that boundary in real time. The process can be extremely empowering and can allow people a sense of agency over their lives.

However, honoring boundaries can be really, really difficult. We need them to help reign in our baser instincts, but those same strong urges and feelings also make it hard for us to adhere to them in many scenarios… including co-parenting relationships.

The Power of Boundaries in Co-Parenting

The end of a romantic relationship evokes a plethora of emotions. When childless people break up, they can usually limit their contact with their exes and give themselves time and space to heal. Co-parents, however, do not have that luxury; they must muddle through all those feelings AND so many new ones alongside their former partners as they parent their children. In this case, boundaries can act as a blueprint for them to follow as they work through the ins and outs of their new family dynamic.

But let’s say you and your ex get along well; does this information still apply to you? We’d say, YES! Suppose you and your partner would describe your separation as “amicable” or for whatever reason question the need for boundaries in your relationship. In that case, we’d encourage you to think a little deeper. At KohParenting, we find that sometimes couples underestimate the differences between their relationship as parenting partners and their relationship as romantic partners. They may believe they’ll transition seamlessly into their new roles as co-parents. However, these “seamless transitions” aren’t the norm.

Instead, even in the “friendliest” of situations, you may find it awkward or downright challenging to navigate things like how often you speak to each other, how open you are in discussing your personal life, how you handle new love interests or romantic partners, etc. Setting boundaries can avoid unnecessary conflict and hurt by anticipating some of these scenarios and scripting a response that will satisfy you both.

Sometimes boundaries in relationships take on a negative connotation- as if they’re synonymous with pushing people away or putting up walls. In truth, it IS important to be mindful of this extreme! Sometimes people can take them too far and end up creating barriers that impede their intimacy or connection with others. However, most of the time the idea of establishing boundaries signifies a positive change in your relationships. You will be set up to fail if you don’t understand your parenting partner’s expectations, and vice versa. Clarifying your boundaries with each other, on the other hand, enables you to both treat each other how you’d like to be treated… and this is the seed from which healthy, respectful co-parenting relationships grow.

Considerations for Boundary-Setting in Co-Parenting:

No co-parent wants to dive empty-handed into the deep waters of boundary-setting! There are some important things to consider beforehand so that you can define and enforce boundaries that feel authentic and helpful for you and your parenting partner. These include:

  • Personality: Are you introverted or extroverted? Do you have particular preferences regarding personal space or touch? You and your parenting partner must embrace each other’s preferences in these areas, even if they might differ.
  • Logistics: Things like your child’s age, your places of residence (do you live nearby? Or farther away?), your custody arrangements (does your child frequently transition back and forth between your households? Or does one parent have custody the majority of the time? How do you execute custody exchanges?
  • Culture: Our cultural background can influence how we define respect and the way we behave in relationships. Consider the messages you have received over the years from your culture and from the way you were raised. Do these align with how you wish to do things today?
  • Health: Your family’s wellbeing should dictate your decisions. What are each of your physical, emotional, and mental health needs at present? What can you and your parenting partner do to protect those needs? For example, if you are actively battling feelings of grief from your separation, you may need to set tighter boundaries in your interactions with your ex than you would if you felt more at peace with things.
  • Your Child’s Needs: You may be looking to set boundaries for yourself, or on behalf of your child; either way, those boundaries will impact both of you. Think about all of the other categories above (personality, logistical issues, culture, etc.) as they pertain to your child. What works best for him or her? Consider age and development and any physical, cognitive, or emotional needs.

Ready, Set, Boundaries!

  1. Reflect on your own personal preferences. Have you ever asked yourself what actually works best for you in relationships, what you like, or what you don’t like? You’re the only one who can answer these questions, and to do so, you’ll need to do some soul-searching.
  2. Think about your child’s preferences and what works best for him/her. Your child is at the heart of everything you and your parenting partner will do. Therefore, your child’s specific needs and personality will be paramount as you’re both making decisions regarding your family dynamic.
  3. Outline your boundaries with your parenting partner. Ideally, you would meet in person to do this, but if this isn’t possible or advisable, you could use alternate methods like phone or video chat. This discussion may feel awkward at first, but avoiding it altogether could make it feel even more so. You could say something as simple as “I’d like to talk about how we are going to co-parent together. Our relationship status has changed, and I think it would be helpful for us to talk about our expectations and preferences.”  
  4. Handle any boundary issues promptly and respectfully. Boundaries are meaningless if they’re not held. You want to send the message that you mean what you say, in order for others to honor your words. At times, you may decide that your needs have changed, and that’s ok! You may also find that certain things that were very important to you before no longer matter so much. But for those areas that are essential for you to feel respected, you’ll have to hold others accountable. If your co-parent violates a boundary, reiterate the expectation, talk about how your co-parent’s behavior makes you feel, and state what you plan to do about it.

Ex.:  You can say something like, “We both agreed not to discuss [x] in front of our daughter. When you start talking about it and getting loud with me, I feel uncomfortable and worry that it will make our daughter uncomfortable, too. I am going to leave now and we can pick a time when she’s not around to continue the conversation.”

NOTE: As always, we should mention here that if you and your parenting partner have a legal parenting agreement, you are required to follow that agreement or risk legal consequences. This agreement likely outlines some boundaries for both of you. If you feel that either of you struggles to adhere to any of those boundaries, or that you need to amend or add to them, you will need to do so through your legal team.

For a more detailed step-by-step guide on this process, check out our learning guide!
3-Step Guide to Boundary-Setting in Co-Parenting Relationships

Boundaries Build Better Relationships:

As Brene Brown once said, “Boundaries are not walls; they are bridges that connect us to healthier relationships.” As you embark on your co-parenting journey, you may sometimes feel like you’re in uncharted territory. By setting boundaries, you and your parenting partner can create a roadmap to a better place. Share this post with your co-parent and get on your way! 

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month! Next week, we’ll be dedicating our post to this important cause and its impact on co-parenting families. Stay tuned!

By Koh-Parenting Services LLC

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