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Rules of Engagement for the Separated and Divorced

I am a licensed professional counselor. My practice focus is in general counseling, depression, anxiety, couples, custody issues, and LGBTQ.


Separation and divorce are difficult for any couple. When there are children involved, they must be protected from the negative sentiments that their parents may be holding for each other. The children are fully aware that there is stress and pain between Mommy and Daddy, and while this cannot be totally hidden, it can be controlled by the adults. Children become the major point of contact for the separated or divorced couple, and as such, special care is needed to insure that these interactions are as low stress as possible, not just for the children, but for the adults as well.

In order to achieve the end of helping the children to be as comfortable as possible in these situations, parents can agree (together or separately) to use a ‘Terms of Engagement’ when they are interacting concerning the children. There is a useful sample below, and a rationale for why each one is on the list. It should be noted that these terms are most effective when both parties use them, but can still be very effective if only one party uses them. In fact, even when only you use them, you eventually press the other party to change their behaviors. At the very least, you are doing the right thing, and taking control of what you can to not only help your child, but to help you to genuinely emotionally divorce from your ex-spouse.

Never Triangulate the Child

‘Triangulation’ means that the parents use the child as a messenger between them: “Tell your father to pick you up at school tomorrow, I can’t.” Triangulation is never a good thing, even if a family is intact. It places undue stress on a child. If you have something to say to the child’s other parent, speak to them in person, on the phone, or via email or text.

Avoid All Unnecessary Contact

If an issue can wait for a weekly email or phone call, let it wait. Make a list of things that needed to be spoken about for co-parenting in the weekly call. Email contact is best, as it gives both parties the ability to avoid face-to-face or voice contact, which can trigger old emotions and spark disagreements easier. Save phone contact for emerging or emergency situations.

Weekly Contact

Set a mutually agreeable time for a weekly phone call—or better yet, weekly email exchange—to discuss any co-parenting issues. Even if there are no outstanding issues, have the contact and relate to the other parent how the child is doing in general, and how their school and other activities are going, as well as the good stuff the child is doing.

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The reason to have weekly contact despite no issue is to learn to share the positive things as well as the problem-based things about the child with the other parent. It also keeps the rhythm of contact in place for when it is needed. The child learns that their parents are co-parenting, and this decreases the chances of the child becoming manipulative in the situation.

Never Discuss History

The only fair game conversation should be about the child, never about the couple history or who is not doing what. If other things need to be discussed, like finances, this should be done at another time. Don’t mix up your parenting with your couple issues! Following this rule reduces the emotional upset that talking about other things can spark.

The intention of weekly contact is for the child to know that their parents are co-parenting. If you get off the phone or the computer and you are in an upset or highly stressed emotional state, the child will recognize this, and children then feel that since Mommy and Daddy were talking about the child, the child is to blame for the parent’s pain. Should the other party begin to speak about issues other than the child, tell them politely that you are ending the conversation and give them a time when you will speak to them again.

Keep Your Emotions in Check

You know your ex very well, and they know you just as well. When either of you escalate emotion, or ‘poke and dig’ at each other when in contact, it is of course designed to get an emotional response.

Commit yourself to follow the rule of keeping your emotions in check, and not giving any negative expressions during contact. Even if the other party does not do this, you will be better off if you can train yourself to do this. After all, hasn’t that other person caused you enough pain and frustration? Why let it continue?

The best way to extinguish the other party’s ‘poke and dig’ is to ignore it and do not reward it with any emotional expression. If you discipline yourself to do this, over time, even if they continue to ‘poke and dig’, it will no longer affect you emotionally, and actually contribute to your healing process.

Recognize the ‘Bait’

You and your ex know exactly what buttons to push, and what topics or attitudes serve as ‘bait’ to get each of you off into an argument. Learn what ‘bait’ they are using on you, then self discipline to ignore the bait. If you can’t seem to ignore the bait, get some counseling to help you to learn to do that.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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