Splitsville: How To Re-Establish Trust In A Co-Parenting Relationship

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Welcome to Splitsville. This weekly column will focus on parenting after a divorce, break-up or one-night stand that didn’t end like a Katherine Heigl movie.

Last week, we heard from a reader that I’m very happy we gave a pseudonym to. John* admitted that he was definitely not Father Of The Year when his kids were first born. In fact, you could call him a bit of a disappointment. He was an absent father, who had a hard time growing up and left his ex to take care of their two children. Understandably, this type of person doesn’t normally illicit much sympathy. I don’t think that he was looking for any. But John was looking for advice on how to re-establish his relationship with her children, and by extension, earn the trust of their mother.

“We have a 3 yr old and a 4 yr old. Ive finally found a real job and Im able to provide better for my family. And I know that I want to be more involved in my kids life. But my ex just isnt interested in hearing about it. Shes mad that I havent been there from the start and I know that she has a right to be. But I really do want to see my kids more and help out more. I mean, I get normal visits. But I want to be there for my little girls dance recitals. I want her to tell me when that stuff is. I want to help plan birthday parties instead of hearing my kids chatter on about them the weekend after. Im trying. But how do I tell my ex that Im really serious now?’

I have to admit, this situation sounds a little familiar to me. Not because I’ve been in John’s position, but because I’ve been the mother who never had a choice to grow up and take responsibility. I’ve been the single mom whose ex is too busy going to bars and sleeping til noon to see his child. (I’m not saying that this was John’s problem, it was just part of the reason for my issues.) And I’ve been the mom hoping that my ex would somehow understand that his beautiful kids need him to be there no matter what, without fail.

I know what it’s like to wish that your ex could be better, for your children’s sake.

That’s why I think it’s so important not just to condemn parents like John for their past mistakes, but to show them how they can earn back the respect of their co-parent and the trust of their children. I think that the best way to help is not reminding them of all your past grievances, but by showing them how they can make a difference now. If we’re looking out for our child’s best interest, we have to encourage absent parents to get back in the picture.

Here’s some wonderful advice for John, some given by our readers and others that I feel strongly about. John, I hope that it helps. And I hope that you get to be the dad your kids deserve.

  • Don’t just focus on the fun stuff. Our commenter Heather suggests not just attending recitals and birthday parties. That’s not what parenting is all about. There are doctors appointments and school meetings that primary custody parents are responsible for. Showing that you’re ready for the responsibility of being a dad means helping out with more than fun games.
  • Admit your past mistakes. This dad obviously realizes that he’s messed up, or else he wouldn’t be writing in to a parenting site asking for advice. But have you sat down with the mother of your kids and said, “I’m sorry that I wasn’t there when I should have been. I don’t expect you to forgive, but I to say that I know I was wrong.” As a single mother, one of the hardest parts for me was the loneliness. I felt like most people couldn’t relate to or understand my situation. Your ex spent years feeling like she was in this alone and being angry at you for that. Let her validate those feelings by admitting that you made a mistake. It’s the first step in taking responsibility and it might be the only way that she can move on.
  • Ask for your ex’s advice. Another commenter, Anglea, had a lot of wonderful suggestions. I think it’s important to compliment your kids’ parent and let them know that they’re doing a great job. One step better, ask them how to be more effective. Ask for their discipline guidelines and tips. I guarantee that your ex is going to happy that you acknowledge her hard work and ecstatic about the idea of aligning your parenting techniques. Whether it’s easy to face or not, the custodial parent will know more about your children than anyone else. Showing that you’re ready to learn will help her see that you’re trying to be a better parent.
  • Keep your commitments. Every mother out there is screaming, “Keep Your Commitments!” Have you ever had to tell an excited child who just wants to see their daddy, whose waiting on the stairs with their coat on, that daddy can’t make it after all? Have you ever seen their face fall into disappointment and possibly tears. Because it’s heart-wrenching. There’s no other adjective for it. Don’t ever make her do that every again.
  • Know that your actions speak louder than your words. Thank you Andrea for this bit of advice. John can talk until he’s blue in the face, but it won’t mean a whole lot without significant action to back it up. A dad looking to re-establish his relationship needs to make a plan of action and then stick to it. This isn’t going to be easy and it won’t happen overnight. But if you keep showing that you’re committed to your kids, your ex will hopefully open up.
Once trust has been broken, it’s difficult to build again. Just like repairing any relationship, two adults co-parenting have to have mutual respect and trust. John wants to work on becoming a better dad, and I think we need to commend him for that. But time will tell how serious he is. Best of luck to John and his entire family.