Parallel Parenting: You Cannot Co-Parent with a High-Conflict, Abusive and Crazy Ex

Many Shrink4Men coaching clients find it impossible to co-parent with their high-conflict, abusive, crazy, golden uterus and/or abusive personality disordered ex-wives and ex-girlfriends. In most cases, these men weren’t allowed to effectively co-parent while their relationships were still intact with their exes.

Their role as father was consistently undermined, devalued and challenged from the start. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that their former partners are unable to co-parent after breaking up or divorcing.

Crazy rarely changes. Well, actually, Crazy often becomes more crazy, demanding, needy, clingy, desperate, hostile, controlling, abusive, entitled, pathologically jealous/possessive and just plain cruel after the marriage ends. Many men end their relationships with Crazy because Crazy won’t control her emotions, won’t fight fair and won’t stop being abusive.

After men take themselves out of the direct line of fire, Crazy often uses the children to continue to control and abuse them by proxy. Oftentimes, this devolves into full scale parental alienation.

Many high-conflict/abusive personality disordered women badmouth their children’s father, alienate the children’s affection, deny access to the children and generally undermine dad. “You don’t have to listen to your father. Your father would leave us homeless and starving on the street if it wasn’t for me. Your dad doesn’t love us anymore.” You know, real mother of the year stuff.

Divorce doesn’t damage children. Parental conflict damages children.

Too many men stay in unhealthy, abusive relationships because they’re afraid divorce will harm the children or that their children will become targets of abuse if they’re not home to act as a buffer.

Research shows that this isn’t necessarily the case. While divorce may put children at more risk of developing relationship, academic and substance abuse problems, attributing the increased risk to divorce is misleading.

Exposing children to conflict — both in marriage and after divorce — is the biggest variable in predicting which children will adjust and which children will be at risk.

Philip M. Stahl, PhD (2000) explains:

If parents continue fighting after their divorce, children begin to exhibit more behavioral and emotional problems. When parents divorce, children hope the fighting will go away so that they can get some peace in their life. Many children might not mind the divorce if their parents would finally learn to get along better. After the divorce, children want peace in their lives, and they want the opportunity to love both of their parents without loyalty conflicts. Instead, when conflicts worsen, children are left with many wounds.

These wounds and prolonged frustration can include feelings of disillusionment, fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and other such emotions. Children develop loyalty conflicts and become afraid to love both of their parents or to express their love for one parent in front of the other parent. Many of these children become aligned with only one parent, in part to reduce their anxiety and insecurity.

A high-conflict parent is often willfully oblivious to the fact that she or he is engaging in both obvious and subtle behaviors that cause their children to take sides and, as a result, feel depressed, anxious, angry, insecure, afraid, angry and torn in two. While it’s common for parents to blame each other if children exhibit these symptoms, it only serves to increase  the conflict and make a bad situation worse. Therefore, reducing parental conflict is perhaps the most important thing you can do to help your children adjust after divorce (Kelly & Johnston, 2001).

Factors that contribute to post-divorce parental conflict include (Stahl, 1999):

  • Continuation of conflict that began during the marriage
  • Different perceptions of parenting roles during the marriage
  • Different perceptions of post-divorce parenting roles
  • Different parenting styles
  • Concern about the other parent’s parenting ability
  • An unwillingness of one or both parents to accept the end of the relationship
  • Jealousy about a new partner in the other parent’s life
  • Contested child custody issues
  • Personality factors in one or both parents that cause conflict
  • A history of false allegations by one or both parents.

Since it’s highly unlike your ex will change her abusive, high-conflict ways and since most courts won’t hold high-conflict mommies accountable for violating court orders and custody agreements, the onus of changing the high-conflict dynamic is on you, the father.

A good way to do this is implementing a parallel parenting plan.

Parallel parenting is a way for parents who can’t cooperatively co-parent to raise their children with as little interaction as possible between one another. It is a form of joint child custody in which authority transfers from parent to parent as the children are exchanged. Each parent is in charge of the decisions regarding the children when the children are in their care (Arizona Supreme Court, 2009).

Parallel parenting allows you to have significant autonomy from your ex while the children are in your care. Such day-to-day autonomy frees you from having to consult with and receive approval from your ex regarding major decisions outlined in the parenting plan.

Parallel parenting gives you and your ex the opportunity to be involved in your children’s lives and ensures that you both play an active and fruitful role in the lives of your children while removing sources of conflict through a structured and comprehensive parenting plan (source).

Disengagement from your high-conflict ex is the key to conflict reduction and successful parallel parenting. It’s a form of low contact rather than no contact. Disengagement creates a “demilitarized zone” around your children in which you have little or no contact with your ex (Stahl, 2000). A good way to do this is by using a third party communication system like OurFamilyWizard.

Disengagement will help you avoid contact with your ex so that conflict cannot develop. Communications between you should be reduced or eliminated where ever possible and the majority of decisions to be made regarding their children will be clear and agreed upon upfront in your custody agreement or court order. A parallel parenting plan allows you to parent in “parallel” of your ex and vice versa.

As you know from being with your high-conflict ex, this type of person doesn’t take kindly to boundaries nor does she believe rules or court orders apply to her. This is very important to keep in mind when drafting your parallel parenting plan. Your agreement needs to be highly specific, unambiguous and as loophole free as possible. To the point of tedium, make the agreement as specific as possible. I cannot stress this enough. The goal is to make it impossible or damn near impossible for the high-conflict ex to find ways to slither and slip around the custody agreement.

If you can’t effectively communicate with your high-conflict ex, it’s in the best interests of your children that you and your ex disengage from each another and limit communication as much as possible. For the sake of the children, it is best to keep tensions between you low (Olsen, 2010). Parallel parenting is the best way to achieve this.

If you’re about to embark upon the divorce process or are in the middle of a high-conflict divorce and custody case, you may want to consider making an argument for a custody agreement or order that specifically institutes parallel parenting.

If you’ve reached a custody agreement already, but are still encountering difficulties, you may want to consider petitioning the court to modify your current custody agreement to a parallel parenting agreement. It won’t change your ex’s personality, but it will hopefully reduce the degree of conflict to which you and your children are exposed. If you need help drafting a parallel parenting agreement, please contact via the Shrink4Men Coaching and Consulting Services page (see below).

Shrink4Men Coaching and Consulting Services:

Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.


Arizona Supreme Court. (2009). Planning for parenting time: Arizona’s guide for parents living apart.

Kelly, J. & Johnston, J. (2001). The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome. Family & Conciliation Courts Review. 38, (3), 249-266.

Olsen, B.D. (2010). The need for parallel parenting.

Stahl, P.M. (2000). Parenting after divorce. Impact Publishers.

Stahl, P.M. (1999). Complex issues in child custody evaluations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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  1. lifeonborder-line says

    Dr T. your insight is always appreciated! So far this is the best outlet for men I have found. A HCP incident last night when my wife backed off on a punishment we had agreed to for our son. Makes me sad that the only way to likely end the cluster B attacks completely is to divorce and be in this kind of parenting agreement.

  2. bkbirge says

    Interesting article as usual. It brings home the point that the crazy behaviors that happen within the dysfunctional marriage aren’t likely to stop just because the marriage officially ends, it’s just dysfunction part two unless you have an action plan to head it off. This kind of entrenched conflict I can see taking on a life of it’s own even after a divorce where one side blames the other in perpetuity, in turn poisoning the child(ren) against the other. It’s amazing that any children grow up halfway normal. I really worry for my daughter both in the context of staying in the marriage as she models how we adults behave and in the context of not being married where my access to her is limited and potentially likely poisoned by the mother.

    This describes me to a ‘T':

    “Too many men stay in unhealthy, abusive relationships because they’re afraid divorce will harm the children or that their children will become targets of abuse if they’re not home to act as a buffer.”

    Thanks for another insightful article, disheartening as it is.

  3. Mike D says

    There was a similar article published on a couple years ago. Sadly that site has now been taken down by court order. Since lists make a handy reminder, hope you don’t mind if I post part of it here:

    Ten Tips for Successful Parallel Parenting

    1. Maintain an attitude for non-interference with your child’s other parent. Neither parent has influence or say over the actions of the other parent.

    2. Carry on a business-like attitude; use common courtesy.

    3. Do not plan activities for the children during the other parent’s time. It may be better for a child to miss an event than to witness conflict.

    4. Stay focused on the present.

    5. Stay oriented to the task at hand.

    6. Keep your children’s best interests in mind.

    7. Remember the goal is to keep conflict to a minimum.

    8. Follow up in writing all agreements and discussions regarding the children, and do so succinctly!

    9. When communication and/or negotiation is necessary, use a neutral third party to assist you.

    10. Keep an open mind.

    Thanks for another great article, Dr. T.

  4. ozymandias says

    Disengagement is certainly the key but, unfortunately, an understanding of what makes the crazy tick is fundamental in making post divorce parenting work (in my experience). However, the first thing is to look at yourself. By that, I mean learn to stop blaming and learn to stop taking things personally. Dr T may disagree with this but I believe that these crazies can be kept in check (to a point).To regain some semblance of control you are going to have to learn levels of tact and diplomacy that should attain university degree status.

    Some stuff that worked for me:

    Disengage from the conflict. She will use anything that comes to mind to win. She will hurl accusations. She will talk utter nonsense. Oh,and boy will she blame. All in the heat of battle. However, when the storm dies down, all of the nonsense she spouted will actually be forgotten (by her – its nonsense you see?). Unless you throw stuff right back at her. If you throw stuff back, she will remember – and it will be used against you. No matter how justified you may be – you need to play the long game.

    2: Be understanding. Whilst a lot of the stuff in her head is truly mental – a lot of it is very real to her. Remember, a fundamental problem for these women is that they do not know “who” to be. To this end they are excellent mimics. They see people who they respect and they adopt the actions and the lifestyle choices of those people. To this end, they can learn and they can be open to suggestion – but this takes time. I find that by agreeing with her initially and then opening a door to another way of thinking can be hugely successful. But don’t dictate. It’s similar to the feel, felt, found approach. “I know how you feel, I’ve often felt the same way, but what I’ve found is that by doing X,Y,Z” – if you see what I mean. Remember, you don’t actually have to feel the same way – you just need to say you do :)

    3:This one is going to sound horrible – but use the kids to your own ends. I never ask my child (who is now 5) what mammy does or what she says (it is of no real interest unless it affects the child) but I’m pretty damn certain this does not work the other way. So you know that the child is going to get grilled on your own actions – possibly to the point where she just asks straight out “What has daddy been saying?”.When my kid asked about why we weren’t together anymore? I came out with “Mammy and Daddy love each other but we argued too much and we didnt want to argue so now Mammy is with (new partner) and now she loves him and he’s a very good man”. Within a fortnight I had her mother coming to me and saying the exact stuff I’d told the kid. I called this “getting back to white”.It wasn’t something I’d actually planned – its just what happened.Now I simply just say positive things – not lies as such – just positive for the sake of it! If you stay on the black side, you are gonna be in a world of pain.

    I don’t know if this stuff will work for everyone but its working for me. It started getting better when we got the divorce finalised and I ensured this happened as quickly as possible. I also made sure I moved a suitable distance so as not to be at her beck and call. I never answer my phone late at night. Nor do I respond to crazy texts. At least not in real time. If I leave stuff until the following morning, her mood has always changed. They are creatures of impulse, driven by their emotions and guess what, moods and emotions change in time (the time I’ve found is usually around 12 hours – ha ha).

    I’ve had a year of relative calm. I hope it continues. I know it may not. I’m in a new relationship now – about 8 months. I know if my new relationship gets serious, I may have problems. I know that if her new relationship has problems, I may have problems. But I cross bridges when i come to them. She directs her anger elsewhere (it has to go somewhere) cos she knows she gets nothing back from me. I hope she can be happy for the sake of my daughter. I know she can’t be but hey ho!

    Sorry for rambling – it’s a symptom I’m afraid :)

    Oh, one more thing, and very important – pick the battles you have to win and the battles you can afford to lose! And stand your ground.

    Phew!! :)

    • TheGirlInside says

      Those are all commendable, but I wonder…how do you blow off steam? Aren’t there times when she does get under your skin, but you just don’t show it / stuff it?

      Just wondering if you can really be that calm all the time…especially while constantly dodging sh**bombs.

      • ozymandias says

        To be honest, the sh*t bombs have largely stopped now. I spent ages studying the disorder(s) before I stumbled on Dr T’s site. I also had to have a long, hard look at myself and found some answers. I realised that the only things I could control were my own feelings, actions and reactions. I expected the worst with every encounter but I found that by preparing myself before every interaction, I could remain calm. I was lucky that I found this site just as the divorce proceedings got underway. If I hadn’t I might have slung a lot of mud that wouldn’t be forgotten. I guess I’ll always be treading on eggshells but its become almost like a game now. It’s a funny thing to say but I’m so much happier in myself nowadays – and that wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the psycho ex :)

        • amydoll1980 says

          Great advice! I learned most of this already (onmy own) Its so great to see it in black and white. I’ve tried explaining this to others but they usually don’t get it. Everyone wants to believe the courts will solve all their problems. I guess they’ll learn the hard way like I did.

  5. leo says

    “Up to half of the women in a special hospital such as Broadmoor are there because they have killed their children.” — BBC website. They have now removed the sentence in their report at

    You can view the cached page (before too is gone) at:

  6. Curtman41 says

    I was reading some comments and Mike D referenced website. I clicked the link and it appears that a female judge has ordered the website to be taken down. Now when you click the link it takes you to this: It gives an explanation as to why the judge shut the site down and the orders it implemented. I find it fascinating and reflects the battle we face as man and Fathers in this culture.

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