Why co-parenting with an abuser can't work

"Chereyl Jackson" left her abusive partner, the father of her three year old twins, almost a year ago. She did the "right thing". So why isn't she finally free?

One of the most disheartening aspects of being a domestic violence survivor is that it can be hard to move on, even if you left your abusive partner months or years ago. Abusers are like piranhas; once they sink their teeth in, they don't let go easily. This is especially true if there are children involved in the relationship because, like most other parents, survivors who are not abusive to their children usually want the best for them. They often hope their kids will see the abusive parent in a positive light. They won't name-call or share past history. 

While the survivor mom offer chances for the abuser to show up as a good parent, abusers are not usually willing to cooperate with their former partner. They tend to think of their former partner as unworthy of them and when they do speak of her/hime, it is usually to blame or disparage. Everything is all about the abuser. They have been wronged. They deserve better. They are the ones making sacrifices. Perhaps the saddest facet of any domestic violence situation involving children is that the abuser, in spite of having great kid(s), shows little desire to change.

Chereyl Jackson wants to do right by her children, but that can be hard when her children are used as pawns by her abuser. (Abusers know that common children are one of the best ways to keep a survivor tethered.) But Chereyl has learned is something that is saving her sanity and allowing her to keep good boundaries with her abuser: you can't co-parent with an abusive ex-partner.  

In Rising Strong, Brene Brown asks, "can you be kind and respectful to your friend if they are hurting you?" (127). Her answer is "no". You cannot be kind or respectful to anyone who is hurting you, even if they are the father (or mother) of your child. And respect is at the foundation of co-parenting. Co-parenting is about working together for the greater good of the child, and working together involves respect and cooperation. No matter how hard the survivor might work to co-parent, an abuser won’t ever get there because they are more concerned with themselves than working together to raise their child. In every way, then, co-parenting then is impossible with an abuser. 

So what do you do if you can't co-parent with an abuser?

The path ahead...

The path ahead...

The first thing you must do is accept the fact that you cannot co-parent with your abusive ex-partner as a universal truth. It may help to remember that there is an inherent give and take when you work or live with someone ;that kind of collaboration is absent in abusive relationships. Someone using power and control over someone else allows abuse to exist. A child being used as a point of leverage by their dad for greater control over their mom is abusive. There is sadness in accepting this knowledge because it is a loss. Taking time for grief, a lot or a little (whichever feels right) is essential.

The second step is to avoid negotiation with an abuser. So unless there is a clear safety issue, accept that there likely won’t be adherence to mutually established rules. Your ex wants to baptize your child for no good reason? Let him. He wants to post pictures of the kids on social media even though you'd both agreed not to? Let him. Engaging in a dialogue about his parenting vs. yours is a futile attempt in negotiation that won't ever end in compromise. Unfortunately, negotiating with an abuser does nothing except strengthen the ties between the two of you. And that's usually exactly what the abuser wants. 

Chereyl is free, but not in the way that you might think. She's free to make her own parenting choices knowing that her ex-partner might undermine them. But Chereyl is healthier, and better off parenting alone than she is tethered to an abuser that won’t ever respectfully allow her to parent.