Like it or not, co-parenting with an ex-spouse involves your marriage.
Kami and Jerome understood how difficult it is to include financial support of children in the other home. They argued over the fair use of Jerome’s income. He had two children in his first marriage, and the couple had one son together. Kami struggled with how much of Jerome’s income went to child support for his kids, leaving what felt like not enough for their child.
“It’s not fair,” she would say. “I want all of his kids to be provided for. Why should my son get the short end of the stick? Jerome needs to go back to court and get the amount reduced, but he refuses. It’s just not right.”
Kami is a mother looking out for her son. Whether Jerome’s child support amount is fair is for the court to decide, and they might need an attorney who can help them determine if a reduction is in order.
What’s important for the marriage, though, is to guard against us-versus-them language about the children. This dynamic polarizes Kami and Jerome as a couple; she aligns with her son, and he aligns with his other two children, leaving the couple pitted against each other. The outcome is a divided household.
In some cases, a stepparent may have to accept their spouse’s financial obligations and live with the ramifications. In other cases, a biological parent may need to go through the hassle of renegotiating alimony and/or child support. However, the ultimate cost to avoid is a divided marriage and stepfamily. That cost is far too high.
Should your current spouse get into the negotiation mix?
This is a common question for blended families who experience mid- to high-conflict co-parenting situations. (Low-conflict co-parents are generally able to talk through parenting and money issues.)
Ideally, the biological parents work together for their children. But we understand that negotiating is difficult, if not downright challenging, when the former partners have so much negative history. You may be unable to separate what is “personal” from the parental responsibilities at hand, and so the question arises whether a stepparent should step in and negotiate on behalf of their household.
Every situation is different, and that’s why we don’t think there’s a right answer to this question. Some couples intuitively know involving the stepparent will make things worse. However, if the stepparent is willing to be involved and they have the temperament of a mediator or peacemaker, give it a try. For example, if a stepdad and biological dad can have a productive discussion about between-home parenting and money matters, then the biological mom doesn’t have to take part in the conversation.
Some stepfamilies find that this is a temporary arrangement that helps everyone through a challenging season, and others find it is a good long-term solution. In any case, it is important for the stepparent couple to talk a great deal in advance of the negotiation so the stepparent can represent their household well when talking with the other home.
Once the conversation with the other home begins, the stepparent should not make any commitments before talking again with their spouse in private unless they are completely confident they know the biological parent will be okay with the decision.
Communication strategies that help
Sometimes the outcome of a money or boundary conversation depends largely on how you start it. Having a business mentality in your parental exchanges can be helpful. Good principles for having effective co-parent meetings include the following:
- Pick a time that is convenient for both of you. In our experience, meetings just before or after visitation pickup or drop off are not a good idea, mostly because the kids are present. Talk another time.
- Keep discussions brief and focused on the children (or parental decisions), and be polite and respectful.
- Address schedules, academic reports, behavioral training, and spiritual development. Do not discuss your personal life or theirs. If the conversation turns away from the children, simply redirect the topic or politely end the meeting.
- If you cannot talk with your ex face-to-face due to conflict, use email, text, or voice mail. Do what you can to make your meetings productive for the children.
Assuming your parental business meetings follow these guidelines in general, also keep the following principles in mind when engaging in a conversation about money.1
Open with an invitation, not a demand
Instead of saying, “I need more money today to cover this,” say, “Ella’s travel team is adding games, and they’re farther away. It’s getting expensive. Could we meet to discuss her plans?”
You’ve had time to consider the situation and arrive at the conclusion that more financial support is required; give the other person the chance to do the same. If you just declare what needs to happen, you can create a control issue.
Give the co-parent a chance to think about it and process the information. At that point, a collaborative decision to contribute money is more likely.
Open with a question
“Dillon wants a tutor. How do you feel about that?” Starting the conversation like this respects the other parent’s opinions and gives them a chance to process the situation. Again, you’ve had a chance to do that, so make sure they get to as well.
Whenever possible, begin the conversation with gratefulness for what your co-parent has already done before discussing additional expenses. “I appreciate you paying for the band fee and instrument rental. I’ve paid for the uniform and competition travel costs as agreed. But now the school is asking we pay for the hotel at the competition.”
Asking for more without acknowledging what both parties have already done feels cold and is likely to make your co-parent feel taken for granted. Keeping your heart appreciative makes openness from them more likely.
“You go first. What do you think is fair?”
Especially if there is friction between you, this approach changes the dynamic from one of you trying to be in control of the solution (“Here’s what should happen”) to one where the co-parent can take the lead and be responsible for finding what’s fair.
Of course, there’s no guarantee their opinion will match yours, but it might at least shift the climate of the dialogue away from power and control to collaboration.
Sometimes former spouses and new stepparents assume that because a couple is no longer married, they won’t have below-the-surface relational issues to deal with. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As in all relationships, it’s vital to know what your personal hot buttons are, why you react the way you do with a co-parent, and how you can regulate your emotions in the midst of tension.
Divorces and nonmarital breakups tempt people into viewing the other person as the bad guy and themselves as the victim. This false narrative can leave you blind to any contributions you may bring to ongoing conflict; it’s easy to blame the other person and focus on their faults and totally miss your own.
Managing money with former spouses starts when you look closely in the mirror.
Adapted from The Smart Stepfamily Guide to Financial Planning: Money Management Before and After You Blend a Family © 2019 by Ron L. Deal, Greg S. Pettys, & David O. Edwards, Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used with permission. All rights to this material are reserved.