As family lawyers, we often use the term co-parenting but what about those high conflict cases when this is just not possible?
This is where parallel parenting comes in.
Why not simply co-parent?
Particularly in high conflict intractable parental disputes, there may be a desire for either the father or the mother to oust the other from the child’s life, especially in terms of decision making. This will usually not be in the children’s best interests, nor will it be permissible when both parents hold parental responsibility.
It may be that one or other parents has suffered domestic abuse at the hands of the other and cannot countenance having communication going forward and worries that the expectation to co-parent will simply enable an extension of the abuse to continue past separation and even for the duration of the child’s minority.
It may be that one of the parents displays signs of narcissism, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible to co-parent.
Sometimes, the parents, try as they might, simply cannot communicate effectively. They may have tried mediation, co-parenting therapy, parenting courses and so on but the communication is still challenging.
How can parallel parenting help?
Engaging in an agreement to parent in parallel will give the parents space to continue with their parental duties and rights but with an agreement to limit contact and interaction with one another. Effectively, the parents would disengage with each other as much as possible, thereby reducing the chance for conflict and sometimes also ensuring the safety of one or both the parents and minimising distress for the children.
It may be that parallel parenting is a stepping stone to a more workable co-parenting situation in due course, when the parents have healed from the emotional trauma of the separation. However, in the meantime parallel parenting gives the parents space and acceptance to carry on being a parent, despite separation.
How does it work?
The intricacies of the agreement should be recorded in a parenting plan, which should cover as many eventualities as can be envisaged. Ensuring that every base is covered will serve to minimise the stress not only for the parents but also for the children.
The agreement should be straightforward and precise. The detail should cover everything from when the parents will each spend time with the children, how pick up and drop off will be dealt with, how doctor’s and dentist appointments are handled, how the financial arrangements for the children’s activities are shared, how communications are dealt with and what the restrictions are on communications, whether the communications should be by text, Whatsapp or e-mail or whether it is best to communicate via a parenting app, such as My Family Wizard. The list is non-exhaustive and as much detail as possible should be agreed and recorded so that there is no room left for any doubt.
It may be that the parents would benefit from the services of a mediator to agree the terms together in a safe space, but with the benefits of a trained professional who can then set out the agreements in a Memorandum of Understanding that each can refer to going forward.
What else may assist?
The feelings of anger, guilt, shame and disappointment stemming from the relationship breakdown and perhaps the impact of the abuse suffered in the course of the relationship may necessitate external help by way of therapy for the individual parent. Struggling with negative emotions may hamper the ability of the parents to work together in any guise, whether as a co-parent or as a parallel parent and additional support from a family psychologist may be required.
It is always hoped that eventually the parents can work together effectively and amicably but we should all as family lawyers be cognisant that every separation and every client is different and sometimes an alternative to co-parenting is required. The physical and emotional safety of our clients, and their children, must come first.
Grainne Fahy, Partner and Head of Family Law at law firm BLM