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Co-Parenting: Sink or Swim by Dr. Laura LoBuglio-Vigil, Psy.D.
& Dr. Julio Vigil, Ph.D.


Co-Parenting : Sink or Swim
By Dr. Laura LoBuglio-Vigil, Psy.D. & Dr. Julio Vigil, Ph.D. and

It is becoming an all too familiar statistic that is quoted in most articles related to children and divorce: “About half of all American children will experience their parent’s divorce.” While divorce can be a stressful time for both adults and children, research demonstrates that the parent’s ability to effectively co-parent is of paramount importance in determining the children’s well-being and adjustment. There is no reason to believe that two people who were not able to successfully navigate their marriage, cannot foster, maintain, and support a healthy co-parenting relationship. It really boils down to making a firm commitment to do so; it is a choice that each parent will make and continue to make throughout the years of raising their child(ren).

There is an abundance of research and articles written, which discuss the potential impact of parental post-divorce functioning upon the adjustment of minor children. Healthy and cooperative co-parenting have been associated with children’s emotional adjustment, positive pro-social behaviors, and peer competence. Whereas negative co-parenting behaviors have been shown to be harmful to children’s development and emotional adjustment. More specifically, children exposed to high levels of ongoing parental conflict, are at higher risk of various behavioral and emotional problems, including an increase in problematic parent-child relationships (McHale et al., 2002) .

In an article written by Tammy Daughtry, The 5 Categories of Co-Parenting. Co-Parenting Works! Helping Your Children Thrive After Divorce; she summarizes the research done by Dr. Constance Ahrons in a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. In Dr. Ahron’s book, The Good Divorce, she outlines five categories of co-parenting relationships: Perfect Pals, Cooperative Colleagues, Angry Associates, Fiery Foes, and Dissolved Duos. Tammy Daughtry summaries the categories in the following manner:

Perfect Pals (high interactors / high communicators): The parents continue to be friends, even after the divorce. They stay well connected and ask one another about each other’s lives, and also stay connected with one another’s families. Perfect pals almost always have joint custody and some even spend holiday time together with their child(ren).

Cooperative Colleagues (moderate interactors / high communicators): Most couples in the study fell into this category. Unlike perfect pals, these parents do not consider themselves to be “friends”; but do talk often about the children but not about their personal lives. Time-sharing is split according to a mutual agreement, but they do not typically spend holidays together. Their desire to provide the very best for their children trumps their own personal issues.

Angry Associates (moderate interactors – low communicators): Instead of being able to compartmentalize their anger about the past, these parents will let is spread into their current co-parenting. With each other they will generally be tense and hostile, or even openly conflictual. Most of these custodial arrangements will include sole custody in some capacity. Five years after divorce, most will continue to report feeling dissatisfied with their co-parenting relationship. By that time, a third had transitioned into cooperative colleagues, a third to fiery foes, and a third remained angry associates.

Fiery Foes (low interactors / low communicators): A fourth of the couples involved in this study fell into this category; ex-spouses who rarely interacted. When they do interact or communicate, they usually end up fighting. Their divorces tended to be highly litigious, prolonged over years, and marked by the inability to work out arrangement for the children without relying on third parties (lawyer, family/friends, professionals).

Dissolved Duos (non-interactors / non communicators): The study did not include any of these couples as the study required that the parents be involved in their children’s lives. With dissolved duos, ex-spouse are usually completely disconnected. The noncustodial parent is usually uninvolved and out of the picture completely; creating a true single-parent family.

Experts agree that Cooperative Colleagues is the most healthy style for both parents and children of divorce. Initially it may appear that Perfect Pals would be ideal, but the closeness between the exes can be confusing to the child(ren), and can also be emotionally confusing to the ex-spouses. Children are typically confused after divorce if everything seems the “same” but they live in two different houses. Although the parents may think this is a good and easier approach, the kids likely will linger in their hopes of their parents reconciling and living under one roof again in the near future. Therefore, it is important to maintain healthy boundaries within the co-parenting relationship, to work cooperatively in a “business-like” fashion, while focusing on the tasks of raising the child(ren).

Healthy co-parenting does not mean that ex-spouses are not going to have missteps or miscommunication; co-parenting is a life-time appointment, and mistakes will occur throughout the years of raising children. Those mistakes do not have to derail co-parenting efforts, and exes will need to resist the opportunity to turn a mistake into a battleground. Communication is imperative to healthy co-parenting, and should remain centered on child related issues, functioning, and scheduling. Adult responsibilities should only belong to the adults/parents, and not be placed upon the child. It is clear that children must not serve as “go-betweens” or mediators between their parents, as doing so could result in detrimental emotional consequences for the child. A general rule of communication is for the parents to discuss child related issues and decisions, prior to discussing such with their children. This may avoid the child being placed in the middle of opposing desires of each parent, placing one parent or the other in a “bad light”, and/or may also avoid unnecessary disappointment for the child. Healthy co-parents will need to learn to compromise, demonstrate flexibility, and create an atmosphere which demonstrates a “still a family” functioning, no matter the structure or time-sharing arrangement.

While there are hopes that divorced parents will recognize the importance of creating a healthy co-parenting relationship, there are those that may be unable or unwilling to engage in such interactions. These co-parents are often entrenched in battle mode, demonstrating a high level of conflict, tension, and exposing children to negative interactions and experiences. There are various resources for families who are struggling with post-divorce functioning; including books written specifically about managing divorce and co-parenting, parenting training, support groups, individual counseling, family counseling, mediation, and parent coordination. Many interventions are geared toward education and guidance during this time frame of adjustment, while focusing on the creation of healthy communication and co-parenting practices. Prioritizing a supportive and healthy co-parenting relationship is vital to the security and well-being of children!

Unfortunately, there are statistics indicating that anywhere from 15%-30% of marriages that end are considered to be “high conflict” at some point. In these cases, the parents may be referred to a Parenting Coordinator. Parenting coordinators are specially trained professionals whose services focus on helping co-parents manage their parenting plan, improve communication, and resolve disputes. The role of the Parent Coordinator may vary depending on what a particular family needs and what the court may require. A Parenting Coordinator is there to work with the parents, but their overreaching focus is to uphold the best interests of the children and to encourage each parent to do so as well. It is the hope that the parties dealing with a Parent Coordinator are able to reach agreements, resolve conflicts, comply with a parenting plan, and in doing so, diminish the need for the court’s intervention and further unnecessary litigation.

Ahrons, C. (1994) The Good Divorce. New Yourk, NY: Harper Collins Publisher.
Daughtry, Tammy. (2016). The Five Categories of Co—Parenting. Co-parenting Works! Heling your Children Thrive After Divorce.
McCale, et al. (2002). Coparenting in divorce family systems. In M.H. Bornstein (Ed), Handbook of parenting (2nd ed., pp. 75-107). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dr.’s Julio Vigil and Dr. Laura LoBuglio-Vigil are mental health professionals with over twenty years of experience in assisting families transitioning through divorce. Their private practice, Therapeutic Horizons, provides a variety of services including individual and family therapy, reunification therapy, therapeutic supervised visitation, Guardian Ad Litem services, Social Investigations, Psychological Evaluations, Mediation, and Parent Coordination.

Contact information: (305) 557-8855; /