Conflict management with your former partner: why it’s important

Conflict between you and your former partner – and how you deal with it – is one of the biggest things that affects your child’s wellbeing.

Conflict is a problem when parents fight a lot and don’t resolve their differences. Unhealthy conflict affects children badly, whether parents are together or separated.

But seeing you and your former partner work together on conflict management can be reassuring for your child, especially when you show optimism that you can work out a problem or disagreement.

And grown-up conflict management even teaches your child valuable skills. For example, by working together to sort out differences, you show your child how to negotiate and solve problems effectively. This also teaches your child that difference and conflict are a part of life.

There is never any excuse for bullying, abuse or family violence. If you think you or your children are in immediate danger, leave or call the police (dial 000). If you want to talk to someone and don’t know what to do, call 1800 RESPECT, the National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Line.

Tips for conflict management with your former partner

Here are some tips that can help you with conflict management with your former partner.

Rethink your relationship
If you need to manage conflict with your former partner, it can help to think of your relationship with your former partner as a business arrangement made for the benefit of your child. This can make interacting with your former partner feel less personal.

Be respectful and polite
Try talking with your former partner as you would with a colleague at work. This means listening to each other and talking respectfully to sort out differences. It also means avoiding criticism of your former partner’s parenting and acknowledging strengths.

It can help to talk to your former partner in public places, such as the child care centre or school – it might be easier to stay polite in these places.

When you do communicate with your former partner, keep the focus on your child’s needs and achievements.

And if you don’t handle a situation well, forgive yourself and try to repair any damage. For example, ‘I’m sorry. I didn't handle yesterday’s conversation well. Let’s try again’.

Be flexible
It’s a good idea to be flexible if your former partner needs to make changes to your co-parenting arrangements. After all, you’ll probably need flexibility at some stage too. Either of you might need to make changes – for example, to fit around the days a new partner’s children will be living with you, or changes to the days you work, or holiday plans.

If you’ve repartnered you might need to talk about boundaries, because what was OK before might now feel uncomfortable. For example, your former partner might have come in and had a drink on a Sunday night when dropping off the children, but your new partner might prefer your former partner to stay at the door.

Use a problem-solving approach
If you’re having trouble working through issues with your former partner, problem-solving techniques can help you find solutions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support when you need it.

We used to have a cup of coffee together when she brought back the kids, but with my new partner in the house, I had to pick up the kids and drop them off in a shopping centre car park! Things got really unfriendly again. We slid back and had to rebuild trust, but we got there eventually.
– Ahmed, 38, divorced for two years and father of three children

Protecting your children from conflict

If there’s conflict between you and your former partner, these tips can help you minimise the impact on your child:

  • If you need to have a difficult conversation, or you think things might get heated, do it somewhere your child can’t hear you. If talking face to face is likely to lead to conflict, send a text message or email. Stick to the facts, and avoid accusations and name-calling.
  • Speak or write to your former partner directly, rather than asking your child to be a messenger. If it’s hard to talk directly to your former partner, you could try using a shared journal that travels between your houses or an online calendar to share important information about your child.
  • Try to avoid making negative comments about your former partner – it’s your child’s parent you’re discussing. Your child loves both parents, not just you, and it hurts her to hear negative things about her other parent. If you need to vent, do it with a friend or therapist, or write it down and then destroy it.
  • Try to behave well, even if your former partner is behaving badly. This can lower stress levels and help your child.
A big challenge for me was to respect my ex-partner’s parenting skills. I wouldn’t want to hear his criticisms of how I do things, so I had to bite my tongue and not criticise him.
– Shay, 30, divorced for three years and mother of two children

Effects of conflict on children

Conflict can come up at different times in your relationship with your former partner. It can be when your relationship is breaking down or after you separate as you try to work out your new arrangements. Or even if you’ve had a good relationship with your former partner, you might notice your relationship isn’t great for a while when you repartner. Your former partner might feel threatened, angry or insecure.

If you’re going through a relationship breakdown or post-separation phase with a lot of fighting – and even swearing, name-calling, manipulation and abuse – it’s likely to cause distress and difficulties for your child. If your child is around these arguments too often, he might become quiet and withdrawn, stop trying new things, feel overwhelmed or act out at child care, kinder or school.

Children should never have to take sides between parents. Your child wants to love both of you. When there’s serious conflict she might feel stressed if she thinks she has to choose one of you. She might also be worried that you won’t like her if she shows love for her other parent.