Co-parenting after divorce or separation

Divorce or separation where there are children involved is not always easy for the adults, let alone the children. Emotions are high in most situations, as what was “until death do us part” turns into “death wishes” due to the level of acrimony. Often there is rancour - bitterness, anger, resentment and a desire to punish, blame, and shame each other. 


In the UK alone, between January and March 2022, the Family Courts recorded 30,152 divorce petitions (Gov.UK, 2022). The Office of National Statistics recorded 113, 505 divorces in 2021 (ONS, 2021). In 2023, many leading family law firms in the UK reported a spike in divorces, with a prediction of 50% of marriages ending up in divorce. Many of these divorces are between parents who have children, some of them very young. In addition to that, there are many other children from non-married parents who separate and have to go through the same painful process of witnessing their parents’ relationship breaking down.

Sadly, what should be a process that involves two adults disentangling their lives from each other, turns into a battle where children become collateral damage. This is so because parents often forget their children’s own emotional needs and the impact of the divorce or separation on them. Their focus is on themselves individually, or the other parent. Some parents will even use their children as pawns, and weaponise their relationships with them, against the other parent. 

Loss and trauma in divorce and separation

Trauma can be defined as an exposure to an event, or a series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening, with lasting effects on the individual's functioning - mental, physical, social, emotional and general well-being (De Kolk, McFarlane and Weisaeth, 1996).

Trauma is pervasive, and it has an enduring impact on the subject, no matter how long the original trauma took place. De Kolk (2014) argues that trauma is not what happened to you, but how you responded to the traumatic situation. This highlights the significance of how the parents deal with the divorce or separation themselves as individuals, and how they support their children through it. 

A psychoanalytic definition of trauma was given by Chertoff (1996) who postulates that trauma is an event or a series of events which specifically overwhelms ego defences, causing the traumatised person to regress into earlier modes of functioning. The breakdown of a marriage or relationship is indeed a multi-layered loss, a form of trauma. There is a loss (death) of a relationship, loss of identity, loss of a shared home, loss of mutual relationships, and loss of life as a couple. Things will never be the same again, and this can be disillusioning; coming from a place of interdependence to being self-sustaining can be very frightening.

Whenever there is a loss, there has to be a grieving process; with it comes a range of feelings – shock, shame, sadness, guilt, anger, and acceptance (in no particular order). This loss disrupts one’s life, threatens one’s identity, disrupts the future, gets one to reevaluate the meaning of life altogether and reconsider their place in society. Some parents experience a huge amount of anger, guilt and shame either for not saving the relationship or for staying longer than they should have done. The adults are able to process these emotions, unlike the children who are in the shadows of the parents’ experiences. 

The child and the adult

The breakdown of the parental relationships can be viewed as an attachment injury from an attachment perspective (Bowlby, 1962). Children create emotional bonds with both caregivers (parents) as they grow up, as well as an attachment to their environment. These bonds are strengthened by consistency, and constancy, and help them create an internal sense of security.

Any breakdown of these attachments is very threatening to the child’s ego, which is still very fragile and weak. The breakdown of a parental relationship can create a long-lasting attachment injury on the child, which can impact their adult life in many ways. Poor self-esteem, poor self-image, identity insecurities, and difficulties in interpersonal, and romantic relationships is often a result.

It is true that many people who access therapy in adulthood are products of divorced parents or unmarried parents who had a relationship breakdown in their early life. Their issues often stem from that early “trauma” due to the breakdown of their parental relationship. Divorce and separation is a loss and a form of trauma for the children who lose the potential for growing up with loving parents who are together, living in the same home. This process becomes even more difficult when new partners emerge on either side. 

Where are the children in the equation?

The intensity of feelings provoked by the relationship breakdown can override the capacity for parents to think rationally and put their children’s interests first. Sadly, some parents use their children to leverage their process, practically, emotionally and financially. This is unfair on the child and burdens them with adult life situations and complex emotions, that they should not be involved with. It is indeed very damaging as children have no emotional capacity to process these complex emotions. Instead of protecting the children, some parents put the children at the centre of their battles. 

How to co-parent in a healthy way

Tips on healthy co-parenting

  1. Don't talk badly about the other parent with your child/children. They are innocent and deserve to be kept out of your battles.
  2. Do not discourage your child/ren from having a relationship with the other parent. You are simply creating a situation where once they are adults, and more aware, they will learn the truth and hate you for it.
  3. Don't overshare with your child/ren or turn them into your confidants. It’s perfectly fine for children to be told that their parents will no longer be together, but it’s not OK to download the details of the relationship onto the child/ren. It will only confuse them than help you or them. Children are very emotionally vulnerable; emotionally burdening them can lead to behavioural problems, emotional difficulties and other developmental disruptions.
  4. Learn to communicate well with your ex-partner putting your child’s interest at heart. Avoid situations where you openly argue in front of the child/ren. Being difficult is not helpful to everyone involved, and it will only complicate things. By being difficult, you are punishing your children, not the other adult parent.
  5. Honour and value each other as parents who have a dual responsibility in your child/ren’s life. No parent is better than the other and you are not in competition. Put your differences aside and focus on parenting and being adults nurturing your child/ren.
  6. Stop emotionally manipulating your child and buying their love. Some parents do this by showering their child/ren with money, expensive toys, and gifts as if to demonstrate that they are better than the other parent. Not only does this confuse the child/ren, it works short term and in the long term, children grow to understand the love currency. 
  7. Many divorced or separated parents will start dating soon after their divorce as they are keen to start a new life and find love again. It's important not to introduce your child/ren to every person you date unless you are sure that you are in a stable and exclusive relationship.
  8. Show your children love and let them experience the same love they had before the divorce or separation. Create a happy home and have rituals to help you settle into your new life. You would rather have your children in two happy homes than one unhappy home. Create it for them.


Bowlby (1969) Attachment and Loss, Volume 1. Attachment. New York, Basic Books

Chertoff, J. (1996), Psychodynamic Assessment and Treatment for Traumatised Patients. Journal for Psychotherapy Practice and Research. APA

Der Kolk, B.A. (2014), The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking

Der Kolk, B.A., McFarlane, A.C., and Weisaeth, L. (1996) Traumatic Stress; The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body and Society. New York

Gov.UK. [Online] (Accessed 29/03/2023)

Office of National Statistics [Online]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & Milton Keynes MK15
Written by Dr Joyline Gozho, Adult Psychotherapist (Individual & Couples) UKCP, NCPS
London SE1 & Milton Keynes MK15

Dr Joyline Gozho is an Adult Psychotherapist and a Relationship Therapist. She works with individuals and couples, and she also runs relationship enrichment workshops. Her desire to train to become a couples therapist stems from many years experience of her working with clients individually, who had experienced a lot of childhood trauma.

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