Cohabitating After Separation and Nesting: Considerations for High Conflict Co-Parents

Deciding to separate is just the first of many difficult decisions facing co-parents. Once it is evident that the relationship is over, questions about the future and the family begin to present themselves, and they present themselves fast and furious. Questions such as -where will the children live? Where will I live? Who if anyone is staying in the home?

Speaking with co-parents in mediation, at the court, and at the family law information centre, it is becoming more and more common to see co-parents continuing to reside in the residence together after a separation, or deciding to implement a nesting arrangement. In these discussions, the reasons people present for adopting one of these plans often varies, and at times reflects the difficulties and challenges that people are facing as they navigate the days, months and sometimes years post separation.

Often driving the decision to live this way is the belief that these arrangements will be beneficial to children in that they maintain stability and consistency and to a degree secure a sense of routine and normalcy for the children. Underneath it all, parents may also have fears of losing rights or claims to ownership, or may have concerns about how leaving the children may be perceived by the court or framed by lawyers. They may be locked in a power struggle or simply unwilling to let go, or perhaps can’t accept change. Others may fear the loss of identity or the psychological security that a family home provides. For others, it is a question of resources, and for some it is simply a question of needing more time to prepare and gather the necessary legal information to guide them towards an informed decision.

In reality, there may be pros and cons to each arrangement. The success and suitability of these arrangements will depend on multiple factors, primarily the degree to which co-parents can co-operate, communicate, and create a safe and supportive environment for the children. Where this ability is compromised as is the case with high conflict co-parents, or where there is the presence of domestic violence, mental health issues, addictions, or dysfunctional parent-child relationship, these types of living arrangements may be disastrous and extremely harmful. Of concern, is that we are seeing more and more of this. Of even greater concern is some co-parents apparent willingness to continue with these harmful arrangements for years.

The hallmark of high conflict parents is their inability to disengage and the continuation, and often escalation, of their conflict after separation. Perpetuating the dysfunctional dynamic, and not just exposing but immersing the children into their toxic relational mess is commonplace for these co-parents – As is their unwillingness or inability to change the arrangement despite receiving advice or information to do just that.

Speaking with children, it is evident that in these scenarios they are re-traumatized daily not just by the conflict, but by reliving the separation – One child in a recent interview disclosing that they are reminded that their parents hate each other every day and every day is another reminder that they are separating. Further, there is uncertainty every day as she and her sibling never know where they are going to end up living and with whom. In this scenario the child was aware that her parents fight over her and her sibling, and vocalized that she felt to a degree responsible – The externalized and internalized outcomes of this already evident in the child’s functioning as this state of limbo and delay of the inevitable meant the child was not able to move forward in emotionally processing the separation in a healthy way.

It could be argued that even in scenarios where there is moderate to low conflict that these residential options should be temporary at best. Further, moving forward towards a healthier disengaged residential arrangement may provide benefits for everyone involved. The longer the arrangement goes on, high conflict parents will inevitably find ways to sabotage the other parents parenting time. The end result is that the home, which was originally supposed to be a supporting factor for the kids and the rationalization for the arrangement, is now a place of diminished safety where the child may be at emotional risk in every room.

For parents entering these types of arrangements, it may be useful to consider a number of things. Firstly, that it takes significant planning to be successful in these arrangements and to make the arrangement supportive for the children. As parents, you will have to redefine and negotiate boundaries with each other and the children. It goes without saying that co-parents can create confusion for the children, especially if it has been made clear that only one parent is acting as parent on any given day – having to explain to a child who needs you that you can’t address that issue because it’s the others parent’s day will not be beneficial to them or your relationship in any way. Another consideration is a co-parent’s ability to stick to the nesting arrangement so that a parent does not show up during another parent’s parenting time resulting in confusion as well as conflict. And what of new partners, extended family, and other people who may come and go through the home? The list of considerations is lengthy and for high conflict parents, no issue is too small to be overlooked.

Again, this is not to say cohabitating after separation or nesting is always bad. Simply that one must be cautious in choosing to implement them, especially in the presence of certain factors, especially high conflict. Working with a mediator or mental health professional with expertise in this area may be of major benefit for parents considering navigating these tricky arrangements. In any event, separating parents should ask some direct questions of themselves. Mainly, if you want to separate and the situation is so bad, why remain in the same residence? Why keep yourself locked in that dynamic? And most importantly, why model this to your children? And If there is any doubt about your or the other co-parents ability to implement the arrangement in a healthy and supportive way, seek out the assistance of a trained professional as sometimes decisions made with the best intentions, or out of a sense of perceived necessity, may have unknown consequences, especially for children.

Jared is a registered social worker and an accredited family mediator with the Ontario Association for Family Mediation. Jared has a diverse professional and practice history, and has applied his skills in numerous community and clinical settings, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Frontenac Youth Services, and the Distress Centre of Toronto.

About Jared Norton

Jared Norton is currently a faculty member of the Riverdale Mediation training team. Jared is also a parenting coordinator and seeks to help parents to develop co-parenting relationships and interactions which support the best interest of their children. Working with co-parent’s strengths, Jared helps co-parents address potential risk factors and to enhance protective factors within the context of the child’s world.