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Is All or Nothing Thinking Damaging Your Co-Parenting?

Don't let all or nothing thinking define your co-parenting relationship.How we approach communication greatly affects the outcome of our efforts, especially with more stressful interactions. Open-mindedness, empathy, and cooperation are all essential for keeping co-parenting communication positive, but many parents find themselves seemingly stuck in negativity ruts, unable to identify the specific behaviors that are preventing them from moving forward.

All or nothing thinking is one such behavior that can derail co-parenting communication. Simply put, all or nothing thinking happens when we view ourselves, others, or situations as all positive or all negative, with no room for nuance. Such thinking prevents stability in relationships, as any small bump in the road can cause feelings about ourselves and others to vacillate wildly. Co-parenting communication does best when stability can be maintained, making all or nothing thinking a hindrance when attempting to parent peacefully after a divorce.

How does All or Nothing Thinking manifest in co-parenting?

When under stress, it’s easy to fall into all or nothing thinking. Co-parenting after a divorce or separation can be a particularly stressful process, so all or nothing thinking may be a real worry for many co-parents. But how can you recognize when all or nothing thinking is at play?

Consider this example: After a long history of struggling with exchange times, co-parents Pat and Alex decide to try a new system. Two weeks pass without a hiccup, only to have their system fail to counteract old habits during the third week. Pat thinks, ‘We’ll never get our exchanges right. They’re always a disaster.”

Pat is falling into an all or nothing pattern of thinking. Although their new system was a success for two weeks, Pat considers their failure during the third week as indicative of the entirety of their efforts. Rather than viewing the third week as a temporary setback, no more or less powerful than their previous successes, Pat can only see their exchange time system in the extremes. Because their efforts were not 100% perfect, Pat labels their exchanges as “always a disaster.”

Why All or Nothing Thinking makes co-parenting harder

Co-parenting is a lifetime appointment, and communication between co-parents must withstand many trials and tribulations. Using the previous example, when Pat views exchange times as always being disastrous, it does not leave enough mental space for them to consider how to move forward. Pat is stuck in a line of thinking that prevents them from seeing their situation from different angles, making it difficult to commit to recent changes or come up with new solutions.

Focusing on positivity in co-parenting is a long-term practice and requires parents to overcome doubts and mishaps. All or nothing thinking can instead lead to parents feeling hopeless about ever being able to improve their communication. If you’re already convinced that your co-parenting efforts will fail, it’ll be hard to drum up the motivation needed to forge ahead.

How to Combat All or Nothing Thinking

Now that you’re able to recognize all or nothing thinking, it’ll be easier to combat it when it happens. Fighting against falling into all-or-nothing traps can be as simple as questioning the thought process from the get-go. Keep an eye out for certain words invading your inner dialogue. Statements with ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘impossible’ and other black-and-white terms are a strong indication that you’re slipping into all or nothing thinking.

Look for ‘shades of grey’ when all or nothing thinking occurs. For Pat and Alex, instead of declaring exchange times a disaster, Pat could disrupt that thought process by considering their exchange history as a whole. One week of frustrating exchanges does not erase the progress they achieved in the preceding weeks. And by asking themselves why this week did not run smoothly, they can even identify ways to improve their new system further.

All or nothing thinking can be hard to combat alone, however. If you are stuck thinking about a situation in black-and-white terms, consider enlisting the help of trusted family members or friends. Outside perspectives can often give your own interpretation of a situation room to grow. If all or nothing thinking becomes too ingrained and begins to deeply affect quality of life, consulting a mental health professional may also be a helpful next step.

Co-parenting communication is a decades-long project, and any co-parenting relationship will endure both good times and bad. Being able to cope with conflict and miscommunication is vital for building a co-parenting relationship that will continue to grow through the years, and all or nothing thinking will be a roadblock many co-parents will encounter at some point. Remember to search for ‘shades of grey’ and work actively to keep all or nothing thinking in check. But if you do ever slip into all or nothing thinking, be sure to forgive yourself and allow your communication to continue moving forward.