Challenges and Strategies for Never-Married Co-Parenting

If you and your co-parent were never married, you might feel left out of some co-parenting conversations. Sometimes, people assume that “co-parents = divorced parents.” As you know, that’s often not the case. 

But just including never-married parents with divorced parents misses some important issues. The experiences of never-married co-parents can be a little different, so you might face some unique challenges.  

Let’s explore some fundamental differences you might experience—so that you can be prepared, or know you’re not alone. Plus, we’ll provide strategies for dealing with the related challenges.  

Man and woman talking seriously.

A common challenge: You don’t know each other very well 

Many never-married co-parents were not officially together for very long, if at all, before they split. From one-night stands to short flings, these relationships have something crucial in common: You and the other parent don’t know each other deeply. Or at all. As a result, you don’t really know each other as co-parents—and that complicates things.  

For co-parents who have been married, they have a history, and that gives them some perspective on how their former partner operates. They saw how their co-parent parented, how they communicated, how they reflected their own family’s issues, and how their strengths and weaknesses played out in a parenting context.  

If you don’t know each other well, then you have to guess and/or slowly discover these things.  

So there’s a learning curve, and if it’s your first kid, then there are two parallel curves: You have to learn to co-parent while you learn to parent. And if you don’t have similar lifestyles or values, this can be extremely frustrating.  

The heart of the challenge: Fear of the unknown 

The scariest part of never-married co-parenting is the fear of the unknown. It can be a visceral, unsettling feeling, like finding your way through a dark room full of unknown furniture.   

If you don’t know what’s going on while your child is with their other parent, it can be deeply uncomfortable.  

If you feel like you’re sending your child off into the unknown, then drop-offs can feel even more painful and emotional. (If you struggle with drop-offs, check out our resource, Coping Through the Emotions of Co-Parenting Drop-Offs: A Survival Guide.)  


What about never-married parents in long-term relationships? 

If the parents had a long-term relationship before separating, then co-parenting is similar to divorced co-parenting, both emotionally and practically. There are, however, some legal differences: For example, if either parent disputes the father’s paternity, then it has to be proven before the father can share parenting time and responsibility (custody).  

Check out our collection of co-parenting resources that apply to any type of co-parenting relationship. 

A silver lining for many never-married co-parents: Less emotional baggage  

Without years of baggage weighing you down, it can be much easier to build a businesslike relationship with your co-parent. Without a personal and painful history holding you back, co-parenting might have fewer emotional pitfalls, and you might not feel as vulnerable. 

Man and woman with their child in the park.

The solution: Follow a purposeful learning curve  

These strategies make it easier to co-parent with someone you don’t know very well. 

Strategy #1: Get to know your co-parent 

If you want to co-parent amicably, it helps to spend some amicable time together. Have those conversations you didn’t get a chance to have while you were briefly together. Talk about your values, lifestyles, and parenting philosophies.  

Build a relationship with your co-parent alongside building a relationship with your child. Whether you like your co-parent’s lifestyle or not, you are now partners in raising your child. It’s a good idea to establish a partnership. 

Sitting and chatting at a coffee shop is important, but also get out and do activities together with your kid. The better you can get along, the easier it will be for your child to be raised in two homes. Share your child’s first birthday, for example—if neither of you have ever had a child have a birthday, it seems fair. And if you get along, then it’s doable.  

Co-parenting counseling can also help.  

Strategy #2: Accept that you and your co-parent will do things differently 

All co-parents have to accept this, but it can be a starker difference for unmarried co-parents. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll change your co-parent, and they’ll never parent just like you.  

Acceptance and compartmentalization are crucial. Try to let go of what happens at your co-parent’s house. Your mental health will thank you. 

Reinforce that these differences are ok when you talk with your child. “You might do different chores (or no chores) at Dad’s house—that’s ok!”  

So don’t discredit your co-parent’s home or parenting (except in cases of abuse). Don’t say, for example, “Well, your Dad is irresponsible, that’s why he doesn’t help you with math.” Even if you feel it’s true, it doesn’t help your child—it just makes them stress over something they can’t control. 

Strategy #3: Pick your battles and set clear boundaries for you and your child 

Accepting differences doesn’t mean letting your co-parent do whatever they want. If they’re mistreating you or your kid, you have to speak up.  

But it’s crucial to pick your battles. If you challenge your co-parent frequently, it will become white noise. If you focus on battles that genuinely matter, then when you fight those battles, you’re more likely to make a difference. 

Learn to separate the eyeroll moments, dumb parenting decisions, and things you wouldn’t do, from the serious concerns that will impact your child’s safety or wellbeing.  

Drawing that line may be difficult. An issue might feel important to you, but not important to your co-parent—or vice versa. Be flexible and reign it in when you can. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae, but ask yourself, “Will this be an issue for my kid in two months?” 

Co-parenting is not a job you can quit or a friendship you can end. You’re going to have a relationship with this person for 18 years or more. What do you want that relationship to look like? 

If an issue is truly serious and worth the conflict, then document, document, document—write down every conversation and behavior, or better yet, use a co-parenting app to communicate, so that everything is automatically on the record. Then you can share that documentation with your attorney or guardian ad litem, if it gets to that point. 

Strategy #4: Give your co-parent the benefit of the doubt 

At times, your co-parent’s parenting choices might come as a surprise. Without the full context behind those choices—their life story, family habits, and decision-making tactics—it’s easy to assume the worst. This will just cause stress over something you can’t control.  

So give your co-parent the benefit of the doubt. Don’t make assumptions. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when you only see snippets, but remind yourself that the whole picture might look different than expected. Think of how you want your co-parent to treat you when they’re stumped by your parenting decisions. 

Strategy #5: Learn from your partnership with your co-parent 

Parenting is complicated, and two minds can be better than one, especially if you equally know and love your child. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Figure out what works for your kid.  

Every kid and every parent-child relationship are different. Your relationship with your kid won’t look like your co-parent’s—and that’s actually a good thing. It’s healthy for kids to be exposed to different parenting styles, and that happens even with divorced parents and still-married parents.   

But be open to feedback from your co-parent. They might have a helpful perspective or a creative idea for managing a problem you both have to deal with.  

Strategy #6: Stay calm, even when you’re frustrated or offended 

If it’s a difficult relationship or conflict runs high, and it doesn’t feel like a partnership, then counseling can be especially important.  

No matter how frustrated you get, it’s important to keep your cool when you’re upset with your co-parent. Overhearing parents fight can be traumatic, even for the little ones. Even before they know words, they can pick up on emotions and tension.  

Two men talking seriously on bench.

Strategy #7: Build a strong support system  

Don’t be afraid to turn to friends and family for support, too. Never-married co-parenting can be complicated, worrisome, and frustrating. If your co-parent is uncooperative, your mom, brother, or best friend might have a useful perspective. Or they might just offer a listening ear when you need to vent about co-parenting 


Alternative solution: Parallel parenting 

Parallel parenting is an alternative method of separated parenting. If you and your child’s other parent really struggle with the “co” in “co-parenting,” this might be a good solution for you. In a parallel parenting arrangement, each parent has their own approach to parenting, and the two approaches might be completely different—but they don’t try to reach a compromise. They just each do things their own way and don’t talk about it. 

In fact, they may hardly talk at all. They only communicate sparsely through email, text messages, or a co-parenting app. They don’t go to the same events (like violin recitals, doctor appointments, or birthday parties). They don’t even ask their child, “How was your week at Mom’s?” They just parent completely separately. 


Other specific challenges never-married parents might face 

Again, never-married co-parenting can be complicated. These are just some of the challenges that co-parents face in this situation. 

One parent resents the other because they didn’t want a child 

This is a tough one, because kids can often sense resentment. But if your child is still young, there’s a chance their other parent will settle into their role as parent, grow to love your child, and shed the resentment. 

That, however, can lead to a new problem: The parent who fully embraced parenthood right away might resent the reluctant parent for coming back into their kid’s life. The returning parent, however, might not get any custody right away. They might have to follow other steps first, like visitation, until they bond with their child.  

When you aren’t a family or even in a relationship, it can be more stressful to adapt your lives to parenthood. This can even make it harder to bond with your child. 

Try to stay flexible, focus on your child, and let go of your co-parent’s feelings and behaviors.  

One parent moves away 

When married parents have a child, there’s an assumption that one parent won’t move unless the other parent moves too. For unmarried parents, there are few assumptions at all. 

Maybe you’ve made the decision to settle down in your community, but your co-parent was in a time of transition (or vice versa). There’s a higher likelihood of long-distance co-parenting or an uneven parenting time split (like 70/30). 

Long-distance co-parenting or uneven time splits have their own challenges, but it helps to stay open to changes. When in doubt, focus on your child’s best interests. 

Explaining to your child why you were only briefly a couple (or never a couple) 

Being never-married co-parents adds a layer of complexity when you explain your past relationship to your child. Some kids might wonder why you even had a kid if you were never a couple or had only a short relationship. There’s no need to go into the nitty-gritty details; instead, focus on the big picture.  

For example, you could say, “Mommy and Daddy love you very much, and you’re half of each of us, and we think that’s really special. We weren’t each other’s true love, but the important thing is we got you.” 


The legal side of things: Establishing paternity 

The main legal difference between divorced parents and never-married parents is the proof of paternity. 

When an unmarried mom gives birth, her name will of course be written on the birth certificate. The father's name could be documented, too, at the mother’s discretion. If he’s listed, it means he has the rights to share parenting time and responsibility.  

Some states, though, require a DNA test to prove paternity, or the father could sign a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage form. This is especially important if the father is not listed on the birth certificate, or if the mother is asking for child support. Check with your attorney to see what’s required in your state. 


Never-married co-parenting comes with its own set of challenges and silver linings 

Co-parenting with someone you’ve never been married to can be complicated, and it can involve a variety of specialized challenges. But it’s still possible to form a workable partnership with someone you don’t know very well. The important thing is to focus on what’s best for your child.  

Katharine Rupp headshot
Author's Bio:

Katharine Rupp is a Legal Liaison and Judicial Education Coordinator with Our Family Wizard. She also works as a Sacramento-based family law attorney. Katharine has successfully combined her legal background and personal experiences with family law issues to build a career focused on helping individuals navigate an often confusing, frustrating, and complex family law legal system. She chose the field of family law because she enjoys connecting with people, resolving complicated problems, and helping people to move forward with their lives.