Co-Parenting 101: A Post-Parental Breakup Communication Ethic that Preserves Family Bonds
Academic: Communication Ethics/Popular Culture Research
The scenario is all too common: A separated couple struggles to equitably share parental responsibilities amidst the relationship’s fallout. Communication between the two parents erodes, misinforms, or otherwise grows toxic. The children suffer the consequences as the parent-child bonds (and often the sibling bonds) manifest maladaptive traits associated with injurious communication practices that may potentially, eventually inform all relations within the family.
Because the experience of parental divorce (or separation) is so widespread and the issues of family dysfunction so problematic, the subject often finds its way to public discourse by way of popular media channels like television and film. One such example is The Squid and the Whale, a 2005 autobiographical movie written and directed by Noah Baumbach chronicling the post-divorce co-parenting struggles of two intellectual middle-agers played by Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels. Largely representing the perspectives of the broken couple’s two children, teenager Walt (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother Frank (played by Owen Kline), The Squid and the Whale is a blunt and (sometimes painfully) honest portrayal of the communication pitfalls separated parents may easily fall into and how their children may suffer the effects. Namely, these pitfalls revolve around: (a) establishing and enforcing boundaries within the revised family narrative, (b) representing the other parent in a negative light, and (c) misbalancing individuation and parenthood. Scenes from The Squid and the Whale exemplify how these pitfalls and their after effects can further divide a family that is struggling to establish its post-breakup identity, unfortunately leaving off where so many real-life families do: tangled in miscommunication and grappling toward an uncertain, undefined solution.
But all is not lost. Through conscientious consideration of relationship-affirmative communication principles, a separated couple—no matter how much at odds with each other—might learn to direct their interactions in a way that fortifies familial functionality. In answer to Baumbach’s poignantly realistic rendering of co-parenting communication difficulties, this paper proposes a communication ethic centered on the dialogic principles of listening, attentiveness, and negotiation to promote post-breakup co-parenting practices that preserve and strengthen interfamilial relationships.
The proposed co-parenting communication ethic derives from communication theories, concepts, and ethical considerations representative of a multitude of concentrations in communication research. Theories of family systems, communication accommodation, expectancy violation, and communication privacy management frame co-parenting issues for discussion, and considerations in public discourse, interpersonal, narrative, and dialogic communication ethics inform the discussion’s ethical bent. It is helpful then to examine the herein described co-parenting communication pitfalls in terms of these theories and ethical considerations.
Communication Pitfall: Establishing and Enforcing Boundaries
Newly separated parents must simultaneously disengage from their spousal (or partnership) roles and adjust their level of childcare responsibility, and this means redefining their orientations to one another, and to the family. Family systems theory, a human behavioral theory that encompasses interfamilial communication, emphasizes the importance of boundaries in the renegotiation of familial roles (Emery, 1994). Without the communication of boundaries—or “new rules” for interacting as individuals and as a family—newly separated parents may co-parent in ways that disrupt healthy family relations. This is dramatically illustrated in a scene from The Squid and the Whale in which Bernard (Daniels) gains access to Joan’s (Linney) home by convincing their youngest son to let him in through the bedroom window. This is a clear violation of boundaries; however, because the couple struggles with boundary ambiguity throughout the film, Bernard’s trespass is presumably beyond reproach and the couple engages in an off-topic argument, during which Bernard crosses another boundary when he speaks of Joan’s infidelity in front of the children, blurring the lines between what should be kept public and private (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 116) and violating his “relational responsibility” to put the good of his relationship with his children before the good of his ego (Arnett et al., p. 127). When he insists that Walt and Frank leave with him, Frank refuses and Joan ineffectually observes the ensuing father and son battle of wills. Bernard’s disregard for boundaries and Joan’s paralysis in setting boundaries render the couple inept at cooperative problem solving, effectively dividing their two children between parents. Driving the point home is the scene’s pivotal punctuation: Bernard has a heart attack following Joan’s uncharacteristically assertive response to his characteristically patronizing attempt at reconciliation (Anderson & Cooper, 2005, 1:06:50).
The concepts of boundary management and public versus private work within a public discourse ethical context to affirm the sacredness of a public space for the communal sharing, contesting, and evolving of ideas (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 114). Without respect for the boundaries imposed by such a space, a post-breakup family will fail to thrive communicatively. From an interpersonal communication ethics perspective, relational responsibility requires that family members prioritize the good of the relationship over the good of self; this conscientious privileging of the relationship over the individual applies in both the private and public sphere, and family members must adjust their communication practices accordingly in order to serve the group’s common good (Arnett et al., p. 123).
Communication Pitfall: Representing the Other in a Negative Light
The opening scene of The Squid and the Whale establishes the Berkman family’s unhealthy communication disposition in this regard: Bernard and son Walt oppose Joan and son Frank in a game of doubles tennis. In an aside, Bernard instructs Walt to hit the ball to Joan’s backhand as “it’s pretty weak” and Walt dutifully replies, “got it,” gloating when his mom fails to return his volley (Anderson & Baumbach, 2005, 0:29). Throughout the film, this dynamic—between pitifully pompous Bernard and his admiring son Walt on one side, and marginalized Joan and her sensitive son Frank on the other side—becomes increasingly more apparent, as does its deleterious consequences. For example, Bernard regularly shares his opinions on Joan’s taste in men with his children, using pejorative language like, “half wit” (15:20), “ordinary guy, not an intellectual” (19:50), “philistine” (27:28), “all those jocks” (43:05) and “very uninteresting” (43:17). Twelve-year old Frank idolizes the man his mother is dating (his tennis coach) and thus internalizes the criticism, acting out in alarming ways (e.g. drinking alcohol and masturbating in public), while sixteen-year old Walt adopts his father’s superiority complex, feeling ever more distant from and judgmental of his mom (and women in general) and regrettably breaking up with his devoted girlfriend under the reasoning that he “could do better” (1:05:43).
Communication accommodation theory (CAT) goes a long way in explaining the how and why of this, positing that in interpersonal interactions, the involved parties adjust their behaviors to either further associate or dissociate from the other, depending on how they view the other, in a process called accommodation (Giles & Ogay, 2006). CAT accounts for the assumption that people derive self-concept from the group associations they forge through communicative accommodation (Dragojevic, Gasiorek, & Giles, 2016). These patterns of communication form narratives that serve a good (in the above example, the good might be Bernard’s superiority), in which all involved communicators become “embedded communicative agents” that continuously shape and call that good into question (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 27). From an ethical standpoint, when narrative contention exists (as it does in the opposing perspectives of Walt and Frank), dialogue must facilitate learning from differences in concept of the good, so that a greater good may emerge (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 80).
Communication Pitfall: Balancing Individuation and Parenthood
Newly separated parents often struggle to balance egoistic self-actualization with the characteristic selflessness of parenthood. The Squid and the Whale calls this conundrum to the forefront with Bernard’s attempt at a physical relationship with a twenty-year old girl renting a room in his house. The girl, Lili (played by Anna Paquin), is a student of Bernard’s and a target of interest for both Bernard and Walt. Bernard is unaware of Walt’s admiration for Lili, and when Walt unwittingly witnesses Bernard pressuring Lili to “put me in your mouth” (Anderson & Baumbach, 2005, 1:02:05), Bernard responds cavalierly, oblivious to the psychological purgatory he has just placed his son in. This is a turning point in Bernard and Walt’s relationship, and Walt’s focus of disillusionment begins to shift from his mother to his father. By the end of the movie, however, Walt is still in a grey area, not fully trusting either parent; the implication is that he will continue to struggle until Bernard and Joan settle, with some accountability, into their new roles as individuals and co-parents.
Expectancy violation theory (EVT) is an interpersonal communication theory that began as a means of understanding proxemics (i.e. distancing) in human interaction and evolved to account for a number of communication subtopics, including marital relations, conflict, and nonverbal behavior (Burgoon, 2015). According to EVT, people carry certain expectations of how others will or should behave in social situations, and violations of these expectations render consequences, either negative or positive depending on the perception the communicative initiator has of the communicative violator (Burgoon, 2015). Providing additional insight into how the dual pulls of parental individuality and accountability may compromise familial expectations, privacy management theory, when applied to family relations, posits that children form an understanding of privacy first and foremost within their family context and that sudden changes in the family makeup (a divorce, for example) can alter familial expressions of privacy and create “privacy turbulence” (Petronio, 2002). Public discourse ethics encourages the thoughtful differentiation of public and private, as these spaces are functionally codependent: private life informs the public sphere (of community decision-making) and the public holds the private accountable (Arnett et al., 2009, pp. 101-102). For a child of divorce, as in the preceding example from The Squid and the Whale, a parent who violates expectations of privacy may appear to eschew the sacredness of the shared public space in which the family must work together to define and serve a common good. The implications of this reach far and deep into the dynamics of a newly separated family coping with role renegotiation.
Before getting into a proposed solution to the co-parenting communication pitfalls outlined here, it’s helpful to explore alternatives to the proposed solution that two co-parents without a guiding ethic may, in their naivety, realistically enact. In broad terms, these alternatives may be classified under either battling or shutting down. An assessment of the ethical unviability of these two co-parenting orientations makes clear the need for a co-parenting communication ethic that preserves and strengthens interfamilial relationships and the overall healthy functioning of the (divided) family unit.
This is exactly what it sounds like: parents openly engage in combat with one another. The causal factors may be personal (e.g. feelings of rejection, loss, or resentment) or practical (e.g. financial and childcare considerations), and may manifest as shouting matches, court cases, and actions intended to harm the other. Parents who transfer blame to the other, or who compete with the other (for best parent or most well adjusted parent post-breakup, for example) are also engaging in battle in a more passive sense. Battling is communicatively unethical because it prioritizes the good of self over the good of family, attempts to force a dialogue, and obscures the contextual validity of individual perspectives (Arnett et al., 2009).
In what might be viewed as the reverse of battling, shutting down involves the withdrawal of engagement. Parents exemplify shutting down when they ignore the other’s phone calls, refuse to discuss co-parenting matters, deny the other of involvement in serious decisions affecting the children, and attempt to erase evidence of the other’s role in the family. This route of communication obfuscation might derive from either personal or practical concerns—and in extreme cases (abuse and threats of harm, for example) it might even be warranted—but it carries negative weight ethically, in that it ignores the sacred, communally crucial public space in favor of the individual good (over the good of the family relationship), disallowing any opportunity for shared meaning-making and co-constructive problem-solving (Arnett et al., 2009).
A communication ethic centered on the dialogic principles of listening, attentiveness, and negotiation positively counters the co-parenting communication pitfalls described herein (as well as the ethically problematic practices of battling and shutting down). According to Arnett et al. (2009), a dialogic ethic recognizes, and embraces, diversity, as it is through this diversity that new, shared understandings emerge (p. 55), and it is within this emergent center that mutually beneficial goods may take shape (p. 90). Although goods vary from family to family in both content and form, a co-parenting communication ethic that preserves family bonds must always at least promote the following goods: (a) the wellbeing of the children, (b) the wellbeing of the parents, and (c) the fluid functioning of the family unit; as well, Arnett et al. emphasize the “need for a minimal common understanding of a given good in an organizational setting” (p. 138)—meaning, goods must be clearly stated if they are to thrive. This is fundamental because each and every family member an invaluable “communicative agent” responsible for the development and perpetuation of the family narrative, which in turn protects and serves the family good (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 27).
Listening, Attentiveness, and Negotiation
The dialogic principles of listening, attentiveness, and negotiation guide ethical communication. Listening entails “listening [to what is being said] without demand [for a platform, or for listening from the other]” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 114). Attentiveness involves acknowledgment of the grounds upon which each communicative agent stands, accounting for the historical moment, each individual’s orientation to the historical moment, and the relationship’s place within the historical moment (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 114). Negotiation occurs through open discourse, within the public space, that invites the emergence of new communicative options for the establishment of common goods; negotiation is dynamic and ongoing, providing no “right” answers—only emergent opportunities for continued productive discourse (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 114).
Locating the Emergent Center
Arnett et al. (2009) provide a set of guidelines for the dialogical facilitation of shared emergent understandings. Co-parents who adopt these as praxis empower themselves toward ethical communication that protects and strengthens family bonds. The guidelines, called “dialogic coordinates” [for locating the emergent center] are as follows:
Approach dialogic opportunities with an attitude of learning. Discard expectations for form and instead listen for content.
Refrain from demanding dialogue. Demand is a form of monologue (egoistic, unidirectional communication); it obstructs dialogue.
Acknowledge the bias inherent to all perspectives. Use it as a tool for understanding the grounds upon which communicative agents stand.
Accept that not all situations allow for dialogue.
Focus dialogue on learning (as opposed to persuading, for example). Seek out meaning, with the end goal of new, shared understandings (pp. 89-90).
To illustrate the practical application of these principles, this paper offers a revised take on the previously presented boundary-pushing scene from The Squid and the Whale, in which Bernard enters Joan’s home without permission and attempts a reconciliation that Joan does not want. The scene plays out like this:
[Joan and Walt are having a conversation in the living room. Frank walks in with Bernard.]
FRANK: He knocked on my window.
JOAN: Bernard, what are you doing?
BERNARD: Joan, let me ask you something. Um, all that work I did at the end of our marriage—making dinners, cleaning up, being more attentive—it never was going to make a difference, was it? You were leaving no matter what.
JOAN: You never made a dinner.
BERNARD: I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.
JOAN: Only because I insisted.
BERNARD: Well if I had made more dinners, would that have made a difference?
JOAN: I was ready to leave a long time ago. I just didn’t know it then.
BERNARD: I’ve been giving it some thought. I mean, you called my father at the last minute and you said something—whatever you said, he thought I could save the marriage. He felt I wasn’t aggressive enough. I’ll make more of an effort to do stuff. I’ve been cooking and doing chores at my house. I make veal cutlets, which the boys love. Why don’t we all have dinner and talk more about this?
[Joan bursts into laughter.]
JOAN: I’m sorry . . . it’s just . . . just . . . burgers.
[Joan shakes her head and continues laughing. Bernard turns to leave.]
BERNARD: I’ll sue you, Joan! You know I will! You had an affair for four years with that fucking shrink who ruined our marriage and I can get the kids—I talked to Eddie Goodman, who works on these cases all the time, and I have an open and shut case! Frank! Walt! Get in the car!
[Joan rises from the couch and approaches Bernard.]
JOAN: Sue me? That’s—I can’t! You only wanted joint custody because you pay less child support that way! Because it’s cheaper for you!
[Bernard extends his hand to Frank.]
BERNARD: Walt! Frank!
FRANK: I don’t want to go.
BERNARD: I don’t give a shit! Frank, get in the car!
[Frank stays in place. Bernard lunges for him.]
WALT: Let him stay. Let him stay.
BERNARD: I’m just asking this one thing.
WALT: Look, he wants to stay. I’ll go.
[Bernard turns and walks out. Walt follows behind him.] (Anderson & Baumbach, 2005, 1:06:52)
If Bernard and Joan were to re-approach this scene with the proposed co-parenting communication ethic in mind, it might look something like this:
[Bernard knocks on the front door. Joan answers.]
JOAN: What are you doing?
BERNARD: I’ve been thinking about things and would like to talk with you. Are you interested in talking with me, and is now a good time?
JOAN: Walt and Frank are here. Is this talk something they can be a part of?
BERNARD: Well, the first part should be kept private, between the two of us. But I’d like to see the boys afterward, if that’s okay with all of you.
[Joan motions for Bernard to join her in the living room. Bernard follows.]
BERNARD: I’ve been examining things and want to ask if I could have done anything to stop you from leaving.
JOAN: No, I was going to leave no matter what.
BERNARD: Are you interested in getting back together? Is there anything I can do now to reconcile this relationship?
JOAN: I’m not interested in getting back together, but I am interested in building a new relationship with you, centered on parenting our children.
BERNARD: How do we do that?
JOAN: We can begin now.
[Joan calls Walt and Frank into the living room.]
JOAN: Walt, Frank, your father and I would like to know how you feel about things. We are still a family, and we need to work together to promote everyone’s wellbeing.
BERNARD: Your mom and I will handle our differences separately and focus on you as co-parents. You can share anything with us, openly. From now on you have a safe space for expressing yourself, and you have a say in how the family operates.
FRANK: I want to stay at mom’s tonight.
WALT: I want to stay at dad’s.
BERNARD: Joan, how do you feel about that?
JOAN: That’s okay with me, as long as it works for you.
The revised scene exemplifies ethical communication in that: Bernard refrains from demanding dialogue; instead, he invites a dialogue and listens to Joan’s response to learn of her stance. This acknowledges both that dialogue is not always possible, and that Joan is an invaluable communicative agent in the dialogic meaning-making process. Joan discards any possible aggravation over Bernard’s impromptu invitation (i.e. form of message delivery), instead seeking to learn from the content of his message. When the couple determines, communicatively, that their initial dialogue belongs in the private space, they preserve the sanctity of the public space and serve the good of their children’s wellbeing (i.e. privileging family relationships over their egoistic need for public validation of their breakup behaviors). Bernard accepts Joan’s stance on reconciliation and uses it as an opportunity for learning, and for continuing the dialogue. When the children join the dialogue, Bernard and Joan explicitly communicate the group’s promoted good of wellbeing for all, and establish a safe public space for the open communication and consideration of all ideas. When Walt and Frank express their personal preferences, Joan and Bernard implicitly acknowledge their sons’ (rightful) biases by responding in a manner that withholds judgment (demand) and encourages further dialogue and learning. At the end of the scene, it is possible to envision how the Berkman family can use this momentum to continue evolving communicatively, and thus relationally. In this scenario of communicative ethicality, there is virtual endless opportunity for reaching even more, and greater, shared understandings that enable strong family bonds. And the applied principles and practices support this good regardless of the issue at hand (in this case, boundary management).
Of course, the above example is a simplistic rendition of how co-parenting communication might occur in a perfect world, between two parents unencumbered by stress, misunderstandings, time and money constraints, and emotional baggage (among other things). Realistically, it’s likely that in order to even approximate the proposed communication ethic, miscommunicating co-parents will have to work through an integration process that draws upon a variety of resources. The following list of recommendations points to these resources, which, either combined or separately, may facilitate and fortify integration:
Attend therapy. Both individual and family therapy can provide insights into family dynamics, tools for healing self, and methods for strengthening interfamilial relationships. A therapist can also mediate difficult family discussions from neutral ground.
Join likeminded communities. Support groups, clubs, and other families in post-separation transition are viable sources of information and moral support.
Devise family mission and value statements. This is a practical means of communicating, and thus promoting, the family goods.
Balance the power. Arnett et al. (2009) assert that “invitation to dialogue is impossible between persons of unequal power” (p. 86). As applied to co-parenting, an imbalance of power may derive from one parent having more influence over the children, more money, or more time than the other parent. While it may not be possible to materially correct such disparities, co-parents may appropriate balance through explicit renunciation of power plays (akin to explicit communication of a promoted good). For example, this might take the shape of a statement like, “When we discuss our child’s needs, we will refrain from legal threats,” or, “For our child’s good, we will dialogue together as a family to learn about our child’s preference of one parent over the other.”
Co-parenting families are sure to encounter great successes and setbacks as they dialogue toward a greater sense of shared wellbeing. While this list is not exhaustive (if such a list were even possible), it does provide a pragmatic means for application of preventative, restorative, and reparative ethical communication practices that facilitate the dialogic co-parenting process. Perhaps most importantly, these recommendations exemplify the overarching objective of any communication ethic, and the impetus for this paper: A dialogue that never ends, as it is always seeking something greater than what is, for all involved.
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