Patience and Co-Parenting

Father holds crying toddler as son crawls on his back

Like any other skill, patience can be acquired through thoughtful and dedicated practice. While some people may appear to be inherently patient, patience is not, in fact, an innate quality that you either have or you do not. Patience can be learned, and those of us who are sorely lacking in it are not precluded from overcoming the frustration we feel at situations that we perceive as annoying, unfair, or unpleasant. Doing so just might take a little bit of hard work.

The hard work can definitely be worth it, though. Patience is a skill that can improve countless situations that we encounter on a daily basis. Whether it's a coworker retelling the same story for the third time, a child having a meltdown in the middle of the checkout line, or a co-parent being slow to respond to a question, patience allows us to adapt and take things in stride, reducing our stress and improving our outlook.

Nevertheless, patience can be difficult to achieve after a divorce or separation, especially if co-parents are still acclimating to their shared parenting routine. When conflict is also thrown into the mix, practicing patience can be especially difficult.

When patience is appropriate

Co-parenting is serious work. Patience with traffic or a chatty coworker can feel worlds apart from patience with a co-parent who is refusing to cooperate with you in raising children in a healthy environment.

Even within a co-parenting relationship, there may be varying levels of disagreements and conflict. Moving past those rough patches requires co-parents to be able to choose an approach that is in line with the level of conflict. Pushing each other's buttons, for example, can contribute to miscommunication and tension. It can even make your co-parenting feel choppy and frustrating. But those effects can be contained and mitigated with various techniques, such as practicing patience.

If a co-parent's behavior is harmful rather than simply inconvenient or tiresome, however, patience alone will not be an appropriate tactic. The first concern when deciding an approach to a situation is the safety and health of children. Being patient with behavior that puts those at risk is not a viable solution.

Benefits of practicing patience as co-parents

Even when conflict is not a factor, communication may never be perfect. Co-parents may still, on occasion, drop the ball, leave a question hanging, or be slow in showing compassion and empathy with each other. Reactions to those mistakes, honest or not, can either fan the flames or mitigate conflict, and a large factor in the nature of those reactions is the presence or absence of patience.

Mitigating conflict

Even in cases where one person is consistently the instigator, interpersonal conflict often requires the willing participation of both parties to thrive. When co-parenting with someone with a high-conflict personality, it can feel as though it's up to you to mitigate conflict at every turn. That responsibility can sometimes chafe, but participating in the conflict willingly is not a solution.

Patience allows co-parents to respond thoughtfully rather than simply react when in a high-conflict situation. Reacting to annoyance or rudeness without thought furthers conflict, not communication, and patience is an essential tool when trying to prioritize the latter over the former.

Reducing stress

We cannot control the behaviors of others, but we can control our responses to situations. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, "nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent." Restated sometimes as 'nobody can make you feel bad without your permission,' this is a great mantra for co-parents to add to their routines. It can act as a much-needed reminder when tempted to place external blame for an internal response.

Good example for children

Children learn communication habits and their emotional coping mechanisms from their families. If a parent yells at cars while driving, shows obvious frustration when made to wait in a long line, or reacts poorly to things not going according to plan, children may pick up on those impatient behaviors from a very young age.

Learning patience while co-parenting

Patience is a skill, and as such, it requires practice. Luckily, the progress we make when practicing patience in one scenario can benefit us in many others.

Recognize the effects of impatience

When first starting to practice patience, it can be easier to see its benefits by recognizing how impatience impacts our well-being and happiness.

Impatience can result in an onslaught of negative emotions: frustration, annoyance, and feeling unable to control the situation are just a few. Experiencing these emotions is never pleasant, and doing so frequently can be a serious detriment to our outlook and approach to all situations and encounters. Impatience rarely stays in its lane, and the stress it generates can quickly bleed beyond the situation where it originated.

That stress will not only affect the relationship with your co-parent, but it can also change your interactions with your children, your friends, and other family members.  

Investigate why you feel impatient

Counteracting impatience with patience is easier if you understand where the feeling is coming from in the first place. Often, impatience is a result of reality not conforming to our expectations. When that happens, our false sense of control can uncomfortably collapse, and it's often easiest to respond to that discomfort with impatience rather than acceptance.

Upon recognizing a feeling of impatience, take a moment to reflect on why that feeling could be bubbling up. Is your current situation the actual root cause of your agitation, or is your impatience rippling from a separate issue entirely? Investigating the situations to which impatience is your default response will help you identify your triggers, giving you the opportunity to counteract them in the future.

External stimulus versus internal response

Understanding what commonly triggers impatience is just the first step to overcoming it. The next question you should ask yourself is, “Can I reasonably expect to be able to control the situation that is causing me discomfort?” You may find the answer to be no with surprising frequency.

Feeling completely out of control can be distressing and can compound the effects of impatience. But while you may not be able to exert control over the situation itself, you are still able to control your own reaction. Recognizing that you have that ability can be empowering, especially when confronted with circumstances that make you feel annoyed, frustrated, and powerless.

Trying to overcome impatience is a struggle with which many of us are familiar. In order to move past miscommunication and stay focused on finding a way forward, co-parents need to be able to keep a clear head. If impatience is allowed to grow unchecked, it’ll be increasingly more difficult to do so. So even though it may take hard work, and lots of diligent practice, learning to be patient is one of the foundational skills needed for peaceful and productive co-parenting.