Carolyn Hax: Buy townhouse next to my ex so we can co-parent?

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We asked readers to channel their inner Carolyn Hax and answer this question. Some of the best responses are below.

Dear Carolyn: My soon-to-be ex-fiancee and I have an awesome 1-year-old son together but have come to the conclusion that we can’t live together. We seemed compatible when we got engaged, but problems kept piling up when we moved in together. She can be so inconsiderate — for example, constantly forgetting to close the bathroom door when she blow-dries her hair even though the sound can be heard in my office. She admits she consumes too much garbage TV and garbage books but doesn’t do anything to change. On her side, she finds me critical, thinks I’m overly obsessive about healthy eating and living, and so on.

We tried counseling for our son’s sake, but the conclusion was that we are wrong for each other. I have two questions. First: I have a chance to buy a place in the same townhouse complex where we are currently living (my ex owns our place). Is this a good idea? The homes share a walled-off courtyard, and I think it would be great for our son to grow up being able to run from Dad’s to Mom’s house whenever he wants. It’d also be great for us regarding custody exchanges, sharing resources, etc.

There are only 12 homes, and if I pass this opportunity up, it’s unlikely another will come on the market soon, if ever. Are there any downsides to this I haven’t considered? We live in a large city, so simply buying another place nearby would be a totally different experience for us and our son. My second question is less specific: What else should we be doing to ensure smooth co-parenting?

— Trying to Do What’s Right for My Son

Trying to Do What’s Right for My Son: Speaking from the perspective of someone who has been co-parenting now for five years within a 10-minute drive from the ex — I really don’t think that the distance itself, as long as it’s convenient, matters that much in a grand scheme of things.

Sure, picking the same community means never having to choose which school the child should attend. The child would always have the same friends nearby, whether at mom’s or at dad’s place at any given time of the week. If you like the townhouse and see it as a good purchase from all the real estate and investment angles, then the home’s proximity to mom’s home may be considered as an additional perk.

The larger point I’d like to make is that an examination of your own relationship skills is even more important than how far your child needs to walk between the two homes. It does sound like your excessive criticism and tendency to judge others’ choices through your own lens of perfectionism are going to have a much bigger impact on this new family arrangement than anything else.

Please understand that you will have no control over what is happening in the other home, unless it’s illegal or putting the child in harm’s way. How your son is fed, what books or TV he will have available for him while at mom’s are entirely up to her. You can set up your home according to your more stringent rules and your son will soon learn to adjust to each household as needed. Perhaps living just a little bit farther away, still in the same school district, but too far to be an eye witness all the things you may perceive as “not good enough” for your son on the days he is not with you may help you curb your tendency to judge and express your opinions. Finally, when your son is older, he may develop a preference to mom’s more relaxed house rules and easily walk over to spend more nights at the other home, putting your joint shared custody at risk.

—Experienced Co-parent

Trying to Do What’s Right for My Son: Having both parents living near each other sounds like a great co-parenting situation for your kid, as long as your proximity to each other doesn’t trigger additional angst/criticism in your relationship with your ex that could be harmful to your son.

Would also say that buying a house is a bit of a commitment. Given these two points, it would be really important for you and your ex to talk and decide how you guys want to co-parent and make decisions going forward, including consideration of custody arrangements. If your ex has custody and moves, and your only reason for buying that place was to be near your son, that would be a real bummer.

If part of the reason for your breakup is that your ex feels you are overly critical/controlling, she may feel smothered with you living so close to her and it may be healthier for all three of you if there’s a little more space to build healthy boundaries. So although you’re a grown man and can make your own decision/don’t need her permission, I think it would be most respectful and productive to involve her in these conversations.

Regarding co-parenting, there is so much information out there, but above all would recommend (a) minimizing your son’s exposure to criticism of the other parent — “garbage TV” and “garbage books” may not be your cup of tea but they clearly bring joy to your ex and many others; you can share your passions for health and fitness without shaming others’ interests, and that will help give your son the space to love and respect/not feel torn between allegiances and also to explore and find and create his own path as he grows up — and (b) maintaining awareness and respect of boundaries with your ex, while aligning on logistics of co-parenting.

Trying to Do What’s Right for My Son: I did exactly that. After two years of divorce when our son was 5 years old, I bought a condo five doors down in the same complex. It was great! Our son could walk back and forth, and the “power” struggle was so much less. We lived that way until my ex remarried about 10 years later. I highly recommend it.

Trying to Do What’s Right for My Son: My advice is don’t buy the townhouse. The likelihood is that both of you will end up with other partners, and they may feel uncomfortable joining the “family compound” living arrangement.

I divorced when my child was about the same age as yours, shared custody with my ex 50/50 while we lived within easy driving distance of each other, and if anything I think both parents appreciated having their own space and place, particularly as we both remarried and had more kids.

Our child was part of both families growing up and has a good relationship with both sets of siblings as an adult today. As to smooth co-parenting, communication is key; so is a good custody agreement that spells out each parent’s responsibilities. That being said, you make clear that you and your soon-to-be ex are incompatible.

It’s important to accept that you will probably parent somewhat differently in certain respects, and as long as your son is safe, that’s not something you can or necessarily should control. She will have her house rules and you will have yours. As long as you can agree on the big things, things will go smoothest for everyone when you can respect each other’s handling of the little things.

Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat or email. Read last week’s installation here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.

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