Most judges favor custody arrangements that maximize a child’s contact with both parents. Overall the guide is always the “best interests of the child”, but barring situations of neglect or abuse, chances are you will be sharing custody with your ex in some form.
Do you wonder how you will communicate about parenting when you couldn’t communicate during the marriage? Child custody agreements and visitation plans can be designed, but in between the technical responsibilities there is a lot of space for parents to fall back into their old patterns.
Sociologist Constance Ahrons, an expert on the wellness of families, analyzed decades of research. The data shows that it’s not the divorce but conflict that is a problem for children. This is true whether you’re married or not. If you can learn to co-parent by communicating with less conflict, you can set patterns that are healthier for your kids than the environment when you were married.
It’s human nature to repeat learned patterns, so to help your decision to do things differently, consider these strategies.
Make a commitment to shield the child
Psychologist Edward Teyber offers strategies to establish cooperative parenting after divorce. In his book, Helping Children Cope with Divorce, he stresses the importance of shielding the children from your troubles with your ex. As hard as it can be, try to resist ranting to your kids about your ex’s latest screw-up. As vulnerable as you may be feeling, resist trying to feel assured that the kids are on your “side.”
One important step parents can take is to stop a moment and acknowledge the impact of the changes that divorce brings on the children. Although research shows children of divorce rarely show lasting effects from the divorce itself, in the short term, they are having to adapt to upheavals in their home environment.
A commitment to shield the children can be especially challenging at this moment in your life. If your ex was the person you typically turned to in a crisis, that shoulder is on longer available. The other people you’ve traditionally turned to for support may no longer be there – friends and in-laws may not want to choose sides, or may not want to get involved.
You may suffer temporary depression, or feel alone as so many knowns in your life become unknowns. But even with all of these challenges, try to remember to shield the children. When you get home at the end of the day, try to put aside whatever new frustrations have developed and just talk with your kids about their day. Learning to do this can serve you in the future, to help handle whatever other frustrations happen in coming years. It is a habit that can help us all learn better work/family/life balance.
Learning to hold our need to vent, be more choosey about who we vent to, and finding alternate ways to let off steam are healthy lifestyle choices for everyone.
This is not to say that parents should pretend that nothing’s wrong. You can acknowledge if you’ve had a bad day or if things are frustrating you at the moment. Just don’t turn it into a re-hashing of all the things that are wrong with their father.
Ask your ex to make this commitment to shield the children as well. If they keep waging war against you in front the children, try to resist engaging in battle. Children need at least one parent to be emotionally available to them if the other has gone off the rails.
Don’t use litigation to communicate
In the midst of a bitter divorce, and in the hands of the wrong attorney, disagreements about child custody can escalate. This spectacle of parents at each other’s throats, warring over control of the children, can have lasting effects on the children.
In dissolving marriages where there has been complete breakdown in trust, spouses often resort to using litigation as their primary method of communication. When it comes to the kids and custody, some warring parents can return to court as many as 25 times a year. This gets enormously expensive, and takes an emotional toll on everyone.
Of course, when your kids are involved, the stakes are very high. It’s understandable that your nerves are raw and if your ex attacks (in court) or files outrageous motions, it’s natural to be tempted to strike back. The first move to prevent this is to make sure you’re working with a lawyer who knows when and how to strategically compromise. You need a lawyer who will vigorously defend your interests but you don’t want an attack dog who can’t ever stop snarling.
Respected family law lawyers will know when to urge you not to vent your anger in yet another child custody motion with little chance of success, and instead help channel your emotions into crafting workable parenting plans for a healthy future together.
A second move you can make to resist using the court to communicate about your kids is to spend time thinking about how to advocate for yourself. A good counselor or therapist can help you unwrap your old patterns. If you usually give in to your ex, or other demanding people, a counselor will help you realize why that is and help to work to create new habits to get your needs heard. If you tend to be the demanding one and have trouble compromising, you can work on that too.
During the heat of the divorce it can be a relief to have a lawyer advocating for you. While it is nice to have someone on “your side” at this crucial stage, eventually you are going to have to go it alone. What better time than the present to learn better negotiating skills. Learning how to express your needs effectively will also help you build healthier relationships in the future.
Workout communication short-cuts with your ex
In his book Helping Children Cope with Divorce, psychologist Teyber offers some tactical tips for exes. While some of these ideas may seem staged or forced, it’s because in a way they are. If you really want to interrupt old patterns, which are rooted in how each of you were raised to handle conflict, it will take some new tools. If you want to disrupt your old familiar battles, then it will take some staged tools to intervene.
Establish hand signals to end escalating conflicts – The pick-ups and drop-offs can be especially challenging soon after the divorce. It may be hard to you to even think about being in the same room, or on the same porch step, as your ex. And then, something’s come up with your child and you are forced to interact with him. The idea behind hand signals is that you and your ex agree ahead of time on the signal. Then, if you start arguing and one person uses the signal, you both agree to stop fighting immediately. You agree that no one will get the last word. This system spares your children from watching another fight, and offers a way to start new patterns of communication.
Learn to communicate effectively – Many people who remain married are mired in power struggles and have never learned healthy communication skills. A divorce can be an opportunity for personal growth and for you to model healthier communication styles to your children. Dr. Teyber’s tips for learning new skills after the divorce include:
- When possible, accept responsibility for your share of the problem – are you really “all right” and your ex “all wrong”?
- Try to remain focused only on the issue at hand, keeping the conflict localized instead of tying it to a long list of past wrongs;
- Think about really listening to your ex; and,
- Treat your ex with respect, as a gift to your children.
Of course some of this sounds idealistic. You may be dealing with an ex so mired in anger that even after the divorce is finalized they will still use the children as pawns or punching bags to get back at you. If you’re in a situation where your ex repeatedly insults you in front of the children or has seriously been badmouthing you to the children, you may want to talk to your lawyer about it. There may be further legal action you can take, if you fear your ex’s behavior is more than just sour grapes and is seriously impacting your children.
Or, you may have an ex who isn’t exactly spoiling the children against you, but who still won’t grow up or won’t take responsibility for some things. If your ex doesn’t take the opportunity to become a better communicator, you can still learn to set clear boundaries and limits, and take control over how you let their behavior impact your life.
It’s too bad that custody agreements and parenting plans can’t force parents to be civil. But if you can keep focused on moderating your own behavior, over time, hopefully newer and healthier patterns with your ex will emerge organically.