When parties separate and begin the process of implementing a parenting time plan, everything can either go well (rarely) or there can be a myriad of mistakes made. From a divorce lawyer’s perspective, how the parties handle those initial mistakes sets in motion the foundation for their relationship as parents and potentially their relationship with their children for the future. “Trust me”, every parent suggests that he/she always acts in their child’s best interest but, unfortunately, too many times, we fail to see our behavior and how that behavior can cause unnecessary stress and conflict. Here is a perfect example:
It’s a chaotic Wednesday morning and the first midweek overnight for dad with Amanda (13-year-old) since the separation. Dad has an important work meeting beginning at 9 am, and Dad overslept; Amanda had trouble falling asleep, and she is missing the jeans she thought she packed that she needs for her outfit. Added to her stress, before she is dressed, she realizes she left her homework assignment at mom’s house, and she cannot find the permission slip for today’s field trip.
Dad, who sees himself as a good and loving father but who is stressed, late, and feeling tortured by Amanda’s “morning drama” is losing it. Added to the overall stress, Amanda is getting worked up, figuring out what to now wear to school and Dad is becoming impatient with her. Amanda then breaks down crying, sobbing, and cannot catch her breath.
Is there anything unique about this exchange? No, it happens every day in every community. In the absence of a divorce, it is more easily taken in stride, but because of the pending divorce, the stress of two households, and normal teen drama, it has the potential to take on a life of its own. Here is where the “Separation, Parenting Time Missteps, Teen & Pre-Teen Drama and the Future of Civilization” reference comes in, and it applies to both parents.
The first thing that happens as a result of that scenario is that Amanda texts mom, saying that she never wants to go to dad’s house again, it was horrible, and all he did was scream at her and make her cry. Again, there is nothing unique about Amanda’s actions. Teens and pre-teens react this way daily everywhere and have done so for the last 1,000 years. Amanda then does something that causes the situation to escalate. On the drive to school, as dad is yelling at her, she yells back that she hates him, never wants to see him again, and knows why mom hates him as well. Again, as virtually every mental health expert will say, this is normal teen and pre-teen behavior, but because of the stress of the separation and the tension between the parties, mom feels the need to rush to Amanda’s defense, believing that dad handled the visit terribly. Then, dad reacts to Amanda’s words and behavior, believing that mom has brainwashed her against him, and so begins what I refer to as the “death spiral” and the beginning of the “blame game”, where both parties blame the other for Amanda’s decision to no longer want to visit with dad on an overnight basis. IN reality, this exact type of drama takes place daily in “normal” everyday marriages with teenagers and preteens.
Unfortunately, too often, divorce lawyers see this exact scenario. Depending on which party they are speaking with, may determine who was at fault for the breakdown in communications between Amanda and dad. From mom’s perspective, she is merely protecting her daughter (who is distraught), and from dad’s perspective, this scenario is at the heart of all of the fighting taking place between him and mom, and that mom created this setting. As a result of what occurred, the parties typically dig their heels in, and the blame game continues and begins to creep into every aspect of the divorce process, with each looking to find fault in the others' behavior.
So, what could/should the parties have done differently to reduce the likelihood of this scenario imploding on them? The first and most important step (from my humble perspective) is that parties should retain a parenting counselor (usually a mental health expert or family law attorney with specific training in this area) to assist them in working through parenting issues. Don’t wait until the damage is done to first think about bringing in the expert. By that time, both parties are angry and looking to point the finger of blame at the other party. Instead, hire the expert now and use the expert as a form of “traffic cop” to assist in maintaining more constructive communication concerning parenting issues. The parenting counselor's role is NOT to work on the marriage and the reasons for the separation/divorce. The role of the parenting coordinator is to focus on parenting issues moving forward. My suggestion would be to start with the parenting coordinator in advance of the first overnight parenting time event. From an ego standpoint, all or virtually all parents think that it will be “fine” and that everything will be the same as when they were all living together, but it is not, especially if this parent has not actively handled all of the day to day responsibilities of the child[ren], including making their breakfast, getting them off to school, making their lunches, being home with them after school, making dinner, doing homework, bathing, etc.
To ensure success, the parties need to talk, and the best place for that conversation to start is in the parenting counselor’s office, which is where it can be handled most constructively. Too often, when parties try and do it on their own, they perceive the other party as acting in a belittling fashion or in a demeaning fashion, which again adds to the death spiral.
The second thing that can help in this transition is the use of an app known as myfamilywizard or a similar type of app so that parties can communicate constructively. This app allows each parent to post information about scheduling, activities, school assignments, etc., allowing them to avoid a claim later that he/she did not tell me about a particular event, school assignment, etc. This kind of claim can blow up hasten the movement towards the death spiral.
Separately, as to the example cited above, a few thoughts:
- Early on in the process of overnights, both parties need to remember that it is stressful for the other parent (since it is new for their daughter and each of them) and that both need to take steps to help ensure its success. The mantra should be that you love your child more than you dislike your soon-to-be former spouse.
- Both parties should also remember that they are not doing this to help their ex-spouse; they are doing it to ensure that their child[ren] is happy and well adjusted.
- Dad should probably not have scheduled a meeting for the following day first thing in the morning, knowing (or anticipating) that everything may not go along perfectly smoothly.
- When mom got the text from Amanda, telling her how horrible the overnight was and how dad yelled at her, mom probably should have taken a breath and told Amanda that dad loves her and that it is new for everyone and that it will get better in time. Mom probably should have sent a copy of the text exchange to dad, telling him that she knows that it is not easy and that she had his back when Amanda lost it. While it may kill you to help him out, the goal is to figure out how to make your child the priority and to help her have a happy and healthy future with both of you in it.
- And, as a result of the setting, the parties should have scheduled a follow-up visit or phone conference with the parenting coordinator to discuss what occurred and to ensure that they are on the same page moving forward in dealing with Amanda’s drama ( which drama will most likely continue for years to come)
Lastly, before introducing a new partner to the child[ren], you should be confident that this relationship is stable and long-standing (at least six months). Introducing children to a new relationship and then the relationship ends, and the person is gone from their lives and then replaced with a newer relationship and who is gone again and again and again is another bad cycle for the child[ren] to deal with in their efforts to get acclimated to this new norm. Instead, before introducing a new relationship, reach out to the parenting coordinator and ask for guidance on what to say, what not to say, and what the children should be exposed to, and then work on a timeline for expansion of that relationship in the presence of the children.
Parents often think that if they simply tell the children that this is a "friend" and the children don't know that this friend is staying overnight with that parent, the children will be fine with it. Wrong. The first thing that they will presume is that mom or dad has a new boyfriend or girlfriend and plans to get married to this person. And, of course, the children will tell the other parent that mom/dad has a new relationship and then (more likely than not) embellish and suggest that they are getting married… and again, one more step closer to that death spiral. It does not matter that you did not nor ever would tell the children that you were planning on marrying this “friend.” Still, by virtue of you failing to be honest with the children as to the nature of the relationship, you allowed them to speculate. As part of that speculation, they also heard what they wanted to hear and will swear that you said that you were marrying this person or that this friend slept over in bed with you (regardless of whether it occurred or not).
Too many times over the past 35 years of practice as a divorce lawyer, I have walked into the office on a Monday morning to a message from a client or a former client telling me that his/her spouse or former spouse is permitting an unrelated boyfriend/girlfriend to sleep with him/her that weekend when the children were present and that they are planning on getting married and that we need to file an immediate emergent application to the Court for relief. And the first question I ask is . . . who told them about the boyfriend/girlfriend sleeping over while the children were present”. The answer (92.675% of the time) is their daughter or son. The next question is whether this behavior is inconsistent with their spouse’s behavior in the presence of the children. The reason why I ask this follow-up question is that many times, children embellish and before we go to DEFCOM 4 level, we might want to explore whether it actually took place or whether the child “filled in the blanks” after a parent introduced them to their “friend”. Many times, I have found that the other parent simply had a “friend” over to visit for dinner and to watch TV, and because the children did not know who this person was, the setting allowed the children to speculate, and that speculation can again bring the parties one step closer to that death spiral.
Parenting is tough enough and requires both parties to figure out how to work together under the best circumstances. Adding a divorce to the mix makes it more challenging, but sadly, divorce lawyers can tell whose children will come out of the divorce process okay and whose children will suffer, and the children who will suffer the most are those whose parents are incapable of maintaining constructive dialog and who prefer to blame the other parent for parenting issues instead of figuring out how to work together.
One former client told me that he realized that he had been yelling at this wife in the presence of the children and that his actions were causing the children to act disrespectfully towards his wife and that he needed to change his behavior if he wanted their children to have a healthy relationship with both parents moving forward. That change in his behavior did not save the marriage, but they figured out how to communicate more constructively in dealing with their children, limited their communications to issues involving their children, and they used an app for communications to avoid the exchange of harsh words when angry.
What we do now in the handling of our relationship with our children will ring forever. It’s worth taking the steps necessary to try and make it successful because, on their wedding day, both parents should be able to walk down that aisle holding their child together and sharing in that glorious moment.