Divorce in and of itself is an emotional, challenging and life changing process. Individuals going through divorce experience higher rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic ailments. Mental illness, substance abuse, insomnia and depression also increase during the course of and subsequent to a divorce. And that is just the adults. The statistics for children of separation and divorce are staggering - increased depression, anger, anxiety, loneliness, impulsive behaviors and acting out – just to name a few.
Children of divorced parents can find themselves isolated as they often have difficulty keeping and maintaining friendships. In this day and age of smartphones and social media, that isolation can prove particularly harmful and destructive.
I have been representing folks going through separation and divorce for almost 37 years. I have litigated and tried countless custody matters in many of Maryland’s counties and the District of Columbia. When I am involved in a case where parents are fighting over their kids, I often relate a courthouse story from the early 1990’s. I was representing a father of three children who had spent more than a year of contentious and ferocious litigation with his spouse. Unable to decide for themselves where their children would live and who would make decisions for them, the miserable journey was about to culminate with a three-day trial before a local circuit court judge. At 9:30 in the morning, our judge (I have changed his name for the purposes of the story) entered the courtroom and sat behind the bench, banged his gavel and peered down at the parents, their lawyers and several potential witnesses seated in the gallery behind. He then gave a brief speech that I remember – almost word for word – to this very day. “Folks,” he said, “my name is Judge Theodore Jones. I was appointed by the governor to this circuit court bench. I am paid by the State of Maryland to hear cases and make decisions. Today and for the next three days, I will start at 9:30 in the morning, break for an hour between 12:00 and 1:00 in the afternoon for lunch and then return each day until 4:30 pm at which time we will stop these proceedings. During those eighteen or so hours, I will listen to the two of you, your lawyers and your witnesses. When it is all over three days from now, I will retire to my chambers, think about what I have heard for maybe a half hour or so, then come out and render my decision. A decision that will affect your lives and the lives of your children probably for the rest of their lives. When I am done, I will leave here and go out and hit a couple buckets of golf balls, and probably never think of the two of you or children – ever again.”
Once he was sure that he had our attention, the Judge finished with this: “Now you can let me make this decision – the decision I am paid to make or you can take the next few minutes, speak with your lawyers and see if the two of you - the parents of these children – have the common sense to put your heads together, stop being selfish, and decide yourselves what is best for your children. If not, I’ll be back shortly and will do it for you.”
I won’t say whether the Judge’s monologue resulted in these two folks settling the case. As heavy handed as it seems, it most certainly got their attention. After all, I don’t think any parent had children thinking they would leave decisions regarding those children to a stranger in a black robe.
Since it is unlikely divorce is going to end anytime soon, I very much doubt that differences of opinion and conflict over parenting are likely to recede either. If the divorcing couple is willing to see the other parent’s perspective – whether they agree with it or not - and not just be willing, but dedicated, to find a way to communicate and work through those differences, they can minimize the adverse effects of the divorce on their children.
Here are just a few tips designed to assist separated or divorced parents in navigating the complexities of co-parenting from different households:
- Recognize that you won’t agree on everything. If you did, you likely would not be separating or getting a divorce in the first place.
- Consider having the entire family – parents and kids alike – get support from mental health professionals who have experience working with families going through separation and divorce.
- Hire an experienced family lawyer who understands the intricacies of developing a Parenting Plan.
- Be realistic in terms of the amount of time that you are able to solely parent. For example, if you are a full-time worker with travel obligations during the week, it is not likely that you will be able to manage a week on-week off access schedule for the children and you may need to practically consider other ways to maximize your off time with them.
- Try to establish achievable and understandable schedules and routines for your children.
- If possible, both parents’ households should include comfortable spaces for the children that they consider “theirs.”
- Talk to your children about the separation in a way they will understand. Tell them you love them.
- Try to establish a firm procedure that allows for significant decisions to be made without undue delay or harm to the children. In other words, where the two of you have agreed to “joint custody” be sure to address how decisions are to be made when there is disagreement. Does one parent have tie-breaking authority? Do the parents work with a mediator to decide or consult with an expert in the particular area of dispute? There are any number of ways to handle this process, but it most definitely needs to be discussed and should be included in the Parenting Plan.
- Finally, your Parenting Plan should be malleable. Children are not static creatures. They grow and change as do their needs and their desires. Today it might be best for a child to live primarily with one parent but in three years, there may have been changes in the family dynamics and that child would be better served by living primarily with the other parent. Your Parenting Plan should include provisions that presume and plan for these possible changes.
While separation and divorce can be an arduous and formidable process, we as parents can try to make it less so for those members of our family who did not ask for it and can often be caught right in the middle – our children. Do what parents are supposed to do – help them.