One of the most frequent challenges with divorce is how to negotiate your parenting time without hurting your child.
Part of the problem is that the concept of shared parenting is relatively new. Many people who are getting divorced now, grew up with divorced parents and know what living in two homes is like from their own experience but, the parenting time they experienced is not the shared parenting that is more common today.
Another challenge is the language we use. While the courts are using concepts such as decision-making and parenting time, divorcing parents are still talking about sole or primary custody often without truly understanding that these terms mean or that they are out-dated.
Not knowing what’s typical or what works, divorcing parents turn to attorneys who can make the process more adversarial than it needs to be.
The good news is that there are strategies and techniques to avoid an unintended, unwanted, damaging and expensive fight over your children. Joining me for this Conversation is Dr. Marlene Bizub who has an extensive background in psychology and has been working for over 20 years with families experiencing divorce. Listen in below or keeping reading …
Custody Fights Are Traumatic
When parents are unable to agree on parenting time, the court will generally appoint a custody/parenting time evaluator to make a recommendation to the court. In that role, Bizub would meet individually with the parents, meet with the children and each parent separately in her office, conduct a home visit with the children in each parent’s home, talk to the children individually and collectively, and gather collateral information from outside sources such as teachers, friends, family members, and coaches.
Bizub describes it as an intensely intimidating process. Even for friendly, warm, outgoing parents it is still a daunting experience.
The impact that such evaluations have on children depends on the age of the child, how the evaluation is presented, and on a child’s temperament and resiliency. Even children within the same family will react differently. It can be traumatic, harmful and unforgettable.
“They know mom and dad are fighting, they don’t get along, you have to have an outsider come in and take a look at the situation,” said Bizub. “I think it’s difficult on everyone.”
There Are No Winners In Custody Fights
When it comes to parenting plans, it’s rare that one parent will get everything they want. In her experience, Bizub has found that parents often don’t recognize that they actually agree on more than they disagree but the relationship dynamics are obscuring that. That’s where working with a third party professional such as a therapist, a mediator or a parenting coach can help.
“I can tell them the same thing this parent told them and they’re going to receive it completely differently because it’s not coming from the estranged spouse,” said Bizub.
The court system is an adversarial system. It pits one side against the other creating a framework for win-lose. When it comes to parenting however, what we really want is a framework that is designed for win-win, for creating agreements that both parents can accept.
Not surprisingly, Bizub has found that when parents end up making their own decisions, there is much more buy-in and commitment than when a judge makes decisions.
Avoid Making Major Concessions
Bizub recommends that by choosing your battles carefully you can set yourself up so you’re not going to have to make any major concessions.
“You’re not going to like everything but you can rank what’s most important and not fight about what is less important,” said Bizub.
Bizub has experienced this first hand. In her own divorce, her son’s father lived out of state and in their parenting agreement, they agreed that he would have Thanksgiving each year so he could come to Colorado and take their son snowboarding over the Thanksgiving break. Bizub says she could have insisted on alternating years but was content to celebrate the Holiday with her son on Sunday when he returned from his time his dad.
Twice since divorcing Bizub has wanted to take her son to visit his grandparents for special celebrations that happened over Thanksgiving and on both occasions, her ex agreed to forgo his Thanksgiving trip. Bizub is certain he agreed because he’d enjoyed so many Thanksgiving breaks it was hard for him to say no. Bizub says she’d rather have fewer Thanksgivings and have them when they really mattered to her rather than having them every other year.
Take The Long View
When you’re negotiating your parenting plan, often times the emotional pains and hurts are still fresh, there’s a breakdown of trust and fear of losing your child. So the natural and understandable tendency is to guard your interests. Bizub says you have to weigh this against building for the future. You will have to pick your battles.
“Just know that at some point, you are going to want something, you’re going to need something,” said Bizub. “If you set yourself up to not have a cooperative relationship with your other parent, you’re going to find yourself making a major concession. You have to have that mindset that ‘I’m not going to get everything I want.’ Give where it doesn’t matter.”
Make 3 Lists
Bizub recommends to her clients that they make three lists about parenting concerns:
- everything you don’t care about
- the items that are non-negotiable
- what’s up for negotiation
With your “don’t care” list, you have everything you know you’re willing to give up and offering these to your other parent creates goodwill. Goodwill doesn’t always happen immediately because maybe the other party has some sort of mental calculator they’re using to weigh different aspects of the parenting plan but most people have an innate sense of obligation in return for being given something.
“I tell parents all the time to give one more time because it’s contrary to human nature to always take and never give,” said Bizub. “After a while someone’s conscience will get to them.”
The non-negotiables are the items that have significant meaning to you. They might include events that you really want to celebrate with your children such as Halloween or taking them away for the first weekend of hunting season, for example. Or it could also be times that you are not available and need the parenting schedule to accommodate them. The key here is that these items are what are important to you. These should not be items that are important to you because you having them would hurt your ex. That’s not negotiating in good faith.
In Bizub’s experience, the “don’t care” and “non-negotiable” lists are what people start out with. Then as the negotiations progress and maybe as they start to understand more about what goes into a parenting plan, the “negotiables” start to grow. Often, things that weren’t important to a parent before such as going to baseball, attending doctors appointments, parent-teacher conferences, become important.
This is frustrating for the parent who has always done these things however, divorce is often a wake-up call to parents and they recognize that they do need to be more actively involved.
Put Your Child’s Needs First
As much as both parents may want to fully support their child’s activities, you have to be practical. If both of you attending a doctor’s appointment makes it hard to schedule, then your child’s treatment may be delayed. That’s means perhaps agreeing to alternate.
If both of you attending your child’s soccer games creates conflict for you and that will spill over to your child, then maybe the solution is for the parent with parenting time that evening to attend solo.
Bizub worked on a case where dad worked out of town and got home around 10 p.m. and left at 5 a.m. the following morning. When the kids were at dad’s house, they were basically being raised by his new wife, their stepmom with whom they did not get along.
Mom was available and the kids wanted to be at mom’s house. Dad wouldn’t agree to this because he was insisting on his parenting time. The judge in this case told dad that he wasn’t able to put the children’s needs before his own, that he was more worried about his time than his kids and the judge cut dad’s time back to every other weekend.
Putting your child’s needs first doesn’t mean always giving your children what they want. It means first understanding what they are requesting and why. So for example, the kids that want to stay at mom’s on Friday night because she has no curfew is very different from Bizub’s example above.
Don’t Let Finances Drive Parenting Time
Child support in many states includes an adjustment for the number of overnights a child spends with each parent. This is used as a proxy for the share of basic living expenses each parent is paying. Unfortunately, this can result in a parent seeking more parenting time when there is little interest or ability to actually spend time with the child. If the money is the real concern for you, be open about that. You may be able negotiate a different financial arrangement while making the best parenting arrangements for your child.
Keep Your Child Out Of The Conflict
Most children are going to love their other parent regardless and this is particularly true for young children who derive their identity from both parents. Putting down or talking negatively about one parent is the same as putting down the child and that’s a direct hit on their self-esteem.
The wonderful truth is that this isn’t an either/or situation. Your child loving their other parent doesn’t mean that they love you less. Love doesn’t work that way.
Bizub shared a story about a family she worked with where the eleven-year-old was taking care of their twin 8-year-old siblings and also her parents. Bizub said the eleven-year-old knew everything – the affairs, the bars, the arguments.
With Bizub’s help, the parents saw this and in a family meeting told their child that they would no longer be sharing such information with her. She reacted strongly and insisted that she needed to know. Bizub said, “No. You need to be allowed to be a kid. I want you to worry about who you are going to bike with at home.”
Some five years later, the child came to visit Bizub and told her that at the time she hated what Bizub had done but she wanted to thank her for letting her be a child. Bizub says the credit goes to the child’s parents who followed through on not sharing information and that meant keeping them out of the confict.
Ultimately, Bizub says it comes down to a single guiding principle, “Love your children more than you hate your ex.”
My guest for this Conversation was Dr. Marlene Bizub who has an extensive background in psychology and has been working for over 20 years with families experiencing divorce.