Friday, August 22, 2014

Making Joint Custody Work In Real Life

As a divorce and child custody attorney in Orange County, I have two types of cases: Those in which the parents divorce amicably and focus primarily on how they can work together for the best interests of the children and those in which the parties can’t stand each other and, consciously or unconsciously, interact with the children in a way that undermines the other parent.  Unfortunately, the latter outnumber the former 100 to 1.  

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts on ways in which two parents can become parents who can overcome their own differences in order to minimize the impact of divorce on the children and, hopefully, find a way to at least learn to get along well enough to mutually enjoy their children’s activities and life events (birthdays, graduations, weddings and the like).

Sharing child custody is rarely easy, in large part because you're trying to coordinate with someone you couldn't stand being married to.  Nevertheless, studies show that shared-custody works best when both parents are cooperative, respectful, agree on shared custody, and manage their emotions.

Believe me, I know what you are going through, because I have been there myself.  Some might say that sharing my personal experiences violates some boundary or other, but as a child custody and divorce attorney, I will do all that I can to help others see that a peaceful arrangement can be reached. 

When there are problems in co-parenting, in my experience at least, the problem almost always results from one or both parents attempting to exert control over the other parent through the children.  Both in my practice and in my own divorce, I have seen this repeatedly.  

Extracurricular Activities:

Extracurricular Activities are a fertile source of conflict, particularly in the early stages of co-parenting during and after divorce.  For example, one parent schedules activities that conflict with the custody time of the other parent OR the custody order says that both parents must agree on any extra-curricular activities and one parent always, or almost always, refuses to consent to, or participate in, such activities.

Both as a parent sharing custody and as an Orange County divorce and child custody attorney, I ask myself, and my clients this question: “is this an activity in which the child participated, or in which the child would have participated, if you and your ex were still married?”  To me, the answer to that question is the deciding factor.  

If, being as objective as possible, you conclude that this is an activity in which you would have allowed, or encouraged, your child to participate during your marriage, you need to set aside whatever reluctance you have and agree to, and participate in, the activity.  The goal here is to minimize the impact of your divorce on the children.  You can despise your ex as much as you want, though you’ll later see that there is a better way.  Still, however much you hate your ex, if you love your children, you’ll set aside your own issues and those of your ex for the benefit of your children.

Another issue that can be tough is attending the children’s activities that occur during the other parent’s custody time.  If, for example, your child is in little league, attend all the games and practices that you would have attended if you were still married to your ex - err even on the side of attending more.  And, don’t be offended or resistant if your ex attends activities during your custody time.  The goal is happy children, not happy parents, although the latter is more likely if you follow these principles.  

Neither my ex nor I would deny that there was a time during which we could not stand the site of each other.  Even a brief perusal of our respective declarations in support of this or that OSC or Request for Order would show that, even as attorneys, we were people first and lawyers second.  We had, and have, every one of the same feelings and emotions as any other couple going through a divorce and custody battle.  We both made mistakes arising out of our own unhealthy emotions at the expense of our children.  With time, however, following the principles in this post, we have reached the point at which we actually like each other again.  Though I have remarried, my ex and I now have a relationship that is akin to adult siblings.  We have re-discovered the things we liked about each other and have gotten beyond the things we couldn’t stand about each other.

And, we didn’t get there because we worked on our relationship as ex’s, but because each of us independently awoke to the fact that we only had one thing worthy of leaving behind when we are dead and gone, and that one thing our children, damaged as little as possible by our conflicts and divorce and as emotionally healthy as possible despite our divorce.  

As a result, my new wife and I often meet my ex and the kids, regardless of who’s custody time it is, to attend the kid’s activities, to have dinner together, either at a restaurant or at one of our homes.  We allow our dog, whom I got after the divorce, to spend time with my ex while she had the children - not always, but whenever the kids ask.

Many of you are reading this now, saying to yourselves: "This would never work with my ex!"  I know that because I was one of you.  You may be right at any given moment in time.  But, your children will suffer more than necessary if you and your ex cannot put the children ahead of your own conflicts.  Keep an open mind and watch for any sign that your ex would be receptive to an opening to discuss cooperation.  Sometimes that receptivity arises when one parent begins to lose control of the behavior of one or more of the children as they get older, more advanced in their own preferences, etc.  In almost all cases, this will eventually occur.

By: Robert R. Beauchamp
Law Office of Robert R Beauchamp
23120 Alicia Pkwy
Second Floor
Mission Viejo, CA 92692
Tel:  949-370-8000
Fax: 855-370-8100

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