High-conflict divorce exposes both parents and also their children to a lot of stress. Little ones who were already potty-trained may suffer lapses. Youngsters can be clingy, whiny and may go back to thumb-sucking or insist upon having a bottle for comfort. Kids who were previously OK sleeping alone may seek comfort in Mommy's bed or Daddy's bed at night. Kids in school can suffer a loss in performance. Anybody who has been through it or watched another go through it knows that conflict and stress can negatively affect everybody. What is a parent to do to help kids through this stress?
Sometimes parents feel like they will never be able to talk to the other parent again, and often a “no contact rule” seems like the only answer. But if parents aren't communicating about the kids--health issues, school issues, scheduling arrangements such as extra-curricular activities or doctor appointments--then no effective co-parenting is going to happen.
You might wonder if the Family Court has any methods of disengaging uncooperative parents. But the Court cannot "fix" broken families. In the Court’s view, if the parties were getting along, they’d probably still be married. Most judges view post-judgment parenting issues as outside the scope of their “job description.”
Some family courts appoint a parenting coordinator or a Guardian ad Litem [GAL] to look out for the best interests of the children. This can occur at any time during the divorce process, either pre- or post-decree. Typically, a GAL is a lawyer and a parenting coordinator is a counselor, although many courts will appoint either a lawyer or counselor for either role. The parenting coordinator/GAL's task is to make independent and objective observations and recommendations as to what is in the child’s or children’s best interest. The GAL will typically interview each parent, stepparent or significant other, and talk to the children separately. Sometimes the court may authorize the GAL to talk to teachers and pediatricians or other third parties who have independent information about a child.
In Michigan, a parent has to file a motion stting clearly the type of parenting issue that is unresolved and needs clarification in order to get a GAL appointed. Post-judgment parenting coordinators may be authorized by a court to consult with the parents in a mediation-style format to resolve co-parenting issues. Obviously, this takes a lot of stress from the court's docket. It can be helpful to parents because they might get a quicker resolution, but in the long run, the option of GAL or parenting coordinator can be quite expensive. Most courts will order both parents to share the cost involved.
Emailing and texting can be a way for uncooperative co-parents to minimize some of the stress involved in telephone or face-to-face communications. But in this digital age, knowing that emails and texts will often be attached to future parenting time motions, a parent needs to know that the communications are (a) genuine and not modified by the other parent and (b) are easily found in a chronological "roadmap" that shows the extent to which each co-parent is or is not cooperating.
When one of my clients experiences high conflict in a divorce or has post-judgment parenting issues and an uncooperative or non-communicative ex-spouse, I always recommend that the parent keep a log or journal that details the problems. Documentation of the details related to the parenting problem is important so that information can be presented to the Court at a later date. Journal entries should include the "Who, What, Where, and When" even when you cannot explain the "Why." Send an email to your co-parent--short and if not sweet, at least civil--to help your lawyer help you avoid the “he said, she said” problems. I recommend that they save emails, voicemails, text messages, and often recommend family counseling or a parenting coordinator. But recently, I found a better way.
Family law judges in over 44 states and 4 Canadian provinces are ordering parents who have difficulty co-parenting to use OurFamilyWizard, an online calendar and communciation program, to make sure that the kids are not caught in the middle in high-conflict cases. You can take a free test-drive of OurFamilyWizard here at http://ourfamilywizard.com
Our Family Wizard empowers parents by providing long term solutions for co-parenting in a high-conflict relationship. All family information is shared by both parents online, including private and shared calendars, notifications and reminders, a message board, a journal, expense log, etc. The thing I like about OFW is that everybody's emails are saved, can be accessed chronologically, and cannot be modified to remove something said in haste or anger. Our Family Wizard costs each parent $99.00 for a one year subscription. While that might seem like a lot of money, it is a drop in the bucket when compared to the attorney fees and costs a parent would incur in returning to Court on a post-judgment motion. Moreover, it's impossible to put a price on a more peaceful existence.
Many times, a co-parent's anger, spite or bitterness lingers or even intensifies after a divorce, or in the case of unmarried parents, after establishment of parentage and custody and parenting time. Sometimes a parent will be embittered because the other parent has moved on to a new partner. When counseling doesn't help or when parents won't agree to counseling, the best possible solution is to remove or minimize the behaviors or the failure of follow-through with co-parenting that impede open communication and healthy co-parenting. This is especially true when the problem is that one or both parents have a history of substance abuse problems or personality disorders.
Stay tuned for another guest post by Donna Ferber about tips for moving forward with a "parallel parenting relationship". Parties transition at different speeds after a divorce. If you or someone you know is still having trouble communication and cooperating with his or her co-parent, perhaps a parallel parenting approach will help them heal, transition and grow toward a more cooperative approach to co-parenting.
Be sure to consult with a family lawyer if you are not successful in managing parenting time issues after entry of a divorce decree. Courts and their perspectives vary. A lawyer familiar with your Family Court will be in a good position to guide you as to how to deal with the problem of high-conflict co-parenting, based upon knowledge of the particular Court or judge assigned to your case.
An earlier guest post, "The Uncooperative Co-Parent" by Connecticut psychotherapist, Donna Ferber may be read here.
Watch for up-coming post from Donner Ferber: "Parallel Parenting: When You and Your Ex Can’t Play Nice" to be published on March 15, 2012
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