Even in the best of times, sharing parenting responsibilities with another human being is challenging. If you’re a married parent, you already know that the art of compromise is that the heart of any relationship and even more vital with parenting. Add the dynamic of a broken marriage to an already difficult balance and you’ve got trouble.
I live with two other single parents—all three of us share legal and physical custody of our kids with our ex-spouses. Across the street, my BFF Alexis doesn’t share custody with her ex, but she goes out of her way to make sure he sees their kids because she knows the kids thrive with both parents actively involved in their lives. Out of the four of us, Timothy, my fiancé, has the most cooperative, cordial, even warm relationship with his ex, Melissa.
I’ve been at this co-parenting thing for over four years now and it hasn’t gotten much easier. But it’s worth trying every single day. Here’s why.
Shared Custody = Shared Decision Making
Divorced parents with equal legal custody share decision-making over major areas of their kids’ lives: healthcare, education, extracurricular activities, and dangerous instrumentalities (use of guns, vehicles, etc).
Did you notice that I didn’t include religion as one of the four? That’s because parents have constitutional rights to teach their children in the ways of their own religious or spiritual belief system. I’ve seen plenty of articles that say this is one of the main decision making areas parents share, but my reading of the case law suggests that, unless those beliefs pose a danger to a child (e.g. refusal of emergency medical care because it’s against one’s religion or disparaging of the other parent’s beliefs), parents can’t interfere with each other’s religious training.
When parents’ marriages are intact, they usually compromise on the main areas of child-rearing out of respect and love for one another. One defers to the other in some things and vice versa. Once broken, though, the incentive to compromise often goes down the toilet along with the marriage, replaced sometimes with a vindictive need to triumph over the other parent.
When parents can’t act in unison, children suffer, far more than parents ever will. That’s because kids then know that they can play one parent off of the other to get what they want. That’s just too much power for a child to handle–it tears down the basic premise of a well-bonded family–that the parents are there to care for the children no matter what. It’s not good for children to feel that they’re in control. If mom and dad aren’t in control, who is?
Who’s In Charge Here?
Kids need to know that the adults in their lives are in charge of their environment. While not perfect, parents stand between them and the big wide world out there. When parents are in charge and unified, kids aren’t forced to mature too early. They can grow at their natural pace not at the pace their parents’ divorce dictates. And both parents can more easily maintain an attachment to their children—a bond that will serve to regulate later teenage behavior and help to keep them out of depression, despair, and delinquency.
Different rules in two homes is standard in bi-nuclear families. Too much difference, though, can make one home way more attractive to children. If one parent is super lenient and the other sets clear limits, parents will inevitably hear “I want to go to Mom’s/Dad’s house!” While this may be gratifying to the parent who’s house the child wants to be at, it stretches the bond between parent and child. Sometimes the attractiveness of the one home stretches the bond with the other parent so far that it may break. And that break can plague the child well into adulthood, setting him or her up for unhealthy relationships, internal imbalance, and constant struggle with being real and authentic.
There are lots of therapists and experts that help people co-parent—to cooperate—so that kids have a strong beginning with two parents who can communicate respectfully and make decisions together. This is the ideal. The courts, however, are filled with parents who can’t make it happen. When parents fail at it, courts will sometimes give one parent decision-making power over one or more of the major areas—splitting authority for the sake of peace. That’s how important experts and courts think a harmonious co-parenting relationship is!
Trouble is, neither party can predict who will get what decision-making authority. Litigation around those determinations can persist for years! And children will continue to witness parent vs. parent, further confusing an already wandering internal compass.
With Clarity Comes Healing
High-conflict parenting is damaging to kids whether parents are married or divorced. In family law circles, it’s a basic principle that parents who remain in conflict with one another after divorce are actually maintaining their connection–albeit in a negative, hurtful way. Recently, I heard a statistic that said about 25% of co-parents have cooperative relationships, about 25% are in high-conflict, non-cooperative relationships, and the rest are somewhere in between. That high-conflict 25% are people who really do still have feelings for one another but aren’t able to acknowledge that and respectfully, lovingly separate.
The first 25% of parents recognize that parenting is not, should not, be about our adult baggage—though it does bring up old wounds for healing. Parenting is about putting someone before ourselves. It’s about raising a new generation to help solve the cultural and environmental problems we ourselves are saddled with, and to live full and abundant lives. When each of us puts our kids first, before our own difficulties even, we help create a healthy, promising, joyful future because we send out into the world people who have learned how to resolve conflict, how to honor the good in others no matter what, how to find balance in a tumultuous world. Divorce is not the worst thing that can happen to a family–though it does “suck monkey balls.” It’s a path to healing ourselves and each other.
So when I see my fiancé and his ex-wife chatting over tea, I’m really proud. The two of them must have done a lot of internal work to heal their wounds to be so kind to each other through one of the hardest jobs known to mankind–raising another human being.