Sunday, August 17, 2014

Custody Challenge - the balance of a mother and father as a couple becomes the tension after they split

Many family experts talk about the different parenting styles between mother and father. They talk about the nurturing and protective nature of a mother and how the father allows independence and exploration. Though I never formally studied this area, my own experiences and observations lead me to believe this idea. I think because of these differences in parenting, this is one of the factors that causes angst with custody after parents split.

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When parents live together, they tend to work together whether it is a conscious effort or not. The mother is protective and tries to keep safety paramount. That's not to say a mother cannot foster a sense of adventure and independence. But my sense is there is a more heightened concern for safety and security. The father seems to allow a child a greater deal of autonomy; even at the youngest ages. That's not to say fathers place their children at high risk of being harmed. But I think fathers will wait a little longer to see if the child identifies a risk before intervening. Together, parent seem to offset each other. Mother's reel kids in when fathers allow too much adventure and fathers push the envelope when mothers are being overly cautious. These roles and this balance, whatever it is, develops from the time the children are born.
(I realize these are broad generalization and do not fit every family. And I am not trying to offend with this entry. Read on because even if you disagree with my generalizations, I think some of my logic follows for couples filling the roles differently)

When parents separate, this balance is disrupted and just adds tension to an already traumatic event in the parents' lives. They are already angry, mistrust each other, and hurt. Then, they are forced to share or divide the most precious part of their lives, their children. The most upsetting point is when the parents realize they have lost most of their influence over the other parent while he/she is exercising custody. I have met very few mothers who truly believe their ex's can properly care for their child without instructions from them. Many fathers feel mothers can be over-protective and intrusive when they have custody. When the parents completely ignore the others concerns and desires, it becomes a flashpoint.
If parents fail to understand and accept they have lost significant control of the other party's parenting practices when that person has custody of their children; if parents fail to recognize that the balance is off and they need to find a new balance and lose to sight of the fact they still need to co-parent in their new relationship; if they find they cannot or decide not to cooperate with each other to raise their children; and/or if parents act on their own emotions only, then they the run the risk of committing themselves to years of litigation and thousands of dollars in attorneys fee. And ultimately not providing a better environment to raise their children.

I'm not suggesting one parent should not intervene through the legal system if a child is in real danger or at significant risk because of the other parent. But the court does not want to get involved with a true difference of opinion on parenting.
When my clients talk to me about concerns they have about the other person's parenting, I try to shift the focus from the objectionable activity and on to the probable effect on the child.  If the activity is not harmful and has no real negative long term impact on the child, chances are a court is not going to intervene. As a result, any emotions and resources spent on the issue are a waste and could be counterproductive for both parties.

If there is an issue that is just a little more serious, the court may intervene. But parents in Pennsylvania need to keep in mind the courts' preference is to divide custody as equally as possible. So the court's intervention will probably be minimal. As a result, the return on any efforts will be much less than desired.
With all this stated, I understand some people are just jerks and so selfish that they will use their children as a tool to agitate their ex-partners. Unfortunately, there is not much one can do to correct a poor personality. In fact many times any efforts to do so only encourages continued antagonistic behavior.

While it is not always possible, I encourage clients to negotiate as many issues as they can with their former partners and only litigate what they must. My goal for my clients is to establish the new balance as soon as possible so they can put the fighting behind them and refocus on the important task of co-parenting their children. Without building a new balance in their lives, a couple risks years of emotional distress and a significant financial burden in attorneys’ fees.

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