I’m in a very rare situation, where twice I have been sued, by different people, for custody of my son, when he was one year old, and again when he was five. As the judge said sympathetically to me in his closing comments on my last trial, “You have been at war since this child was born.”
In the state of California the law provides that a child can have three parents (or more), and anyone who claims to have formed a “parental” bond with a child, who is not a paid for child care, can make a claim of legal parental rights and custody. It’s worth checking out “presumed parentage” laws in your state, if you plan to raise your child as a single parent, as I did, or if you share your home and any child care responsibilities with a partner, step parent or even a relative or friend -- but that’s another story.
To make a long story short, in both cases, I prevailed, and I retain 100 percent legal and physical custody of my son, but I stipulated to limited visitation in the first case; and I was court ordered to allow visitation in the second case.
While being sued twice for custody is unusual, the aftermath of sharing child custody in a high-conflict situation is not, and through my feelings of anger and resentment, I have had to learn coping mechanisms for getting along with those who sued me, with a goal of peace for myself, and more importantly for my son.
After monitored visitation, that eventually led to more liberal visitation, which is now slightly awkward but congenial visitation, I am on good terms with the man who sued me the first time. We went from barely interacting to now vacationing together. Unfortunately, the other case has not been so easy,
Though my relationship with the other plaintiff was brief, we lived together for several years for financial reasons, and during that time our differences in approaches to child rearing were monumentally obvious. As the judge in our case said, my parenting style is “by the book,” but he clarified, “in a good way.” On the other hand, the judge said, my ex’s style is “free range” and “not in a good way.”
So in addition to having to stuff down very negative feelings toward my ex for suing me for custody, I have serious concerns for my child’s safety and wellbeing when in my ex’s care, so the interactions between us are tense at best.
Unfortunately, these types of contentious relationships between exes are not uncommon, and for couples with children, this means potential conflict that can disrupt children’s lives and have a long-lasting negative emotional impact on them, unless the break up and custody sharing is handled in the most constructive manner, with the children’s best interests in mind.
Here are some tips I have gleaned from professionals, and my personal experience, that can help keep the peace in front of the kids and mitigate some potentially prickly situations.
Get out. Assuming there is no chance at reconciliation, end the relationship and move out as quickly as possible. The worst fights occur in this twilight of a relationship, when the couple knows their days are numbered, and all the resentments and frustrations of the failed relationship surface.
Don’t go to the house. Arrange drop-offs and pickups at school or daycare so that there is no interaction between the adult parties. For instance, for a weekend visit, the custodial parent should pick up the child Friday after school and then return the child Monday morning.
Stay in the car. If you must do an exchange at either party’s home, park in front of the house for a drop off or pick up, and have the child go from the house to the car alone. The other parent stays in the house. The parent who is driving can text or call when he or she has arrived. Obviously, the child needs to be old enough to safely walk from the house to the car unaccompanied. If a parent needs to walk to the car with the child, the parents should not speak, unless they can manage a cordial “hello” in front of the child.
Be separate but equal. At children’s events, such as school concerts or sports games, parents should sit apart and avoid interaction. Each parent should allow the other to visit with the child independently for five or 10 minutes, as time allows, before or after the event, for hugs and photos, etc. The parents can arrange in advance who gets the first shift. If this is too contentious, then the parents should split up the events, so they alternate attending them.
Share the holidays. If it is not court ordered otherwise, parents should split up holidays fairly, either dividing a full week in half for longer breaks, like spring break or the winter holidays, or alternate years for shorter holidays, like Thanksgiving. The same drop-off pickup rules as weekend visits can apply, whereby the parent picks up and drops off at school; otherwise the “stay-in-the-car” exchange applies.
Leave new partners out of it. New partners can be a huge trigger for conflict, so during exchanges or other instances when a new partner might be present, ask your new partner to step back or wait elsewhere to avoid a scene in front of kids.
Do not talk about the ex in front of the child. Even if your ex did something horrible to you, chances are your child still loves him or her dearly, and your attacks only exacerbate the internal conflict within the child, who feels torn between loyalty to two parents.
Do not ask the child about the ex. If the child wants to tell you what he or she did with the ex during a visit, the child will volunteer that information, but do not ply the child with questions. Otherwise the child will feel put in the position of a spy.
Do not make the child a messenger. If you have a message or question for your ex, then send an email or a text or call when the child is not present. Do not ask the child to communicate to your ex for you. This includes any notes, child support payments, or the like. The child should never be a go-between for the parents.
Apply the “mother” filter. When you are speaking with your ex or writing to him or her, pretend your ever-gracious and forgiving mother is listening or reading over your shoulder. Of course, if your mother hates your ex too, and substitute in your Sunday school teacher, a respected counselor, or other person of calm mind and voice of reason.
In the end, civil relations between you and your ex will have a big impact on your child. Children are the ones who suffer when both parents cannot be present at their piano recital or big game. When a child is exposed to arguing or contentious interactions, they feel the tension and negativity around them, which can cause them to feel sad, angry, confused and mixed emotions that may result in them acting out in harmful ways. Even if you don’t want to improve your interactions with your ex for your own sake, you need to do it for your child.