The single biggest barrier to successful negotiations is conflict. Conflict can range from occasional disagreements or shouting matches to persistent arguing, verbal and physical assault. Sometimes it escalates into threats to hurt or kill.
Studies have confirmed that children witness domestic violence between their parents in 50%–75% of divorces, and that nearly half of those children are themselves victims of abuse. Not surprisingly, conflict between parents can feel more like “the clash of the titans” to a child than an example of “Mom and Dad trying to figure out what’s best for me.”
Some amount of conflict is normal during a divorce or separation. But when arguing, fighting, legal battles, and name-calling are a regular part of your co-parenting landscape, agreements can be very difficult to reach on your own. What can you do about it? You can learn more about different “conflict styles“, and you can ask yourself the following questions:
- Are your court files more than six inches tall when you stack them up on the kitchen table? (Research shows that approximately 5%–10% of all divorces are litigated )
- If someone asked both you and the other parent about how things are going, would one say, “Great!” and the other would say, “Awful”?
- When you or the other parent talks about why the arguing continues, do you both say that you are always right and the other parent is always wrong?
- Are your extended families and friends lined up on one side or the other, ready to do battle?
- Does one or do both of you feel that the other parent has nothing good to offer your children?
- Does one parent feel that the other parent has “cut off” the possibility of having a good relationship with your children?
- Have there been threats of violence, physical abuse, or emotional abuse in your relationship (even if it happened only around the time of separation)?
If your answer is “yes” to the last question— or three or more of the other questions—there’s a good chance that your conflict may get in the way of negotiating a parenting plan. In these circumstances, parents will do themselves and their children a favor by asking for outside help.
The most obvious costs can be measured in the dollars it takes to pay attorneys, court fees, child custody evaluators, special masters, visitation supervisors, counselors, and other professionals you and the other parent must hire to help. Less obvious, perhaps, are the enormous costs that each of you will pay emotionally. And your children will pay most of all.
Children often feel afraid, sad, and confused when their parents argue with, blame, or threaten each other, or let their anger spiral out of control. Children look to their parents as the people who protect them from the scary parts of the world. Children also need their parents to help them manage the hurt, anger, and other calamities that are part of growing up. When parents are arguing or become violent, children lose confidence that their parents will continue to love them and keep them safe.
Study after study confirms what many parents know from their own experiences: Conflict between the parents takes the greatest toll on children. This conflict—especially when it continues over time—can slow your children’s ability to reach certain milestones in their development, lead to poor performance in school, undermine their ability to relate to friends, and make them feel even more isolated than they already feel because of the separation or divorce.
Although it will be difficult, you and the other parent can find effective ways to reduce the levels of conflict that you experience in your co-parenting relationship. You can start by figuring out your conflict management style. Below are some strategies that both professionals and parents agree are the most effective in reducing conflict.
Separate Relationship Issues From Parenting Issues
Most professionals working with divorced or separated families urge the parents to find ways to keep their adult-relationship issues separate from the parenting issues. But what does this really mean? In short, it means that you don’t mix up your feelings about why you and the other parent didn’t stay together with your children’s needs and desires. It also means that you can see your children’s needs as separate from your own, or the other parent’s.
Deal With Feelings of Revenge
Some parents are so angry or hurt that they feel like they want to “get back” at the other parent. These feelings can be a powerful motivator and a significant roadblock in your negotiations. When revenge becomes a central theme for one or both parents, its destructive influence makes finding a settlement outside of court less likely.
Some desire for revenge is often a fact of life following a separation or divorce. To help, you can look for ways to bring the feelings out into the open safely and then loosen their hold on your negotiations. As with other intense feelings, you may be able to overcome these destructive feelings by admitting that you have them and acknowledging how much you would like to be able to act on them. Having done this, you might then be able to discard revenge and move forward to negotiate an agreement that nurtures your children.
If you or the other parent can’t shake your desire to get revenge, try thinking about what would actually happen if you got what you think you want. You can start by playing a game of “What if?” Imagine that you are not only successful in getting revenge but that you have succeeded beyond your wildest dreams! For example, if you want to pay the other parent back for taking a new lover, imagine that you’ve been able to do that and to guarantee that they will not have another happy moment, or date, for the next ten years. If your goal is to force the other parent to admit what a miserable parent he or she is, imagine that he or she not only knows this, but that a court has sentenced him or her to walk up and down Main Street wearing a sandwich board that proclaims his or her failings.
Got the idea? Great! Now imagine the consequences. How well will the other parent be able to function as a caregiver? How will your children react to the other parent’s fate? How long will your feelings of triumph last? How long might it take and how much might it cost to actually achieve full victory? How motivated will the other parent be to pitch in on miscellaneous expenses for the children or to faithfully pay child support?
Revenge may be sweet for the moment, but it is a poor substitute for confidence in yourself and your value and abilities as a parent. It can so easily backfire and cost you and your children any sense of fulfillment.
Don’t Undermine Your Child’s Relationship With the Other Parent
Sometimes parents try to undermine the children’s relationship with the other parent—they try to turn their children away from the other parent. Signs that a parent is engaging in this type of behavior include:
- One parent regularly talks with their children about their worrries that other parent won’t be able to care for them adequately
- A child has decided to resolve feelings about wanting to love both parents by choosing to align with, or be loyal to, one parent, and sees the other parent as dangerous, uncaring, or sees the other parent as dangerous, uncaring, or incapable.
- A child refuses to visit, speak on the telephone with, or otherwise have any contact with one
- One parent works hard to make sure the other parent is as absent from the children’s lives as
Parents give many reasons for trying to undermine the children’s relationship with the other parent. Often this behavior masks a complex range of problems. Sometimes parents actively try to distance children from the other parent because there is a history of emotional or physical abuse. In other situations, parents alienate children from the other parent as a way of punishing the other parent for leaving the relationship. More often than not, though, there are many reasons for this behavior. Figuring out the reasons is often difficult, but important. Generally, parents in this situation need a professional’s help to address these situations. (See Chapter 8, Issue 30.)
Note: Though protecting a child from emotional or physical (including sexual) abuse is critically important, you must be sure to do so in a way that does not also jeopardize your legal situation. For this reason, it is essential that you meet with an attorney, district attorney, domestic violence counselor, child abuse protection professional, or other similarly qualified person who can help you decide the best way to protect your child without doing something illegal.