Many times, at the start of a divorce, parents see custody of the children as an either-or situation: one parent has custody and the other is relegated to a visitation/possession schedule. In situations where both parents sincerely would like “custody”, and it’s not just a strategic move for some ulterior purpose (such as gaining more property or paying less child support), the either-or/win-lose mind set can lead to really damaging actions by both parties. In such an approach, the natural inclination, often encouraged by attorneys and friends, is to attack the other parent. Many people think they should devote a lot of energy to proving the other parent is “unfit”.
Actually, it is often true that both parents are good parents, which makes it really hard to prove each other unfit. Attacking each other is expensive in the short-term, both financially and in terms of relationships, and it’s probably not really very persuasive with a judge or jury. It’s hard to keep a good relationship with someone who is saying terrible things about you in public. Judges want to know what good parenting qualities each parent has. In reality, one of the most important factors is who has spent the most time with the children, although there can be many things that are influential.
Instead of limiting yourself to only two options, winning it all or losing, there is another, more productive way to approach the custody issue. The approach may require more maturity than some parties can muster, but, for those able to shift gears, think rationally and be patient, the following approach can be rewarding for them and their children. These steps can lead to a better solution for all, especially the children.
1. Think about, discuss and decide what your ultimate goals are for the kids. What outcomes would you like to see? Many people would want some of the following (or similar) goals:
The kids having a great relationship with both parents
The kids having a great relationship with their extended families
Financial security for the children
Having a safe, secure home for the children
Having good schools for the kids
Providing for a college education for the children
Providing sports opportunities for the children
The opportunity for the kids to learn music, art or other interests
Each parent can decide what he or she thinks would be important goals for their children. Broader, underlying goals are more helpful and meaningful. If both parents think of goals in broad terms, they often can agree on them.
2. Look at the big picture. What are the resources to work with:
Financial abilities of the parents
Parental/family member time available
What homes and schools are available and affordable
What the parents’ neighborhoods are like
The existing relationships between parents and children and the roles each parent plays with the children
What community resources are available
What special needs, if any, a child has
What interests the child has
3. Brainstorm options. Think up as many different solutions as you can. Sometimes it is helpful to get help from a parenting expert. Spend some time and try to be non-traditional or unconventional. Don’t limit yourself to “standard” solutions. Open up your thoughts to come up with some crazy ideas because they might just turn into good ideas.
4. Evaluate your options. See if they can help achieve your identified goals. Criticizing and testing your options can lead to the discovery of other ideas and can help you narrow down the choices until you are left with an idea or ideas that work.
Implementation: This process can helpful if just you do it, but it is really better if you can do it with the other parent. Collaborative Law is one way to accomplish that. This is actually a very common approach to problem-solving in Collaborative Law. Even in traditional litigation, you can use this system alone or together with the other parent. If you work on this alone, you can create a better plan to present in court or in negotiations. If both parents work together through this process, there’s an excellent chance they will reach an agreement that will be satisfactory to both parents and to the children.
Please give this a try and let me know how it works for you!