Having helped numerous divorcing parents as a family law attorney and mediator, I have seen the whole gamut from the amicable, trusting couple whose decision to divorce was mutual, to the bitter, angry parents who weigh every communication to decide how it will play in court. Lawyers, judges and court professionals generally try to foster and even mandate cooperation, because they know that when parents can cooperate, children do better. Often this well-meaning effort is ineffective to create cooperation, and the court battle can actually fan the flames of conflict, harming children.
I am a lawyer and a mediator, but before all these things I am a family man. I went through divorce 5 years ago, with 2 young children, and I have a high cooperation relationship with an ex-spouse, after a high-conflict marriage. I’m often taken aback by the shocked looks on people’s faces when they see us interact. It’s almost as though we’re breaking some unwritten rule that divorced parents can’t cordially work out their differences regarding children. People expect us to fight and, unfortunately, many divorced parents live up (or down) to that expectation.
DIVORCE CAN LEAD TO A HIGH “TRUST TAX”:
In his excellent book The Speed of Trust, Steven Covey discusses what he calls a “trust tax.” As trust decreases between parties to a relationship, each feels compelled to build in safeguards against betrayal by the other party. Hiring lawyers and getting strict court-imposed orders is one such safeguard. The lower the trust, the higher the trust tax.
When divorce involves children, the parties are forced to continue their relationship because they must share parenting responsibilities. In most cases, trust between the parties has already broken down, or they would not be divorcing. Amid feelings of betrayal, disappointment and anger, each party is given the daunting task of cooperating with their ex-spouse “for the sake of the children.” Judges and court professionals expect parents to “be the adults” and put aside their differences. For many, this task proves impossible, and instead the parties find themselves in court trying to prove that the other parent is unwilling to cooperate. This is a double bind, because the incentive is to appear reasonable, while calculating what statements and actions will play best in court. Setting up this “win-lose paradigm” is not the way to build trust.
This trust tax is extremely high. The average lawyer-driven divorce with with children will cost the parties about $50,000.00 in California, and I have seen parties spend as much as $250,000.00. That’s a brutal tax. And, there are the intangible taxes as the conflict harms children and reduces the parties’ happiness.
HOW TO BUILD TRUST AFTER SEPARATION AND DIVORCE:
1. Evaluate where you are on the trust continuum. I recommend that you keep a journal describing what happens when you have face-to-face contact with your ex. What emotions do you face? Do you dread the contact? Do you feel resentment as every hope and dream you had for your family flashes before your eyes? If you experience these emotions, you are at risk for a high-conflict, low-trust co-parenting relationship.
2. Initially, you’ll want to minimize opportunities for conflict. If you are one of those couples who can cooperate right off the bat, congratulations. You are an exceptional couple. The rest of us must practice the discipline of disengagement.
3. Try parallel parenting. If you can’t see your ex or hear his/her voice without your blood pressure rising, you’ll need to find a way to communicate without extensive contact. I recommend that you begin by creating your own world with your children. They should have their own space, their own possessions and their own relationship with each parent. Initially, the 2 worlds should not intersect, and any communications should be made in writing (either by e-mail or letter) and should only set forth the barest facts necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your children.
This process is known as “parallel parenting,” meaning that you parent along side of your ex, but that you shift your focus to your own relationship to the children, and let go of trying to influence or control what goes on in the other parent’s world. Click “parallel parenting,” for an article describing this process.
I would emphasize that ideally, parallel parenting is a temporary solution designed to help parents disengage. Ultimately, we want to find ways to build a new kind of trust in the relationship, but that can take time. In the mean time, disengagement is vastly preferable to conflict.
4. Make agreements, then follow through. We all know that trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy. The good news is, rebuilding trust is possible in almost any relationship. The 2 steps to building trust are: 1. Make well-defined commitments to the other person, and 2. follow through on those commitments.
An example can be something as simple as the drop-off and pick up times. If you and your ex can negotiate a written schedule for when and where the child exchanges, you have completed the first step. The second step involves doing what you said you were going to do. Over time, your behavior will become predictable to the other party, and this will build trust. When trust is built over time, it will become easier to be flexible and less formal with the schedule.
Other agreements that build trust include on-time payment of support, covering other expenses, attending a parenting class on alternate weeks, or taking actions to support the other parent’s relationship to the children. You can support the other parent without having contact with them, by encouraging children to behave well for the other parent, or to exercise visitation.
5. Build a special relationship to each child. Forget about fighting for more parenting time. The courts will view you as less child-focused if you do. Instead, I recommend focusing your energy on building a special relationship to each of your children. Carefully plan your visitation time around activities that will create bonds. Be involved in your children’s education and extra-curricular activities. Show your children that you are truly “there for him/her.” Ironically, if you can let go of striving for more time, and build relationship with the children, you will almost always end up with more parenting time.
If you want a cooperative co-parenting relationship, stop trying to win the custody wars. First, do whatever is necessary to disengage from conflict with your co-parent. Next, focus on building a quality relationship with each child. Your children need strong relationships with each of you, especially after divorce. When dealing with your ex, refrain from emotion-ridden, blameful conversations, and focus on the facts necessary for the welfare of your children. And, build trust by saying what you’ll do, and doing what you say. Two years down the road, you’ll notice the surprised looks on other parents’ faces as they see your cooperation
Even better, also notice the smiles on your children’s faces.
Wishing you always the best of luck in building new family relationships, I am …
Very truly yours,
Disclaimer: Thomas D. Ferreira is an attorney licensed only in the State of California. The information set forth in this blog or on our websites are not intended to create an attorney-client relationship, nor are the intended as legal advice on your specific matter. This information is not intended to apply to cases or jurisdictions outside the State of California, and those viewing this information outside of California, or having business before jurisdictions outside of California, should consult a local professional or lawyer. The information in this blog is not a substitute for the advice of competent counsel, and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as a guarantee, warrantee or prediction regarding the results of your legal matter.