One of the key aims of Alternative Dispute Resolution which I have touched on in the two previous phases is successful co-parenting. Co-parenting is what happens post separation or post-divorce when parenting has to be organised between two separate homes and sometimes around several children with competing needs.
While parents may have overlooked key differences in parenting styles while there was still some love and affection, the attention focuses on these differences in an unwelcome way when the trust in a relationship has broken down. Parents have to learn to trust again and that different parenting styles do not make one right and one wrong. They must also recognize that children will sense their nervousness around the other parent or will have heard negative things about the other parent in the course of the two phases to date, and will often determine that they do not wish to go on access. It is important for children’s health and well being that they continue a relationship with the absent parent. Learning to live with and cope with all the competing feelings and interests and have clear boundaries is a serious learning curve for both parents.
I would always recommend parents to try and agree on things like custody and access to their children. Even the terminology here is archaic and even has criminal overtones which are out of place in family situations. If those matters are imposed from the top (Judge) down they can cause considerable hassle in their implementation. Far better to agree.
Aside from the considerable difficulties involved in recommunicating in a sufficiently calm and efficient way to ensure property and smooth transfer from one parent to the other, there are the considerable difficulties involved in different styles as mentioned above in a climate of strained trust at best. For example, if Mum feels that Dad is just looking for access to get at her and that really the children are just being parked in front of a telly or allowed to play games, she may have difficulty allowing access. For both parents the restraint needed not to prod children for information may be too much. There is also the fact that children may be upset when leaving one or other parent as would be normal but the parents can read too much into it to suit themselves without even realising they are doing this. These are only a few examples of the sorts of issues that arise very frequently post-hearing which can often become even further complicated by the arrival of a 3rd party into one or other of the parent’s lives. At this particular juncture, this can have a very destabilising effect and even more so if no provisions have been made for this likely event.
Of course, money can also be a major issue in the ongoing successful post-separation parenting of children. Very often Mum will perceive Dad as being able to spend more money on the children than she can afford. She will say he is buying their affections. Such a scenario can get played out over Christmas with gusto. Both parents decided to have Santa so two sets of presents. No parental co-operation around the Mum and Dad presents and so both spend more than they have so as not to be seen as having skimped. In addition, there is the skirmishing around who has the children on Christmas Day and for how long etc. All of this can be avoided with proper planning and looking at it from the children’s perspective rather than each parent focusing only on what they will have. Disagreements can arise over what clothes the children bring back and forth from one home to the other. One party will accuse the other of not laundering the clothes prior to return, not doing homework with them should that need to be done, not feeding them so they go to bed later than normal, not feeding them properly, not sending them over to the other house with enough clothes so clothes have to buy etc etc. Is it any wonder kids would find it difficult to move back and for them with all these tensions spilling over?
If you go to court, the court will not look at any of the above i.e., they will not anticipate the difficulties that may arise, they will simply order access as they feel appropriate based on the individual Judge’s habits in this area and the evidence presented. However, in ADR, particularly collaboration, we look carefully at the issues that might arise such as a 3rd or 4th adult coming into the picture, Christmas presents, grandparents and extended family contact. We try and ensure that both parents anticipate issues before they arise and have a plan in mind for dealing with this and furthermore, that we have very clear rules set down as to how to deal with something which arises that was not discussed. We look at money for children very carefully and try and ensure that each parent can and will contact the other to discuss any envisaged expenditure for the child/children of a large nature. This minimises problems over Christmas and birthdays. We future plan educational expenditures so that by the time the parties get to an agreement they have envisaged most of the issues likely to arise going forward with their individual homes and their children. Quite often, however, the parties will remain living in one house awaiting a sale, agreement or court order before driving on so the actual experience of co-parenting post-separation in a physical way will not arise until after the case has concluded or is near the end. Of all the issues that can arise post separation settlement or orders, access issues can be the most difficult to sort, causing further heartache not to mention expense to both parents and children.
The experience of co-parenting is a steep learning curve for both parents. Mum has quite often been the hands-on parent and Dad the one coming and going. Dad may have to learn how to manage the children without the assistance of Mum and in an everyday way as opposed to outings. Mum, on the other hand, may have to share in a way she did not in the course of the marriage at a time when her ability to trust is often at an all-time low. She may also be resentful that Dad is suddenly asserting himself as Dad when in the course of the marriage he was off most of the time. Both parents have to share their concerns in a managed safe way, both need to acknowledge the valued role that each of them plays in the children’s lives and both need to seek help from counselors and parenting groups if needs be. The beauty of ADR is that it can assist with all of this while the legal process is ongoing because, of course, some ADR methods are legal processes also.