Even parents in intact families have disagreements regarding what’s best for their child(ren), from the most insignificant of issues to major child-related decisions. This of course, is normal, as we all are human beings with different opinions, thoughts and feelings. More often than not, these parents are able to come to an accord, which promotes their child(ren)’s welfare, and that child(ren) remains blissfully unaware of any dissension or discord. Conversely, during a divorce action, even parents who were previously able and equipped to make joint decisions regarding their child(ren) find themselves immobilized by the rigors and intensity of a divorce action. When children are involved in a divorce, it brings the action to a higher level of complexity, anxiety, and often legal cost. Sometimes, even the number of individuals involved in the action may multiply significantly. For example, in highly contested circumstances, third parties may be appointed by the Court, and others may be compelled as witnesses and/or otherwise asked to weigh on what he/she believes is in the best interest of the child(ren). Most significantly, a contested custody matter places the child(ren) squarely in the midst of the litigation and may even require him/her to testify in court and/or be compelled to speak to the judge directly in chambers. It goes without saying that it is significantly better that during a divorce, the parties chart their own parental course, in lieu of having a third-party (the judge), decide how they will be parents, and how often they will see the children. In a divorce action, custody will be resolved by an agreement between the parties or by a judge after a hearing. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: both parties will need to communicate and work with each other, EFFECTIVELY, to promote the best interests of their child(ren), likely for the rest of their lives. In fact, when a court is called upon to determine a custodial matter, an important consideration is which party can effectively co-parent with the other, prioritizing the child(ren)’s wellbeing above all else. In its most simplistic sense, effective co-parenting occurs when both parties can jointly and expeditiously make decisions regarding their child(ren)’s welfare. The implications of the efficacy of the parties’ ability to do so are less obvious regarding minor child-related decisions versus those major decisions such as: education, medical and possibly religion, to name a few. There are certain hallmarks in an effective co-parenting relationship:
• the child(ren)’s welfare is ALWAYS prioritized over the needs of either party;
• a commitment to work together for the child(ren)’s best interests; patience;
• respect and tolerance for differing opinions;
• full disclosure regarding the child(ren)’s life and circumstances;
• ongoing, open and honest communication;
• accessibility to each other;
• contingencies for stalemates;
• agreed upon access to relevant professionals to facilitate decisions when necessary.
The difficulty in effective co-parenting is that often, in contested divorce actions, both parties cannot even bear to look at each other, no less speak to each other on a regular basis, and are looking forward to the day when the sound of the other’s name does not give rise to sadness, hatred or other more intense emotions. In these cases, often observed in the most acrimonious of divorce actions, co-parenting is a NECESSARY evil, and may even need some professional facilitation such as: family and/or individual therapy, parenting classes or other interventions, some of which can be obtained through the courts.
Whether the divorce is amicable or acrimonious, co-parenting needs to be a conscious decision, which needs to be re-visited, assessed and adjusted on an ongoing basis, as the child(ren) get older, and/or other circumstances change. For example, the most common obstacle with co-parenting is when a third-party, such as a girlfriend/boyfriend, stepmother/stepfather, tries to assume a parental role in the lives of the child(ren). In these circumstances, the parties must have open and honest conversations with each (and the third-party) regarding expectations and boundaries. Most significantly, there must be a clear understanding that the only people who make decisions about the child(ren) are the parents themselves, unless there is an agreement otherwise.
The importance of co-parenting cannot be overstated, as it can have both short- and long-term effects on the welfare of the child(ren) and even the parties themselves. Divorcing parties do not have to like each other, but......they DO need to love their child(ren) more than they dislike each other.