The first thing I noticed about this incredibly valuable book by Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran (1996) is how even-handed, realistic and practical their approaches are and how easily it applies to more situations than divorce. It's even helpful for dealing with pesky relatives and disturbed/disturbing co-workers and bosses. And friends, let's not forget those "tough-to-deal-with friends" (just why are they friends if they're so much work?). It's not psychobabble and the authors do not pretend to "fix" everything. It's not therapy; it's common sense, really good common sense that you don't realize until you read it for yourself.
Yes, divorce is an industry unto itself and it's a dangerous, nasty piece of business. Custody evaluators, forensic accountants, mediation specialists, child psychologists, psychiatrists, private investigators, parenting class teachers, attorneys of all stripes. This entire army of "specialists" was spawned as a result of more than half of marriages devolving into divorce. This army will never, ever, ever go out of business unless, of course, you decide not to play and not to pay. Why should it be me who gives up the fight, you ask? Read on...
Every year, a woman and her attorney are killed on the courthouse steps by her ex because he feels his children are being taken from him. Every year, a woman, driven mad by never-ending financial wranglings and petty humiliations, burns down her ex-husband's house or his car with him in it. Unlike many other legal conflicts, the emotions run very high and quickly tip from anger to insanity. Ordinary people behave in extraordinarily sick ways. The stakes are so incredibly high and the issues, once private, become so much courtroom drama. Children and money, control, humiliation, gamesmanship, revenge and punishment. We fan the flames of one another's emotional weaknesses until "something snaps" and the explosion of pathology erupts and the cops and the courts are forced to take control...because you won't.
Have you ever noticed that the law often misses the "target" of honest-to-God, common-sense, a "chimpanzee could do this job"-type of justice? Do everything you can to stay out of the courtroom. Don't let strangers make decisions for your child. If you're in danger, that's one thing; you've got no choice but to pull out all of the stops to keep yourself and your kids safe, but if you are arguing over just about anything else, ask yourself if you are willing to sacrifice your kids in service of your own ego, pettiness, revenge, competition, etc. (see the list above). Are you justifying your actions because you are "protecting the kids"? Be bold. Take a different perspective and see if you logic holds true.
I've yet to see a judge make a decision that is truly in the best interest of the children. How can they? The cards are stacked against them knowing everything they need to know in order to actually consider the long-term needs of the kids. Even when they do their best to gather data, they can't know everything. Everybody's got an agenda. Most people lie to suit their purposes. Some attorneys gin up their clients to create the havoc that justifies their billable hours; some psychologists continue to treat families for longer than necessary and God help you if you remind the custody evaluator of the girl he could not have. God help you if the custody evaluator thinks you look like the brother she hates. What? You don't think the process isn't vulnerable to this kind of influence? Once the situation deteriorates to a certain level, you give up power and control over your family. And to what end? Only you can answer that question.
Changing your perspective just a smidge and taking control of the emotional aspect of the situation will give your kids a chance at a healthy life. Be willing to check your pulse and be honest about the extent of your role in the chaos.
I once went to a presentation about relationships, spiritual growth, etc. I knew the presenter as being an earthy, hoot-and-a-half kind of gal who made the concepts meaningful by anchoring them into the real world. I knew it was gonna be fun. She told a colorful story about a long-suffering wife of a hard-drinkin' man. The presenter went on and on about the stories this woman told and the victim position she held onto so dearly. Finally, in a moment of despair, the woman left the man. You guessed it, he stopped drinking. You know that saying, "It takes two to tango?" Those of us who think we are the victims and bear no responsibility for the behavior of this ex, this maniac, this jerk, are wrong, very, very wrong. We're always playing a role, somehow. We can do better.
Decades, and I do mean decades, of research on kids of divorce tell us a couple of things. While the divorce itself carries significant trauma, kids can resolve it. There are fewer life-long consequences for younger children than for older kids. There are factors, however, they cannot overcome.
They cannot resolve the "during-and-post"-divorce carnage. They just cannot overcome the trauma of watching their parents argue over every little thing about them, the kids. They come to see the battles as being their fault. Kids are great observers, but lousy interpreters of situations. They can't see beyond the spit flying in the faces of the two people they love and trust the most who are nose-to-nose screaming about the book report they didn't do over the weekend when the "jerk" had physical custody of the kid.
I was a teacher-in-training in a 1st grade class. I had a youngster I was concerned about. His parents were divorcing. He was sad. (My classroom teacher and I had a meeting with the parents. What a doozy of an event that was!) He got it in his head that it was his fault. He saw that his parents took aspirin when they felt bad. He was 6. What did he know? He took a lot of them. His liver failed. He died. He observed the many fights, interpreted that he was the cause and wanted to feel better. He didn't know how. No one can live with what happened. I don't care what kind of immature, selfish rotten people they are. They can't live with that. They underestimated this child. They all paid a price. Think you're immune? Never mind, don't answer that...
You know that your ex will not be the parent you want him/her to be. That's a given. And, they don't have to be. They just have to be "good enough" parents. Nothing, absolutely nothing you will do will improve their parenting skills...the food they serve, the cleanliness of the environment, the amount of time they play video games, on and on and on. Unless it poses a danger to the child, you are not allowed to interfere. Custodial interference is a big issue for a family court judge. Don't call the Department of Family Services because your ex is bringing your son to school late on a chronic basis. Problem solve it with the school. Have lunch money, clean clothes, whatever it takes on hand at the school so that your child can have what s/he needs when they arrive at school. Advise the principal and teacher as to what is going on. If something needs to be said, it should come from the persons in charge of that setting.
You will lose perspective...that's a given. Get help in determining "what" the crisis really is and your strategy for managing it. So, your child is at your ex's house for the weekend and is not allowed to have a nightlight because "Your mother treats you like a baby. Suck it up". This has now become a crisis for your child and of course, for you. You can interfere and try to negotiate or you can help your child to practice self-advocacy skills. Or, maybe you can't tolerate your child being distressed at your ex's house because of your past relationship. Is it time for your child to learn to sleep independently without a nightlight? Critical questions about the source of the difficulty need to be answered before taking the risk of interfering and possibly causing your ex to be entrenched about the nightlight. It's amazing the amount of issues that get resolved when you don't get involved (let's go back to the wife of the alcoholic). Entrenchment could be about resisting you and not the needs of your child.
The authors of Joint Custody with a Jerk present problem-solving solutions in a fashion that is very easy to follow. They model their approach after a pyramid and walk you through the steps identifying the problem, determining "who" owns the problem, determining the problems that need to be solved, finding ways to cooperate without feeling that you are being run over, helping to empower your child and generally, choosing to use intelligent, rational approaches instead of letting emotions sabotage your child's adjustment. It's all about problem-solving to benefit your child.
Remember what we know about making changes in your life. The teeny, tiniest steps are the ones that "stick". It takes an incredibly long time for two high-functioning, intelligent people to adjust to a divorce. Give it time. Your only goals are to make continual progress toward a healthier post-divorce relationship which ultimately improves your child's chances of never having diagnoses of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a variety of substance abuse problems, relationship disorders, academic problems or a generally poor adjustment to the adult demands of life.
I've had roughly 300-ish families come through my practice over the past 21 years that had some kind of divorce dynamic in their history. Here's what I know you shouldn't ever, ever even think about doing:
- Stand up in open court and proclaim, "Dead mothers don't get custody".
- Recruit your kids to lie, engage in anti-ex behavior (making prank calls, spreading gossip, leaving hateful notes).
- Bad-mouth, vilify, demonize your ex (even if they deserve it)
- Allow your kids to manipulate you into skirmishes with your ex so they can get an edge or benefit for themselves.
- Manufacture crises in order to insert yourself into your ex's custodial time.
- Scare your kids into being afraid of their parent.
- Don't accuse your ex of something in front of a judge that you can't slam-dunk prove because you'll get slam dunked.
- Blame the ex for all of the difficulties that you experience in your own life.
- Don't invite your parents and siblings over to read the custody evaluation in a round-robin format and conduct a character assassination of your ex.
- Don't become friendly with and socialize with your divorce attorney. You can't help but carelessly discuss annihilation strategies of your child's mother or father. Obviously, don't invite your divorce attorney to attend your child's school play as your guest.
- Solicit someone to murder your ex, kidnap the kids, plant drugs in their car, on and on...people have done it all.
Always strive to...
- Be ethical, integrous, conscientious and sane even when everyone around you is wacko.
- Improve yourself a little bit every day. Even if you refrain from making nasty comment just one time, it's a start!
- Help your kids to develop healthy, effective coping skills. This won't be the last time they'll need them.
- Don't count on anyone to make you happy. That's your job.
- Look forward to a healthier, more satisfied life now that you're in charge of it.
- Remember that the kids will grow up and leave. You can't divorce yourself. Focus on getting them to where they are going while you work on yourself. You may have a good 30 years after they head to college or work or whatever, so get ready. Yes, It's a Cirque du Soleil of emotions and responsibilities (without the great costumes), but what else would you be doing?
- Be responsible. Don't let jerks throw you off course. Don't take their crap personally. Don't allow their crap to slop over onto you. Get a damp cloth, wipe it off, move on.
- Talk with a mental health professional about ways to cope. Determine your ex's behavioral profile, understand and work around their persistent issues so you don't get trapped participating in their drama. Your ex knows your vulnerabilities. Learn how to cope when the buttons get pushed.
- If you work on yourself, become self-sufficient, independent and satisfied, you will age better, be more attractive and healthier and may actually end up with such a great life that you chuckle to yourself, "It's so much better than I could have ever imagined". You may thank your ex for giving you the chance to be incredible! Being successful is the best revenge. So is crossing the finish line with healthy, well-adjusted kids because you didn't go bat crap crazy and used your smarts.
- Don't get emotionally involved in your ex's pathology. Giving them too much attention will wear you out. Move on. "Next!" should be your motto.
- Ask yourself, "Will I remember this on my death bed?" If not, it ain't important, then... "Next!"
- Stop, think, ask yourself, "Can I live with the consequences? "Am I setting a healthy example?", How will I feel about my actions in a month or so?" Do your best to reduce "regrettable" behavior. Even if you stop for 2 seconds, it's likely you won't act immaturely.
- The most important question to ask is, "What will my kids think of me?"
You may not like this, but I've seen many a situation whereby I walked away thinking, "A good divorce is better than a bad marriage" and have been impressed by those parenting couples who could pull it off. They asked themselves the tough questions, were willing to get an honest appraisal of their skills and agenda, and changed. They changed, the situation changed. Lucky ducky kids...
In the end, it's obvious that divorce is a very complex topic. It was my goal to throw out just a few ideas to get the conversation between you and yourself going. You can be the one who does it differently. I have confidence in you.