When you are considering a divorce or learn that your spouse wants a divorce, one of the most difficult aspects is dealing with knowing that your time with your children, whom you may be used to seeing and caring for daily, will be limited. As divorce lawyers, we often hear, “I can’t be separated from my children.”
Michigan law holds that the court will focus on what is best for the children; not what is best for the parents. Additionally, children deserve to have a strong relationship with both parents. Parenting time will be set up to encourage that strong relationship. When the decision is made that the parents will no longer live together, a parenting schedule that divides the children’s time between the parents must be developed. This means, both parents will have to give up the time that they are used to sharing with each other to care for the children.
In the early history of divorce, children were considered to be the property of their fathers and were awarded to them. Then law evolved to treating children like the separate human beings that they are. Most of their time and the important decision making was awarded to their mothers, because mothers were traditionally the primary care providers. Currently, fathers are asking to spend more time with their children, after divorce. This mirrors the current trend of fathers being more active in caring for children. Now, in many counties in Michigan, judges will give fathers or the non-primary care provider equal or almost equal time with the children when they request it. This can be over objections from the primary care provider that the other parent does not have the experience to care for the children. Judges evidently assume that the non-primary care provider can learn how to care for their children.
Sometimes, the non-primary care provider becomes a quick study and learns to properly care for the children. Sometimes, the non-primary care provider does not have the temperament or the empathy to provide the care that the children need. Usually, judges will give the previous non-primary care provider the opportunity to prove himself. However, if the children experience neglect or abuse, their time with that parent can be reduced.
Some parents, in anticipation of the pain of losing time with their children, attempt to undermine the other parent, both in the eyes of the court and the children. Sometimes, this is called “alienation” of the children. For example, the children are told that it’s the other parent’s fault that the parents are divorcing. Other “adult” information is shared with the children, such as there will not be enough money to provide for the family since the other parent has an intimate partner on whom they are spending their money. Or the other parent took everything from the complaining partner, including their money. Or the other parent doesn’t really care about the children since he/she broke up the family. Some parents use their children as confidants. Often the information shared with the children is untrue or exaggerated. Sometimes, the information that is being shared with the children is an extension of the fears that the parent has and may not be reality based.
In short, such parents are instilling fear and distrust of the other parent at a time when the children are particularly vulnerable. Having their parents’ marriage break up is a very scary time for children. They need reassurance that BOTH PARENTS will continue to love them and care for them. Instead, one parent is trying to make the children believe that the other is betraying them and the family and that only the alienating parent can be relied upon to properly care for and love the children.
Sharing “adult” information with the children, blaming the other parent for the break-up of the marriage, and other attempts at having the children turn on the other parent is a very dangerous practice. If the judge learns of it, the judge can award the non-alienating parent with more time with the children, so the children have a chance to learn the truth of what has been occurring. In extreme cases, the judge can award primary legal custody to the parent who is not engaging in such behavior.
Healthy parents want to raise happy, well-adjusted children. This requires that their children have a good relationship with both parents. The parents have to support each other, not cut each other down. While parents are dealing with their own anger and fears, they have to be careful during this difficult time that they do not use the children as tools against the other parent who may have hurt them. Parents who are particularly anxious about losing time with the children and the divorce in general should seek help from a therapist. Do not burden your children with such fears or concerns. They cannot handle them.
As we have learned, children are separate human beings, with distinct needs that must be met. We need to separate their needs from our own. As parents, it is our obligation to ourselves and to the children to find our own peace, not retribution against the other parent by trying to separate the children from that parent.