Parenting With a Jerk

Courts in Michigan prefer awarding joint legal custody of minor children. In fact, the statute requires the court to make a finding of why joint legal custody should not be granted, if either parent requests it. This is based on the research that shows that most children do better if they have two involved parents participating in child rearing. This means that most parents who divorce today will have to confer about important decisions that affect the children; education, health and religion.

Joint legal custody means that the parents will confer together about major decisions and make those together. It does not mean that the child will spend equal amounts of time with each parent.

However, increasingly, fathers are requesting equal or near equal time with the children. Many judges will give the parent who has been less active in raising the children an opportunity to be a near-equal or equal parent. Unless the parent is abusive or negligent in caring for a child, he may be given the chance. It helps if the less active parent takes a greater interest in actually caring for the child prior to the divorce and during the divorce process. Sometimes parenting classes are called for. Judges do not accept differences in parenting styles as a valid reason to avoid awarding parenting to the less active parent.

The challenge for parenting post-divorce effectively is putting aside the parents' personal differences between each other and focusing on what qualities they each contribute to raising their child. A useful tool that my clients have used is visualizing two boxes.

One is the box where you store your feelings about your former spouse. These feelings will likely be negative and include frustration with relationship, failure, anger, distrust, betrayal, avoidance.

The other box is where you store your feelings about the other parent in their role as mother or father. These feelings will likely be positive and include recognition of their love of your child, tenderness, understanding, playfulness, responsibility.

I caution my clients that their separation of your feelings toward your soon-to-be-ex is a process. It takes concentration and time. When you feel your blood pressure rise over your former spouse's request to change the parenting schedule, consider whether you are reacting to the "ex-spouse box of feelings" or the "parent box of feelings." If it is the ex-spouse, put those feelings back into the box and close the lid. Then open the lid of the parent box of feelings. It also helps if you ask yourself the question before you answer the request, "Is the request going to benefit the child?" If the answer is yes, then you should carefully weigh what granting the request will cost you. If the cost is low or negligible, then grant it.

A couple of other tips that make co-parenting easier are:

  1. Accept that you are not going to change your ex-spouse's personality. The Court is also not going to change it.
  2. Accept that every child needs to be loved by both parents, even if that love is shown in different ways. Your child wants to spend time with the other parent; even if you don't.
  3. Do not cast yourself as the victim. You have a lot of control in your interactions, provided that you keep a clear head and can articulate clearly what your child needs and what you need. Whining and blaming the other parent will turn off that parent and others who work with you. Judges have extremely low tolerance levels for whining.

When you cannot work out the differences between your former spouse and you, get professional help. A child specialist; a mental health professional who understands child development and is trained as a mediator can be helpful. In cases of high acrimony, consider working with a parenting coordinator; a person who can help both parents communicate effectively.

Finally, changing your image of the other parent from "jerk" to fellow parent can help you both raise a healthy, happy child who is allowed to love you both.