Over the last forty years the percentage of adults who are married has dramatically decreased. This is due in part to steady increases in divorces, but also due to people choosing to live together without getting married. Nevertheless, in 2007 the Washington Post issued a report that the fertility rate was the highest it’s been in 35 years! What this means is that more and more children are being born to parents who aren’t married. Relationship stability is lower on average for cohabiting couples than for married couples. A report on the website “smartmarriages.com” explains that 75% of children of cohabiting couples will experience their parents splitting up before the child turns 16. This rate goes down to about 33% for children of married parents*. So what this really means is that more and more children are living in situations where custody of the child is shared between two or more households.
Sharing custody, then, is a common issue that brings many parents and children into counseling. Shared custody is not easy and is fraught with problems. Every now and then you hear about a family where the ex-spouses communicate wonderfully about parenting and the child reports “I just go back and forth between mom’s house and dad’s house whenever I want.” For most parents, though, it’s a challenging issue. For the kids, it’s often a very stressful situation made worse when the parents don’t get along. It’s a situation ripe for conflict.
Conflict over shared parenting mostly falls into issues of decision making, communication between the parents, money, organizing the child’s life, and bigger issues of value differences and parental alienation. Conflicts often occur over pick up/drop off times, refusal to share information about the child, efforts to keep the child from the other parent, withholding of child support, etc. Whatever the problems were in the marriage will continue to be problems in co-parenting unless the parents resolve them.
The children are the ultimate victims of the conflict between the parents. A good analogy is a child in a boat and the parents are on the dock watching. The poor kid’s boat is sinking and the parents argue about who’s going to help and how are they going to help and accusing the other of not being there for the child. While the parents are arguing over these things, the child’s boat sinks and he is really at risk for drowning now. The same thing occurs emotionally for a child when the parents get stuck in a cycle of conflict over child support, visitation schedules, personal vendettas and who said what.
Ongoing conflict between co-parents results in lowered self-esteem for the child. Oftentimes children whose parents fight over child support or visitation issues internalize this and blame themselves for “causing trouble.” This couldn’t be further from the truth but it’s hard to convince kids of this. When sharing custody is difficult for the parents to manage, the children’s schoolwork often suffers. Children of high-conflict co-parents struggle with abandonment fears and often feel pressure to side with one parent over the other. What’s needed is for the parents to focus on the best interests of the child, not what is most convenient for the parent.
Even when parents agree that the child’s best interest is the priority, there can be strong conflict over what really is in the child’s best interest. When this occurs, it’s very important for the parents to remain flexible. It’s also imperative that parents work to separate their own interests from their child’s needs. This can get confusing and requires a great deal of thought sometimes. What the child needs is security and love. This is happening when the parents shield the child from marital/divorce disputes, and the parents work together to encourage the child’s positive bond with both parents.
The authors of “The Co-Parenting Survival Guide” explain that co-parenting is successful if there is little to no court litigation and/or legal motions involved in custody arrangements. It is successful if the parents are civil and minding their manners with each other. It is successful if the parents are cooperative, flexible, and supportive of each other. For such an interaction to happen between divorced parents, the couple has to shift their identity from “couple” to “co-parent.” This is more like a business partnership than a marriage.
Next month’s issue will continue on this topic. More specific information will be given on how to communicate effectively as co-parents. Advice will be shared on what information is important for parents who share custody to discuss with each other.
*For more information on cohabitation vs. marriage, see http://www.smartmarriages.com/cohabit.html.
Thayer, E.S. & Zimmerman, J. (2001) The Co-Parenting Survival Guide.