I’d like to share some thoughts about the child custody process and a new book that I hope will be helpful to parents with children going through separation or divorce. The Custody Manual is a practical guide to the child custody process. It’s a clear concise handbook on what to expect and how to avoid common mistakes during contested custody negotiations and litigation. The Custody Manual provides support for parents going through one of life’s most difficult experiences.
The goal of the book is to share what I’ve learned in order to help others find their way through the unfamiliar and challenging landscape of life post separation. Perhaps I can also assist you in getting through this phase of your life and your kids’ without making the common mistakes that can threaten safe passage.
I am a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. I provide psychotherapy and act as a consultant to parents and children going through divorce. I worked with the courts in various capacities for 30 years.
The loss of a loved one is always extremely difficult. The loss experienced in divorce is in many ways even more intense in that we are losing both our spouse and our family as we’ve come to know it. A divorce can produce feelings of loss on a nearly mythic level. Divorce is also one of the most chronically threatening events a person can face. Divorce is, after all, a lawsuit in which your relationship with your children and your family’s financial survival is at stake.
Divorce often brings out the worst in people. The person you were married to is no longer available. They’ve disappeared emotionally or seem to have turned into a monster. It’s like you’ve been looking at one side of a coin for years and then suddenly the coin flips and you don’t recognize any of the familiar characteristics you were accustomed to.
The divorce and family law process demands that in the most intense shock and sadness of divorce we reach agreement on or fight for the most important issues of our lives – our children and our financial resources.
Every state and county family court system has its own culture and priorities. The one constant is that family law courts strive to act in the best interests of the children. This subtle but important emphasis in perspective can be disorienting to parents, since, when confronted with a threatening situation, we are accustomed to focusing on our needs as adults.
Another challenge in dealing with this perspective is that we often believe, and rightly so, that we are being attacked by the other parent’s misguided self-serving attitude. I hear parents say things like, “I deserve to have my children with me an equal amount of the time” or the ubiquitous, “but it’s not fair that I should have less time than the other parent.” At the same time it is unrealistic to believe that one parent should control all of the child’s time in the name of providing “stability and structure”.
Generally speaking, family law courts mandate or offer mediation services for child custody issues. These services occur after a custody motion has been filed and prior to the hearing officer making a ruling on your case. This gives the parents an opportunity to reach an agreement that is custom made to their family’s specific needs. If the mediation process fails, then the court will have to make a decision regarding your children’s custody.
Focusing on the children’s best interests means it’s not about what we want or feel entitled to, but what experts in the field feel is best for the children. Many parents ask to see the graph the court uses to determine shared parenting time percentages based on the children’s ages. The reality is there is no such graph. Each case is examined and analyzed on its own merits. The courts’ decisions are grounded, however, in clinical and developmental research as well as on the outcomes of the millions of cases handled in family courts worldwide.
As I’m sure all of you are aware the most serious damage done to kids is being exposed to conflict between their parents. Conflict experienced in an intact family is just as toxic as conflict experienced in a divorced family. In my opinion, staying in an unhealthy or abusive relationship for the sake of the children is misguided and in many ways more damaging to kids than divorce. It’s critical to set an example that it’s more important to be safe and accomplished than to remain in a dependent or unhealthy relationship.
The crucial piece is to make sure, when you discuss the divorce with the kids, that they understand they’ll always be loved by both of you. And they need to hear that it’s not their fault that you’re separating. I don’t think you can tell a child too many times that they didn’t cause the divorce and that they can’t cure it. Kids automatically take responsibility for hardships in their lives as a way of achieving a sense of control over the situation.
Few life experiences rival the pure day-to-day stress and emotional intensity of the process of separation and divorce. It’s not uncommon to see parents turning to substance abuse or other self-destructive means of coping with these intense emotions. Not only is this bad strategy for dealing with the legal issues you’ll need to negotiate, it’s a very psychologically unhealthy way to get through this major life transition.
The shock and anxiety of divorce can lead you to become dangerously distracted, resulting in injuries or stress-related illness. It’s not uncommon to feel extremely sad and anxious and all too often depressed and possibly suicidal. I want to stress the importance of therapeutic and legal support during this time of crisis, because of the compounding emotional stress that’s likely to occur.
Divorce, as painful as it is, holds tremendous potential for transformation. I’ve heard countless clients tell me that they believe that they emerged from their divorce as stronger more aware people and better parents. This, clients will readily admit, is hard-won growth. But the transformational power of going through a divorce in a healthy way cannot be underestimated. The total devastation brought on by divorce forces us to face our deepest fears and meet tremendous challenges.
I hope this brief overview of some important custody topics was helpful. For more important custody topics please read the Custody Manual. It’s available through Apple iBook, Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook book stores.
By Leo Terbieten MFT