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Let us remember, however, that this lifelong relationship does not have to mean a personal relationship. Divorced spouses need not choose to be friendly or even pleasant with each other. They must, however, in the interest of the child, create a safe and businesslike parenting arrangement. If they fail to do so, the consequences for the children (and the adults) may be devastating.
Psychological impact. Children suffer battle fatigue at the hands of their clashing parents. When parents fail to think about their children's real needs or decide to play child-chess, they endanger their young person's healthy psychological development. A child who feels like a bargaining chip not only suffers a loss in self-esteem, but also wastes precious energy that would be better spent on the tasks of growing up. Life at the edge of the twenty-first century is challenging enough; children of divorce hardly need to deal with their parents' inability to make the shift from being spouses to parenting partners.
Diminished social skills. To a child, imitation may be the greatest form of flattery; he or she may repeat the parents' behavior with other adults and with siblings and friends. Not surprisingly, the parents' conflict and problem-solving styles are often absorbed by children.
Danger to valuable relationships. Children's important ties to friends, extended family, and neighbors are easily overlooked, damaged, or broken by parents who are at war.
Diminished energy for parenting or for new relationships. Children of divorce are not the only ones to suffer from their parents' non-cooperation; the price for adults can be immense. Post-divorce child-related skirmishes sap personal vitality and sour the present or future primary relationships of each parent.
Loss of control to the legal system. When parents choose to place their conflicts in the hands of the Court for resolution, they are often surprised at their loss of control. Parents who relinquish the privilege of making their own decisions must realize that the agendas and rules of the legal system are designed to minimize, not expand, parental choices, options, and control in post-divorce child rearing arrangements.
Drained bank accounts. Lost productivity in the workplace, legal expenses, or paying for psychotherapists all drain the bank accounts of non-cooperating parents. Profound long-term consequences far outstrip any short-term gratification gained from righteous battle.
So how do ex-spouses who wish to have little or nothing to do with one another move toward a businesslike cooperative parenting plan? What can they do to protect their child's absolute right to love and be loved by both parents? Speaking from the viewpoint of a professional mediator who places the needs of the children high on any negotiating list, I offer the following suggestions.
Try mediation. Mediation offers a non-threatening and, when compared to Court procedures, a less expensive way (emotionally and economically) to answer these questions. A mediator is not only neutral, he or she is trained to help people find realistic solutions to their conflicts in a confidential setting. Experienced mediators can structure their sessions to deal with couples' power imbalances, strengths/weaknesses as negotiators, and special needs.
Keep expectations realistic. Mediation is never an uncontrolled screaming free-for-all; it is a structured process. Mediators do not make or rush people's decisions; they help couples consider options and develop agreements. Nothing that is said in mediation can give the other party an edge in divorce Court proceedings; the mediator is prohibited from disclosing any mediation discussion to anyone (except in cases where injury to self or others is present/planned). Finally, mediation is not personal or marriage counseling; mediators do not focus on saving marriages or conducting psychotherapy.
Create a parenting plan. A mediator helps parents create a plan through a well-defined and structured process. After gathering information (fact-finding), he or she helps parents define the problems, generate options to solve them, and negotiate the options to reach the best possible mutual agreement. A qualified mediator can help parents, separately or together, recast an unhealthy spousal relationship into a functional parenting structure (that can include little or no personal relating or contact). Mediators can help non-communicative parents side-step their personal grievances. The task of the mediator is to awaken the parties' wisdom and creativity toward developing a practical businesslike arrangement for supporting their most vulnerable and cherished interest--the children.
A vital early step in the process is to help each parent redefine their positions from self-interests to mutual interests. Conflict has a way, over time, of forcing parents into frozen positions supported by powerful emotional demands. The deep freeze may thaw when parents see that their ultimate self-interest (their child's welfare) is also a mutual interest. A mediator can help parents move from separate to joint consideration of their child's welfare.
Should parents fail to mutually consider their child's needs in divorce planning, the process will fall to the Court, and the Court will dictate what is in the child's "best interest." Through mediation, parents who know the most about their children can develop a plan that is customized to meet their child's unique needs. The Court, on the other hand, frequently imposes generic schedules and conditions. For example, the Court rarely has time to design a divorce decree that accounts for the special value children and their parents may place on particular holidays, vacations, or observances. Only a child's parents can know how to schedule essential and nourishing time with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Educational, religious, medical, and health issues are best decided by parents. When divorcing parents allow the Court to decide their child's "best interest," they give up too much.
Craft a schedule. By blending parents' newly discovered mutual interests with their own self-interests, mediation's next task is to craft a mutually acceptable schedule and set of guidelines that can be followed in a non-personal, businesslike manner. Details must be "nailed-down." "Loose ends" left untied, murky expectations, fuzzy schedules, and unclear boundaries ironically pull ex-spouses into more--not less--struggle. As moths are drawn to fire, so recovering spouses haplessly re-engage in their patterned struggles. Absolute structure eliminates much of the conflict mill's grist. Finely tuned details provide the tools for breaking the fruitless cycle of child-unfriendly conflict.
Mediation offers the following building blocks on which parents and children of divorce can build a healthy post-divorce future:
A plan that ensures safe and easy transitions for all family members (i.e., neutral locations, use of third-parties at pick-ups and drop-offs)
An exact parenting schedule with "what-ifs" (dealing with child illness, transportation problems, pick-up and drop-off lateness)
A plan for meeting children's expenses (clothing, school supplies, extracurricular activities)
A communication arrangement (if, how often, and by what rules family members will have face-to-face, phone, written, or e-mail communication to discuss what kinds of issues; how not to use the children as intermediaries)
Resource recommendations (books, community classes, support groups) for explaining divorce to children, helping them understand they are not to blame and that they do not have to choose between parents
Referrals to attorneys for legal information and assistance (Mediation is not a substitute for legal advice.)
Referrals to other professionals (counselors, therapists, clergy) experienced in working with issues related to personal and family adjustment to divorce
Step-by-step crisis planning such as when one parent moves out (how to schedule parenting times and communicate at the time of separation)
Other plans that prepare children and parents for changes in residence and family identity
Ideas for communicating divorce information to co-workers, relatives, friends, and extended family (how to convey information to others and how to deal with their opinions and feedback)
Details for visits with extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and others)
Child travel plans between parents (transportation modes, schedules, etc.)
Any plan, however, must never compromise the physical safety of a family member. In a few cases, victimization is inevitable, and an absolute severance of all contact is required. Nonetheless, for the vast majority of cases, the mediation process holds immense promise.
Mediation places people in control of their lives. It benefits the children by lessening conflict and helping parents be better role models. It is speedier and less costly than litigation. It promises absolute confidentiality and thus avoids public airing of personal problems.
Parents are obligated to cooperate, but this cooperation does not require maintaining painful or dysfunctional relationships. On the contrary, the skillful tools of a mediator can transform conflict into enduring, solid, business-like cooperation.
How do you locate a good mediator? Perhaps be the best way is through the mediate.com Locate a Mediator database at http://www.mediate.com/mediator/search
Mediators may also be found connected to Courts or in private practice. In some locales, the law
may require mediation before the Court makes decisions about child custody or visitation. A
skilled divorce mediator will have a working knowledge of negotiation and mediation
techniques, psychology, and family law.
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