One of the most frustrating things that I have observed in my time as a family law attorney is the tendency for some parents to try and do anything within their power to harm their child's relationship with their ex-spouse. It seems like every parent has a different reason for doing this. However, the reasons almost always revolve around anger, betrayal, and other emotions that are still simmering from their divorce. As much as you may want to tell yourself otherwise, a divorce can be a very confusing and challenging time. While it is nice to think about the divorce as a "business transaction" and no more, it would be difficult for most to part ways with our spouse and not have complex emotions come into the picture.
There is nothing wrong with that. I am not trying to tell you to block out all emotions from your divorce and approach the case from a purely objective standpoint. That certainly needs to be part of the case, but hopefully, you will have enough objectivity to serve your child's and your interests between you and your attorney. Emotions are going to be a part of your divorce. You're human, after all. What happens after your divorce cannot be blamed on your feelings, however. It would help if you approached your post-divorce life as an adult who is human but will not be ruled by their emotions.
The faster you can come to terms with this, the better your post-divorce life will be. The better your post-divorce life is, the better you will be able to parent your child. If you are comfortable with your relationship with your child, then the odds are good that you will be pleased with your child's relationship with your ex-spouse as well.
With that said, let's examine some actions that you should avoid doing in your post-divorce life that relate to your child and his relationship with your ex-spouse.
Do not cause your child to feel guilty about spending time with his other parent.
Sometimes we can make our children feel guilty, and we don't. Even realize it. Consider an example that goes like this: Before your ex-spouse pulls up to your driveway to pick your child up for weekend visitation, you tell him that you will miss him and that you are already sad because you are going to be all alone this weekend. While you may have meant this sincerely, the impact will be that your child now feels guilty for "leaving" you to go see his other parent. This can have a lasting effect on your child and will almost certainly have an impact on how he spends his time with your ex-spouse.
At the other end of the spectrum would be a situation where you tell your child that he should not enjoy spending time with your ex-spouse because they are the wrong person or lousy parent. Here, you would know that the intent behind these words would be to harm your child's relationship with his parent. This one would be hard to rationalize or explain away. The bottom line is that you need to set your emotions to the side when it comes to your ex-spouse's relationship with your child. This is one area of parenting your child that you shouldn't have much of any input regarding.
If you have a legitimate reason for getting between your child and your ex-spouse, you should pursue that. It also happens that one parent becomes aware or suspects that abuse or neglect of their child by an ex-spouse is occurring. In that case, you may be the only person in a position to do something about it. Do not disregard your instincts.
However, in just about every other situation, you need to understand that you ultimately harm your child when you attempt to insert yourself between him and his other parent. There may be something that you don't see in that relationship that is helping your child in some way. In the wake of a divorce, you should be happy that your child has as many strong relationships with family and friends as possible. Your ex-spouse may not be your favorite person in the world, but the relationship between your child and your ex-spouse couldn't be more critical.
Visitation is a guarantee- not a reward for good behavior.
If you are the noncustodial parent, you do not live with your child full time and instead have been awarded visitation through the court order in your divorce. That court order has set forth particular periods during the year that you have the right to have your child. These periods should be calendared in your home and your ex-spouses. Ideally, they are opportunities for you and your child to bond and rebuild a relationship that may have been harmed in your divorce.
It would help if you did not do with these visitation opportunities to use them as a reward/punishment for your child. For example, you should not attempt to discipline your child by threatening to withhold visitation with you if your child does to follow instructions or otherwise do what you ask of him. Using visitation with you as a reward for good behavior is not how you should approach your child's relationship.
Instead, your child should come to expect that visitation with you is a consistent force for good in their life. A young child should not have to worry about whether or not he will see one of his parents due to supposed lousy behavior on his part. You can use a reward system to encourage good behavior, good grades or accomplish whatever goal you have in mind. However, using time with you as a stick/carrot is not a good plan. It would help if you were one of the few constants in your child's life. Putting him on a merit-based system for more visitation is not healthy for you or your child.
The relationship between child support and visitation
Whether you know it or not, there will come to be a relationship between child support payments and visitation in your post-divorce life for many parents. Here's how it works. Let's say that you are the parent who was awarded the right to determine your child's primary residence in the divorce. Your ex-spouse was awarded a visitation schedule with your child and requested to send child support payments to you monthly. Your ex-spouse also has the typical first, third, and fifth weekends of every month as opportunities to have visitation. The court does not order him to see his children on those weekends but does make them available to him. You cannot go and schedule events to take place on his weekends.
For the first few months after your divorce, this plan worked great. Your child was doing well living with you primarily. Your ex-spouse was paying you total amounts of child support each month and was doing so on time. Your child enjoyed seeing his father on every other weekend type schedule. All was well in your kingdom post-divorce. However, that peace was not set to last for very long.
Your ex-spouse is a contract employee and was out of work for a few weeks. He was unable to pay you child support in May. He followed that up by not paying you child support for June. This put him a few thousand dollars in the hole to you. However, I did make some partial payments of child support to you in July. He fell even more behind when he didn't make the July payment on time. This caused you to fall behind in paying your bills. It wasn't delightful, at the least. At the most, you wondered if your ex-spouse was purposeful.
Your reaction to this failure to pay child support in full and on time was not to allow your child to see your ex-spouse until he paid you the child support owed. After all, if you're not getting something that was promised to you in the divorce, then he should not get something that was promised to him, either. Is this fair?
The answer is: no. This is not an appropriate action for you to take, even considering that your ex-spouse has been late with child support payments for three straight months. The divorce decree does not allow you to take this action, first of all. It is not an appropriate remedy for you to withhold visitation with your child in this case because these two events are not tied together and are not dependent on one another.
Think about it in reverse: if you were to withhold visitation from your ex-spouse for whatever reason, it would not be appropriate for him to stop paying you child support to pay you back. If this were allowed, I think it would create a "Wild West" atmosphere where you and your ex-spouse would be enacting frontier justice upon one another to avenge slights caused by the other person.
If your ex-spouse has been late with child support payments, then your best bet is to address it with him and, if necessary, the Office of the Attorney General. If you try to speak to your ex-spouse directly, there may be a way for you all to work out a payment plan rather than file an enforcement lawsuit. Do not attempt to take justice into your own hands. Ultimately who is hurt most by this is your child (someone who did nothing wrong).
In all things, be honest.
There are multiple ways to seriously consider how you can use dishonesty to harm your child's relationship with your ex-spouse. For starters, do not attempt to argue that your ex-spouse has engaged in abusive actions against your child. You may have legitimate reasons for not wanting your child to see their other parent. However, if you make false allegations of abuse against your ex-spouse, then you are breaking the law and putting yourself at risk of losing time with your child- perhaps permanently,
Unfortunately, there are children in our state who have suffered abuse or neglect at the hands of a parent. Do not put yourself in a position where you have told someone that your ex-spouse is an abuser of your children. If it comes out that your allegation was based on nothing factual, you put yourself in a position where you will have to face the consequences. It is not difficult to foresee your ex-spouse taking you to court in an attempt to win primary custody from you or to enact a penalty for making a false report of abuse against him.
Another way that dishonesty can impact your child and their relationship to your ex-spouse would be not allowing your children to make calls to the other parent during your periods of possession. In most final decrees of divorce, it is included that parents cannot interfere with the kids' phone calls to the other parent. While this may seem insignificant, these phone calls are an essential part of the day for many children. Interfering with their ability to call your ex-spouse means that it is likely that your ex-spouse will return the favor when the kids are with him.
Questions about today's blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have any questions about the content of today's blog post, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week here in our office. These consultations are an excellent opportunity to ask questions and receive direct feedback about your specific circumstances.