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, but the reasons almost always revolve around anger, betrayal and other emotions that are still simmering from the time of their divorce. As much as you may want to tell yourself otherwise, a divorce can be a very confusing and difficult time. While it is nice to think about the divorce as a “business transaction” and no more, it would be difficult for most of us 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 to try and approach the case from a purely objective standpoint. That certainly needs to be part of the case but hopefully between you and your attorney you will have enough objectivity to serve your child’s and your interests. 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 emotions, however. You need to be able to approach your post-divorce life as an adult who is human but who also 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 own relationship with your child, then the odds are good that you will be comfortable 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 are going to 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 impact on your child and will almost certainly have an effect on how he spends his time with your ex-spouse.
At the other end of the spectrum would a situation where you clearly tell your child that he should not enjoy spending time with your ex-spouse because he or she is a bad person or bad parent. Here, you would clearly 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 in regards to.
Obviously, if you have a legitimate reason for getting between your child and your ex-spouse then you should pursue that. It also happens that one parent becomes aware of 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 be able to do something about it. Do not disregard your instincts.
However, in just about every other situation you need to understand that you are ultimately harming 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 important.
Visitation is a guarantee- not a reward for good behavior
If you are the noncustodial parent that means 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 of time during the year that you have the right to be in possession of your child. These periods of time should be calendared in your home and in your ex-spouse’s. Ideally they are opportunities for you and your child to bond and to rebuild a relationship that may have been harmed in your divorce.
What you should not do in relation to these visitation opportunities is 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 be approaching the relationship with your child.
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 able to see one of his parents due to supposed bad behavior on his part. You can use a reward system to encourage good behavior, good grades or to accomplish whatever goal you have in mind. However, using time with you as a stick/carrot is not a good plan. You should be 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 the primary residence of your child in the divorce. Your ex-spouse was awarded a visitation schedule with your child and the right to send child support payments to you on a monthly basis. 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 full 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. Although 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 was annoying 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 to not allow your child to see your ex-spouse until he paid you the child support that was 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 bearing in mind 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 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 in order 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 in order 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 to 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 that come to mind as to how you can use dishonesty to seriously harm your child’s relationship to 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,
It is unfortunate that there are children in our state who have actually 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 then you put yourself in a position where you will have to face the consequences for doing so. 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 in 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 phone calls of the kids to the other parent. While this may seem insignificant, these phone calls are an important 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 a great opportunity to ask questions and receive direct feedback about your specific circumstances.