Family law is a strange animal. Unlike most other types of cases, family law cases often don’t end with the court’s “final” or “permanent orders.” Where this is most apparent is in those cases where children are involved, such as divorce or allocation of parental responsibilities. In an ordinary civil case, litigants bring their case to the court, settle it, or have a trial, and at the end of the day, there is a result. Somebody wins, somebody loses, or sometimes nobody wins, but the case has a definitive endpoint.
In a family law case with children, you and your ex can file a case, fight hard for months or even years, beat each other up in court and on the witness stand, and eventually get a ruling from the judge. But, two weeks later, in most cases, you still have to talk to your ex about how your kid needs braces, or what sports to enroll them in, or how to handle daycare. You see, as parents, your case never really ends. You will, in most cases, have to deal with your ex for years to come, and even if there aren’t legal battles, you still have to see each other at school plays, or soccer games, or special events. Even after your child turns 18, there are still graduations, and weddings, and possibly grandkids. The short version is you and your ex are connected because of your kids. I know that can sound horrifying, but while you and your ex are no longer together and may never be friends, you will always be parents and your kids need you both in their lives.
Often in family law disputes arise after the court has entered it’s “permanent” orders. I put “permanent” in quotes because orders regarding children are often anything but permanent and courts can modify these permanent orders under most circumstances to meet the best interests of the child. We call these disputes “post-decree” cases because they happen after the court has already entered its initial decree of divorce or allocation of parental responsibilities. My family law practice focuses on post-decree matters, and a huge part of my job is to try and help my clients resolve these disputes before we have to get a judge involved. I firmly believe that the best way to do this is to set the solid groundwork for discussion between parents and to try and minimize and resolve conflict as quickly as possible. I do this by coaching my clients on how to interact with the opposing party without having to resort to filing motions every time there is a disagreement.
This process of working together is called “co-parenting”. As the name implies, it is joint parenting, where both parties work together and support each other to raise their child. There are a lot of resources out there for co-parenting. You can check out this blog: Co-Parenting After Divorce for some good articles, and a simple google search will provide you with many more. As part of my practice, I see a lot of examples of both good and bad co-parenting strategies. Things that work and things that don’t, and I wanted to share with you my top 10 do’s. Next time I’ll discuss co-parenting don’t’s and what happens when co-parenting fails.
This is the most important thing you can do is a co-parent, and that’s why it’s number 1. The entire purpose of this co-parenting enterprise is to raise a healthy, happy, safe kid. That always has to be your top priority. Anytime you are looking at a decision the first thing you should ask is “what does this do for my child?” Whether you like it or hate it is of far less value than if it is what your kid needs. Don’t get so caught up in combat with your ex that you forget what you should be fighting for. It can’t be about ego and winning, it has to be about the best interest of your child.
This one is one of the hardest things for new co-parent’s to do. You have to realize that you are in a new and different kind of relationship than before. You and your co-parent are no longer intimate partners, you may not even be friends, but you are and will forever be parents of your child. That means you need to get over the hurt and anger that often comes with broken relationships and work on building a new kind of relationship where you can work together. Don’t hold past mistakes or arguments over your co-parents head. If you find yourself saying “You always do…” or “There you go again..” or something similar hold your tongue, take a breath and focus on what’s going on now. Don’t deny reasonable requests to make up for past wrongs, focus on today and the future.
In order to be able to do number 4, you have to do this. You need to keep each other up to date about what’s going on in your kids’ lives. This can be as simple as having coffee once a month or emailing regular updates about what is happening. Too much communication is probably better than too little. If you and your co-parent are reasonably technologically savvy you can set up a shared calendar on google or there are numerous websites and products designed to help co-parents work together. Just do a web search for “co-parenting calendar” and you will find plenty of options.
This doesn’t mean yell at your co-parent about what you want, or argue with them about what they want. You need to actually talk with, and listen to, your co-parent when it comes to issues that need to be addressed. Keep in mind numbers 9 and 10 in your discussions as well. The only way you can work together is if you are actively listening to what your co-parent has to say and addressing those issues.
Just like with number 6, look for ways to meet everyone’s needs even if it means giving up something else. Try to meet your co-parent in the middle on those issues that you can. Remember this is about your child, not about you or your co-parent “winning”. The goal here is to parent the way that Parents who aren’t involved in the court system do. They don’t have the option of going to a judge if they can’t come to a reasonable decision, so they compromise and work together.
See if you can find ways for both of you to get what you want. Parenting doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. The best solutions are those that allow everyone to have their interests met. You may not be able to get exactly what you want, but figure out why it is that you want something and look for ways that you can have that without taking away what your co-parent wants.
Don’t tie every issue into every other problem that you have to solve. It just makes it harder to get things done. You may not be able to agree on what doctor to use, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come to agreements on other things. Deal with each issue as discretely as you can, and move on to the next issue once you’ve resolved one, or determined that you can’t solve it right now.
If your co-parent asks a question respond in a reasonable amount of time. Don’t ignore them or brush off their concerns. If you need some time to think about an issue, that’s okay, but let the other party know that you need some time and when you think you’ll be able to get back to them.
The only way you can get anywhere towards a productive relationship is to be open about your concerns and honest with your co-parent. This also means you have to not hide information or sneak around behind their back. Remember you are both working towards the same goal.
Just because you have a long-standing relationship with someone, and they know how to push your buttons, that doesn’t mean you can get away from general social conventions. You are talking to your co-parent, and equal, so treat them like you would like to be addressed, respectfully.
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