What still amazes me most about divorce is how two people, once committing to love, honor, and cherish each other till death do part, almost overnight wishes to see that qualifier become a reality. Well, maybe not technically dead, but at least out of the way, vanished, or forgotten. This can be especially true amid the complications of co-parenting. For the better part of thirteen years as a divorced father, I have often felt my place is to keep quiet and the checks coming. It was usually the case we were more adversaries than teammates.
One of the deadly characteristics of co-parenting, not talked about nearly enough, is this combativeness that is a side-effect of the unspoken competition between divorced parents. An ongoing struggle for the affections of their children. This can manifest itself in countless ways from gift giving to vacations, where each parent lives or even the type of house; and all aimed at one-upping the other parent, to believe I am loved more than they are. We would never admit this, but at some level, most divorced parents know the competition of co-parenting to be true. Rare are those who can end a marriage while putting aside all pride, self-interest, and insecurity for the sake of the kids.
Yet we are not entirely to blame for this rivalry, consider the divorce process itself. From the start, it is a game where one opponent is trying to beat the other into submission. A divorce settlement is merely the scoreboard showing the outcome of the match. Why then should we expect the bloodlust suddenly quenched because the judge has signed off on the decree, especially if you are the loser? For three months my former wife did everything she could to take away time and money. Is it any wonder we struggled to co-parent in the years that followed?
The war rages on long after the initial battle is over, and for some, the contest never ends.
This is no better illustrated than with child custody. But it goes much deeper than merely agreeing to and abiding by a set schedule. That becomes the easy part. It gets much more complicated and can point to the inherent gamesmanship between divorced parents when our kids decide to have more of a say about where they should go and when.
Early in my relationship with the Queen, she experienced a common phenomenon with kids of divorce. For a time, every other Friday her strong-willed daughter would put on a drama-filled escapade as she tried to talk her way out of going to her dads. The Queen held firm, though admittedly it was not easy. As she kept reminding that her father loves her and wants to spend time with her, she fought feelings of guilt that she was somehow damaging the child. Finally, with him parked in the driveway, she would storm out of the house mad at the world, and especially the Queen.
The father never knew any of this.
If you are a divorced parent, it will invariably happen that your child decides they do not want to go to the ‘other parent’s’ home. Some children act strangely, others will throw fits, like the Queen’s daughter some will say so outright, a few hide themselves in their rooms or make any number of excuses on why they do not want to go, ‘My friends are all here,’ ‘There is nothing to do there.’ You likely have examples. I have yet to meet one parent who has not, in some way or another, faced this – and for the majority, it is a dad who is rebuffed.
Instead of satisfaction, a parent’s reaction in this situation can help set the course for that child, and the co-parenting relationship, for years to come.
It is sad to say but many parents look forward to these situations. When that child does not want to go to that other house, it can feel as if a point is scored. A tick is on the board in our favor. We are suddenly in the lead. Egos swell, and feelings of vindication served. For a moment at least, all the pain and hurt of the divorce may even seem worth it. We feel more loved and are winning the game.
Some parents may fool themselves believing that support of the child’s wishes is a way of protection and good parenting. “I should not force them to go over there,” “The kids should also get a say?”, “What type of parent am I if I make them go?” Feeling they are doing the right thing, they call the other parent and offer excuses and rationalizations for why the kids will not be coming over this weekend – all while doing an end-zone dance for the points just scored.
Unless there is clear-cut abuse, at which other steps are to be taken, there are very few, and I would argue no, reasons why a parent should not only condone, but promote and encourage a relationship (and by extension visitation) with the other parent. Even if doing so means forcing our children when they may not want to go. What that person may or may not have done as a spouse is irrelevant to them being a parent. If we can accept that for all that person’s faults as a husband or wife, they are a good mom or dad that loves and is devoted to their children, then any effort to inhibit, or worse, discourage visitation and a relationship with the other parent is evidence of our own insecurity or selfishness, and always, in the end, backfires.
I do not think the Queen ever got comfortable standing her ground on those Friday’s. In time the tantrums subsided; her daughter gave up trying. But all of the hard talks and swallowing those feelings of fear and guilt were rewarded several years later. During a long car ride, her daughter made a point to thank the Queen for making her go those times she did not want to. As a mature young woman, she could now see that the relationship with her father, one that was better than it had ever been, would have been very different had her mother so easily given in.
Co-parenting is much more than merely following a set of court-sanctioned rules. Co-parenting is about continuing to see that other person’s value as a parent when we no longer see their worth as a spouse. Doing this will always mean some sacrifice. It will also require us to advocate for someone we might instead want to be run over by a bus. It will most certainly involve moments when we feel like the loser at the moment so that our kids, and ultimately, we, can win in the end.