I had been a divorce litigator for 10 years when I faced divorce myself. At the time, I was spending a lot of time in the courtroom on behalf of my clients. Suffice it to say that I was very familiar with how things worked in the litigation system. I had two young children then and although I dreaded handing control of my own life over to a judge, I was terrified of the impact on my kids.
My former husband and I were unable to mediate our divorce and Collaborative Divorce was not known or available to us at the time so we were forced to settle in the litigation model. One thing I knew as a divorce litigator was that if we ended up in court it was guaranteed that we would use the children as tools in our disagreement. I knew this because although we both wanted to protect our kids, the way the system works we or our attorneys acting on our behalf at some point would have to turn them into bargaining chips. This is and was simply a fact–for better or for worse, the litigation system and negotiations held in the shadow of that process uses anything and everything to gain a toehold of advantage. The parental instinct to protect offers a vulnerability felt by both sides to a divorce and is, therefore an opportunity for strategic advantage.
What can be done to protect children whose parents are divorcing? There are two separate but related tactics parents can take to protect their children while they are in the process of divorce.
- First, parents can effectively deal with the emotional fallout of the divorce on themselves. I do not think that it is possible to separate what some people call the “emotional divorce” from the legal divorce. My experience is that emotions influence thinking and that the best way to prevent emotions from taking over is to get help to process the emotional impact of the divorce. Everyone has an emotional response to divorce. Even the partner who chooses to end the marriage has feelings that come up around that decision and its repercussions on the family. Dealing with what comes up emotionally will help parents to protect their children from their own anger, sadness or other reaction to the divorce — both the end of the marriage and the resolution process.
- Second, parents can separate the resolution of the parenting plan from the financial negotiation. Of course, the entire settlement or resolution of a divorce must all work together and any parenting plan must be financially supported by the rest of the resolution. Yet, if the parents can make explicit their intention to support the parenting plan they arrive at, actually setting forth a written parenting plan that involves both parents in the lives of the children as frequently and thoroughly as possible, is likely to result in a plan that truly puts the children first.
Neither of the above are easy to do and they work separately (although the first makes the second easier). Divorce is a scary thing to go through. It is sad, expensive and incredibly disruptive for the entire family. Finding a way to protect your children will likely not be easy. From the outside it seems like it should be. Everyone talks about it as something to which they aspire — either as professionals or parents. In reality, it takes courage and self-honesty. Ask yourself, how would you want your children to describe you as a parent going through your divorce? The answer will set you on the right path.