Back To Court: Several times a year, whether I am in session with a patient, or bumping into friends, acquaintances or former patients in the aisles of the local supermarkets, the phrase “He/She is taking me back to court,” is whispered to me in tones of distress, anger, irony or weariness. Weariness often more than anything laces the phrase “back to court.” What strikes me most is that what should be a shared family celebration, a high schooler’s graduation, the youngster’s first steps towards independence at a two-week camp in the Adirondacks, or the college selection process, becomes a horror story of unresolved hurt and anger acted out through the legal system with toxic spillover into the lives of the children of divorce.
Normal Passages Leading To Legal Processes: Other scenarios that trigger “back to court” might be the suspicion that a former spouse has taken in a lover and may be benefitting financially from such an occurrence or that the college an offspring wishes to attend (even if within budget) is not pleasing to the parent who is responsible for paying half or all of its costs; perhaps a joint decision is made to send a child to boarding school, but then leads to a call to the attorney to start re-examining the child support funding. And sadly there is the ever-possible economic reversal such as a decrease in earnings, a lay-off, or something outside of obvious causation, just plain intimidation without obvious provocation.
Visitation issues become rampant as teens resist being moved about like pieces on a chessboard, refusing to spend weekends with the other parent just to satisfy a legal document written when they were five. The “rejected” parent, who may feel hurt or relieved that their offspring has better things to do on the weekend than hang out with mom or dad, takes the opportunity, feeling, justified, to look into some sort of legal action to address what is really an adolescent’s developmental rite of passage.
But There Is Only One Victim: Through these unending vicissitudes of post divorce life, there may not be one culprit, but there is certainly one victim: the child. Whatever the age, whether four or forty, children of divorce suffer from the often bitter acting out of their parents who cannot seem to bury the hatchet of broken vows. Rarely does the “back to court” utterance occur without children either overhearing the agitation and animosity, or outright being told that the other parent is unfair at best, even cruel, heartless or crazy. And of course, what is the seeming precipitant of these hassles? The child’s needs, whether they are educational costs, food and shelter or a ceremonial celebration such as a wedding or bar mitzvah. And the timing of these episodes of divorced parental distress typically coincides with milestones in their children’s lives.
Another Way? I think there is another way. But it takes compromise. Typical attorneys represent one parent’s interests “over” another, so that any possibility of reducing antagonism is out of reach. Mediation and collaborative divorce may work initially when first parted but as new and sometimes unanticipated events ensue, former spouses are at a loss so the culture says, “Call your attorney.” Alas. What should come first is the question, “How will the steps I take affect my children? Is there something other than legal action that might serve my needs here?” Yes, there is something to consider before legal action. If parents can acknowledge that legal fighting over funding or visitation or decisions regarding education or celebrations for their children is emotionally harmful to the child, than alternative actions can be considered. Children know what’s going on, believe me, and hate every bit of it.
“In The Best Interest:” Raising the banner of “in the best interests” of the psychological state of “our” offspring is a worthy goal. It may take a third party — probably a couples therapist is a better idea before anyone dials up the attorney — to extricate from the ruins of a marriage the common love for its product, the children, which hopefully will serve as the impetus to reach a compromise solution that avoids bitter and emotional battles for all.
The Third Option: As I have written in previous posts, there is always a third option. There is my way. There is your way. And then there is something neither of us has thought of that might work for both of us. Children should be free to celebrate their milestones without the bombardment of parental rancor to mar their joy or interfere with the energy and focus they need to take that next big step. This will take hard work, self-control, and guts. Yes, it takes courage, sheer guts to sit in a room with your former spouse and decide to be mature, caring adults. It takes a third party to remind you that you can do this for the good of others, your others.
Naiveté? My hunch here is that readers are thinking, “How naive. She doesn’t know my ex. This would never work.” Really? Have you tried it? Send this to your ex and follow up with a chat with your children about what it feels like to be caught in the middle of the volley of accusations and justifications, triggered by their needs, or passage. Which one of us is naive here, me or you?
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011