Parenting with an Uncooperative Ex: A Divorce Lawyer’s Perspective
Parenting Tips for dealing with an Uncooperative Ex Spouse!
This topic is an exceedingly broad one, but I will try to share my insights from my perspective as a practicing family law attorney for the past 34 years. The original idea to write this article was that of Connecticut psychotherapist, Donna Ferber. I thought it was a great idea of hers to tackle this subject; from both a therapist’s perspective and a lawyer’s perspective. Here is the link to Donna’s perceptive take about parenting with an uncooperative parent in her blog article, The Uncooperative Co-Parent, posted on her blog February 18, 2012. In addition, she gave me permission to repost her article in this blog on February 29, 2012.
When the parties have children, while it might be desirable, it’s impossible to apply a “no contact rule” and completely disassociate themselves from their uncooperative ex spouse. The parties have to come to some sort of arrangement when they have children and when there is parenting time with their ex-spouse. Ideally, in parenting, parents should develop a direct channel of communication with each other and not use their children as messengers. Obviously, research clearly shows that it is in the children’s best interest for both the mother and father to be cooperative in the parenting arrangement.
Probably it is important to realize that Domestic Relations Courts view their job as disentangling the parties. Don’t expect the Court to “fix” parenting issues. In the Court’s view, it is not surprising that the parties didn’t get along very well or else they’d still be married. Recognizing this philosophical perspective of the Court is very important. If you do, it shouldn’t be a surprise that judges and magistrates typically view trying to solve post-decree parenting issues as virtually impossible or beyond their “job description.”
If you’ve not had an opportunity to check out www.ourfamilywizard.com, a website devoted to parenting, I would suggest that you do. Hundreds of family law judges in over 44 states and 4 Canadian provinces are ordering families to use the Our Family Wizard website in contested cases to resolve their parenting issues. Courts find that when parents use this tool, they do not return to the Court nearly as often. The wizard provides parents with tools to empower them by providing long term solutions for parenting. The wizard puts all family information at both parents’ fingertips, including private and shared calendars, a message board, notifications and reminders, a journal, expense log, etc. There is a charge of $99.00 for a one year subscription per parent. That amount might seem high, but it is miniscule compared to the costs that would be incurred in returning to Court on a post-decree motion.
When a client comes in to see me with a significant parenting issue pertaining to an uncooperative ex-spouse, oftentimes I will suggest sending a letter to that individual outlining the problems. Sometimes, it is wise to try to get the opposing party to agree to engage in family counseling or to utilize the services of a co parenting counselor. Many times, the uncooperativeness is a residual from the divorce action. If both parties genuinely believe that it is important to prioritize the children’s best interest, then family counseling or utilizing a co parenting counselor is often helpful. Both sides get to “air” their positions, and the “expert” will work with them to improve communications and smooth out those parenting problems.
In our Courts in southwestern Ohio, it is typical in post-decree motions pertaining to parenting issues to request the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to make independent and objective recommendations as to what is in the child’s or children’s best interest. This information can be extremely helpful to the Court to try to sift through all the conflict and problems between the parties. The Guardian ad Litem will typically interview each parent, stepparent or significant other, and talk to the children separately. In Ohio, in order to get a GAL involved, a motion has to be filed for either contempt, or clarification of parenting issues, along with a request to appoint the Guardian ad Litem. It is not unusual for a period of a month and a half or two months to pass after the GAL is appointed to allow him/her to complete the investigation.
Another thing I often suggest to clients coming from a high-conflict divorce is to become familiar with the diagnosis of a borderline personality disorder (BPD). Is your ex-spouse just being difficult or is that individual exhibiting classic traits of a BPD individual? Learning strategies to deal with individuals who suffer from a borderline personality disorder can work wonders. To learn more about the borderline personality disorder, click here.
As unsettling as it may be, you may need to come to the realization that co parenting with uncooperative ex spouse who is a high-conflict, abusive or mentally ill ex-spouse may be impossible even after multiple post-decree Court proceedings. If that should end up being the case, then you need to establish the mind-set of doing parallel parenting. Perhaps Donna Ferber can write a supplemental blog article at some point about tips for moving forward with a parallel parenting relationship. Parties transition at different speeds after a divorce. Perhaps a parallel parenting approach makes sense now, but with time, healing and growth a more cooperative approach might be possible.
In summary, Courts really don’t want to become involved in parenting disputes after a divorce is final. As harsh as it may sound, Courts have large dockets and want to finalize their cases and complete them rather than repeatedly trying to fix parenting issues that oftentimes will never be solved. That backdrop is important for individuals to understand because many clients have the misconception that the Court will do everything necessary to facilitate a child’s healthy emotional state after the divorce.
All the suggestions that Donna Ferber had made in her prior blog article are excellent ones that I whole heartedly recommend 100 percent. Everything that can be accomplished on an out-of-court basis should be considered and attempted before resorting to the filing of a motion with the Court; that is, assuming you’re not dealing with an ex who has abused your child, had significant mental health or borderline personality disorder issues, or who has jeopardized the safety of your child. In those cases, of course, you need to contact your lawyer right away. Don’t wait!
So, in summary here are my top seven (7) suggestions for parenting issues:
- Document, document, and document– It is exceedingly important for a party who is having difficulty parenting with their ex-spouse to journalize and document everything related to the parenting strife so that information can be presented to the Court at a later date. Start today! Don’t try to reconstruct it after the fact. This would include keeping a journal with contemporaneous entries as to what had occurred, dates, times, difficulty, etc. In addition, if possible, commemorate the issue in a short, civil email to the ex. We want to try to avoid as much as possible the “he said, she said” stalemate. Remember, your lawyer can only present at Court what you provide to him or her.
- Get your child in to see his/her own counselor– If you end up in Court, it is imperative to have a report or perhaps testimony from a psychologist/therapist as to how the parenting strife is negatively impacting your child’s best interest. That expert testimony might well carry the day!
- Try to get your ex to utilize the services of a trained family therapist and/or co parenting counselor– Try to do that yourself without the assistance of an attorney; but if you’re unsuccessful, your lawyer may be able to send a letter to try to encourage that resolution rather than returning to Court.
- Our Family Wizard – Check out www.ourfamilywizard.com and see whether you think it might be helpful to you. There are other competing websites that offer similar type of assistance. Again, discuss this with your ex and try to get an agreement to give it a try. I believe ourfamilywizard.com offers a 30-day free trial. If you can’t get cooperation, this may be another area that your attorney may want to include in a letter to your ex or include in the motion in Court.
- Learn more about mental health issues– Spend time learning about mental health issues, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and bipolar disorder. Many articles are available online as are numerous books to help you discover techniques to coexist with your ex-spouse.
- Consider parallel parenting – Read and learn more about how parallel parenting can be the most effective arrangement in many cases for moving forward with a totally uncooperative ex-spouse. Does that mode of parenting at present make more sense than continued head-banging in Court?
- File a post-decree motion in Court – When all of the out-of-court steps have not been successful and there is a decent likelihood of making the situation between you and your spouse better rather than worse in Court, have your lawyer file a motion for either contempt of the prior order or for clarification of parenting issues. Also consider requesting the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem.
Be sure to consult with a family law attorney to discuss parenting problems that may arise when dealing with an uncooperative ex spouse. Courts and their perspectives vary. Advice as to the manner to proceed can be predicated in great part upon the tendencies of the specific Judge who will hear your case. An experienced divorce lawyer can evaluate your options and make the appropriate recommendations as to how to move forward in a constructive positive manner.
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Robert L. Mues
Robert Mues is the managing partner of Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. Mr. Mues is also a founding member of the "International Academy of Attorneys for Divorce over 50" blog.