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Custody Mistakes of Divorcing Couples

Updated on June 19, 2013

This article will start with a disclaimer: when people enter into the Child Custody Clobber, I get angry. Angry about the waste of money, court time, lack of maturity and willingness for people to learn, and most of all, angry about what it does to children and their future adult relationships. After all, children primarily learn how to be in adult relationships from the most important people in their lives: their parents.

When it comes to divorce, people lie to their children all the time. They tell their child that the arguments and hostility that Daddy and Mommy have for each other have nothing to do with the child. Then they proceed to use the child as a club in custody actions against each other in court. Children are very savvy; they know when Mom and Dad are talking (or texting) on the phone and are in an argument. They can feel the reactivity in the parent that they are with. And the parent they can see is getting upset. And why are they upset? Why because of the child, of course. From the child's perspective, the child knows that the only reason their parents are talking (arguing) and feeling bad is because of them. What a terrible and abusive weight to give to a child to bear.

Not content simply to trade and hurl insults and disrespect towards each other and use the child as an excuse to do so, the ex's proceed to then try and use the court system and custody to clobber each other further. Though not all lawyers do so, keeping ex's reactive in this way suits the lawyer's vested interest in continued court appearances and income flow.

Many judges that handle family and custody cases would agree that such cases are often trivial, time consuming, and a strain on the already over burdened court systems. People come into court wanting the judge to legislate relationship. Remember that kids are very smart; they know when their parents are going into court to punish each other. Basically the message is to the child: Mommy and Daddy are so immature as to need a judge to make decisions about how we will share you and parent you. And oh, how that engenders respect and faith in the child for both parents!

As a counselor, I can count on one hand how many couples I thought should be divorced. Most could have stayed together and learned to do so happily if they had actually done the work needed and found a qualified counselor. The nature of decay in relationship that moves towards separation and divorce twists the participant's thinking into a strong belief that the problem is their (ex) partner. I have often found people who just cannot give up this myth and turn their attention to the central issue: their own growth and maturation in relationship. Show me a divorcing couple and I will show you a pair of adults still carrying out married relationship at a maturity level of a fourteen year old couple. I have in fact, found fourteen year old couples more mature than couples married for a decade or more. Many of these couples divorce only to hook up with someone new rather rapidly, and a few years down the line, experience the same kinds of problems, just with different details.

Those folks who do give up the myth that the central problem is their partner begin to focus on their own development and growth and thereby increase their chance of happiness tenfold. And when a parent matures and heals, it has a tremendous positive effect on a child. Often, children who have developed Adjustment Disorder as a result of their parent's clobbering behaviors have rapid and marked improvements in the behaviors of anxiety and acting out that are part and parcel to Adjustment Disorder as a result of separation and divorce. Parents of children who develop this disorder are of ten startled when they bring the child in for me to 'fix' when I tell them to leave the child at home and come for therapy themselves. Fix the adult immature and skewed view of relationship, and you fix the child.

Those who cannot give up the myth simply move on to legal divorce. While many (most marriages, sadly) end in legal divorce, very few of these achieve an emotional divorce. Essentially, the pair continue to engage each other, harm each other, themselves, and their children the same way they did when they were married. Nothing really changes (other than both may start new relationships to complicate things further). As Einstein famously said: “The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Somewhat strangely, the same task it takes to stay married is the same task needed to end the child- custody-clobber. At least one parent needs to unplug from the highly reactive and volatile connection between the ex's. If both work to do this, so much the better, but if only one parent does it, that is better than nothing. And here is something to consider: children gravitate towards the relationally healthiest adults that they can find. So in short: get healthier in relationship skills than your ex.

But many rebut by stating that they cannot allow their guard down or stop their aggressive behaviors to wards their ex, as their ex will not do the same. This is an argument that does not hold water. Just like tow kids in a snowball fight that gets tiresome, one suggests that they drop their snowballs simultaneously on the count of three. Guess what happens? If you find yourself in such a place, some consideration may be in order to learn how to grow up and become a real adult. The question becomes: how long are you willing to be miserable, reactive, battling, and laying undue stress and heartache on your child in order to continue to exact revenge on your ex? Make the decision, for your child's sake and your own, to learn how to gain a more mature and functional way of relating.


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    • Keeley Shea profile image

      Keeley Shea 5 years ago from Norwich, CT

      I wish I had read this article two years ago! It is so nice to not have to take on the responsibility of my ex's happiness anymore. I did this through, like you mention is important, a licensed counselor, who showed me to work on myself and my health and growth as a person. His unhappiness had nothing to do with me and if he had been able to work on himself our marriage would have survived and my children wouldn't be the product of a broken home. Now it is up to me to be happy with myself and my life as is and appreciative of my family as it is in order to set a good example for them.