Couples going through the separation/divorce process are faced with many aspects of their lives that need to be negotiated and resolved. These aspects are diverse, mostly centered around finances, division of property, and other practical aspects of detangling their lives from each other. Of course, the most important aspect of the process is the kids. The two sections of the separation agreement that discuss the kids are the parenting schedule and child support. There is another dimension to the process that is often not discussed in the agreement but in many ways is the most important: how to co-parent.
Ideally, all divorcing parents would recognize that while their relationship with each other as a couple is ending, their relationship as co-parents of their kids will never end. Thus they would commit to a strong working relationship with each other to parent their kids as a team. Research consistently shows that when divorced parents get along better, their kids have lower incidence of anxiety, behavioral disturbance, and are overall better-adjusted than kids whose parents have an ongoing contentious relationship following the separation/divorce.
When it’s possible to have an ongoing positive and productive working relationship that’s always best. This way the parents can communicate regularly about how to co-parent most consistently by trying to come to agreement on as many major issues as possible. The kids can be presented with one set of values, expectations, rewards & consequences and overall life goals, and not be given inconsistent messages that can cause confusion and anxiety. Separated/divorced co-parents who can really present a consistent message to the kids and have one set of standards/expectations across both homes are doing their kids a great service.
Good communication between separated/divorced parents is also a good way to keep the kids in a routine, which is very beneficial for their mental health. This is particularly relevant for parenting schedules that have the kids living by both parents regularly during the school week. If both parents can have similar after-school schedules in terms of homework, showering/bedtime, and general expectations of how to spend the time between dinner and bedtime that’s really helpful. This consistency of schedule is also relevant in parenting arrangements where one parent has the kids on most or all school nights but the other parent has them for some weekends – even a consistent weekend schedule is helpful in keeping the kids happier and less anxious.
Despite best efforts, very few separated/divorced couples are able to parent the children without any conflict whatsoever. There are major decisions to be made throughout the kids’ lives, minor questions come up constantly, and there will sometimes be disagreements between the parents. To deal with this, it’s important to have a neutral third party to help resolve differences.
Having a neutral third party who represents the kids’ interests is something that is encouraged by the courts and for good reason. It’s important to have someone to talk to throughout the kids’ upbringing who is able to understand their needs in depth and help make good decisions. In a litigated divorce, this is a guardian, usually a social worker or attorney appointed by the court. While having a court-appointed guardian is sometimes helpful and necessary, it is not ideal for a number of reasons including that even if both parents disagree with a decision the guardian makes, they still must obey it. This is one benefit of mediating the divorce process rather than litigating – it keeps a high level of control with the parents rather than the court system, and if they can co-parent in a responsible and positive way this is so much better than having the court decide what’s best for the kids.
In a non-litigated divorce, the parents also have the flexibility to choose someone on their own to mediate issues relating to the kids. This can be a trusted friend, the child’s teacher or principal at school, the child’s psychotherapist or pediatrician, or a combination of different people for different topics; for example, parents can agree that if they have a disagreement about something medical they will use the pediatrician as a mediator, if it’s something academic the school principal, etc.
In a mediated divorce, the mediator fills the role of neutral party who helps resolve conflict. During the negotiation of the separation agreement the mediator becomes an expert in the family life of the divorcing couple and becomes extremely familiar with the specific issues that are relevant to their parenting and potential conflicts that can arise in the future. This way when there are conflicts in the future the parents can feel confident that they can return for a session with the mediator to talk it through and reach a resolution without the need for fighting; this is much more pleasant and ultimately is very beneficial to the children.
The important thing about having a neutral person who can help resolve conflicts between the parents is that this can de-escalate situations from becoming full-blown conflicts.
Having a mediated divorce has many advantages – less conflict and fighting, quicker and far less expensive than going through the court system, even without taking into account legal fees. In a contentious divorce involving each spouse hiring their own attorney to fight, the costs can be astronomical. A mediated divorce accomplishes everything a contested divorce can, it’s just much quicker, easier, less expensive, and offers the benefit of being able to potentially maintain a positive relationship between ex-spouses so that they can be good co-parents in the years to come.
Dr. Winder is a Clinical Psychologist and Certified Divorce & Family Mediator; he provides Individual Psychotherapy, Couples Counseling, and Divorce/Family Mediation Services at his Cedarhurst office. (516) 345-0456 www.drwinder.com