Co-parenting with an ex of any sort -boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, partner – is difficult during the best of times. The reasons your relationship didn’t work out will come into play each and every time you interact with your ex, whether you want them to or not. Being a co-parent means putting aside all of the reasons you broke up (a divorce is a break up), all of the lingering resentments and old hurt feelings, and working together for your child. Children can easily be hurt when co-parents fight, and there is no hiding arguments from them. Kids are keen observers. No matter how well you think you’re covering your tracks or keeping your voice down, kids know when their parents are fighting.
Most fights are avoidable. Unfortunately, some aren’t. The unavoidable arguments fall into 2 categories: differences that can be worked out between you and your fearless co-parent, and actual issues that could potentially jeopardize your child’s well-being and therefore require a family law attorney.
It’s important to know the difference. Constant calls and emails to attorneys over things you can work out on your own will eventually cause said attorneys to lose patience. That won’t necessarily harm a legitimate case, but it will result in additional legal fees and potentially a lack of professional respect for you personally. You don’t want either. The bullets below offer suggestions on how to objectively determine when you need to engage a family law attorney.
- Do a Data Dump. Get all of your co-parenting issues on paper, either a written page, or a Word Processing Document. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation and don’t edit yourself. Just get everything out of your head and in writing so you can see it.
- Set It All Aside. Once you’ve gotten everything down on the page, put that document away. Don’t look at it when you are fired up emotionally. You never want to approach an argument in a state of anger or anxiety. It will reflect badly on you, no matter how justified your anger at the other person is.
- Come Back When You’re Calm. If you are fighting with a co-parent, the worst thing you can do is answer their calls or respond to their texts or emails when you are angry. Doing so only fuels the anger. Walk away from your computer. Temporarily block their texts. Let their calls hit voicemail. Come back to the situation when you are in a better state of mind.
- But Suppose There’s an Emergency?! As a non-custodial parent, you never want to completely shut down your residential co-parent. You want to make sure they can reach you in case there’s an emergency with your child. If there is an emergency, your co-parent undoubtedly has other ways to find you, via an alternate number or a relative. In the event of a true emergency, you will be notified. Relax, take a moment, and breathe.
- Highlight What’s Truly Important. After you’ve caught your breath, go through the document you created with your concerns. Highlight anything that, if not addressed, will impact your child’s physical, mental, or emotional well being, your relationship with your child, or your ability to financially support your child. Examples include: Not taking a child to the doctor when they are sick, badmouthing you consistently in front of your child, arbitrarily denying you visitation, or failure to pay child support or their share of expenses on a consistent basis.
- List The Reasons Why. Write each highlighted item on its own sheet of physical or electronic paper. List the specific incidents, communications, emails, and observations that prove your concern is viable. The first thing a matrimonial attorney or judge is going to ask you to do is substantiate your claim about what’s happening. Anything that you cannot support with consistent evidence, let go. You won’t be able to defend it to a judge.
- Stick To The Facts. When you list your reasons, include only what you know. For example: “My co-parent agreed on Tuesday, April 2 that I would pick up my daughter at 7:00 p.m. Friday, April 5 for my regularly scheduled visitation. When I arrived at 7:00 p.m. my co-parent refused to release my child to me and did not give a reason. I asked when I could pick up my daughter and my co-parent told me I could not have her this weekend.”
- Prioritize Your Battles. Grievances can build up over time. You can only fight one battle at a time emotionally, legally, and financially. Choose from your list which of your co-parenting concerns is causing actual detriment to your child’s well-being, your relationship with that child, or your ability to financially support that child. That is battle you fight.
- Try to Work It Out First. Before you contact your family law attorney send an email to your co-parent telling them about your concerns and offer to work it out with them. Follow that up with a phone call. Give them a date that represents a reasonable amount of time to review the situation and respond to you. Give your co-parent the benefit of the doubt if you do speak to them. Try to meet them halfway.
If you’ve gone through all of these things, and they are not working, then, and only then is it time to reach out to your family law attorney.
I truly hope you never get there, but if you do, always remember:
YOUR CHILD HAS TO COME FIRST
That includes while the family law attorneys are engaged. A legal battle over child support can not be discussed in front of that child. Denied visitation hurts you, horribly. You cannot tell your son or daughter that. Keep it positive with your kid, keep breathing, and follow your attorney’s advice.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant as legal advice or professional advice of any sort, just insights from a former spouse and fearless co-parent. Feel free to add your own in the comments.