Start with a mediator. This is becoming my mantra. As a custody mediator for the state, I continually meet divorcing couples engaged in nasty legal disputes. I’ve written previously about how the legal system is poorly designed for affairs of the heart. I now want to stress the destructive nature of that path.
Let’s take “Shelly” and “Justin”, who chose to settle their custody dispute through the courts. Justin’s lawyer told him that he would almost certainly get shared custody because he’s a good dad and the judges in his district tend to rule this way. Shelly’s lawyer told her she’s likely to get full custody because she has a laundry list on Justin complete with evidence (affairs, drinking while driving, fill in the blank). Their attorney’s begin the process of discovery and not only do Justin’s affairs and DUIs come out, but so does Shelly’s checkered past. Instead of getting them closer to a resolution, the two dig their heels in further to prove their point and clear their good names. This results in time in court airing that dirty laundry and further entrenching themselves in polarized positions. In the end, the judge rules that the kids will be with Shelly primarily and with Justin every other weekend and Wednesday nights. (Wednesday happens to be Justin’s poker night.)
Not only have these two lost a great deal of time and money in this process, they decimated their relationship with this scorched earth approach. Now they need to go on to raise their children together. Their oldest daughter is choosing which high school program to enter and the younger son is struggling with a learning disability. The parents need to weigh in on these matters but they can’t exchange civil emails. As a result, the children receive contradictory advice and feel caught in the middle.
All too often, mediation is offered near the end of this process when the damage is well under way but court is imminent. At that point, too much water has passed under the bridge. I encourage divorcing couples to begin their process with a mediator. Once an agreement is crafted, consult with an attorney to make sure it’s fair or fair enough. In terms of co-parenting relationships, the stakes are high.