William A. Alexander, Esq.
Richardson Bloom & Lines LLC
In 1994, in Cass County, Minnesota, now retired Judge Michael Haas had (nearly) 200 blunt words for the divorcing parents appearing before him. More than 20 years later, Judge Haas’ words still resonate. In fact, Judge Haas’ advice to those divorcing parents was so profound that it was published as part of Ann Landers’s advice column in 2001, and has been cited in numerous publications and appellate decisions. Judge Haas’ advice to the parents standing before him, embroiled in a custody dispute, was:
Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is your problem and your fault.
No matter what you think of the other party—or what your family thinks of the other party—these children are one-half of each of you. Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an “idiot” his father is, or what a “fool” his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are telling the child half of him is bad.
That is an unforgivable thing to do to a child. That is not love. That is possession. If you do that to your children, you will destroy them as surely as if you had cut them into pieces, because that is what you are doing to their emotions.
I sincerely hope that you do not do that to your children. Think more about your children and less about yourselves, and make yours a selfless kind of love, not foolish or selfish, or your children will suffer.
Unquestionably, Judge Haas’ words are powerful. But the question is, as someone with children who is contemplating divorce (which may or may not include emotions of ill will towards his or her spouse and fellow parent), how can you possibly go through the process of divorce and come out able to have a successful co-parenting relationship with your former spouse? This is not an easy question to answer, and no two cases or situations are the same. Despite this, however, there is one thing that parents owe to their children to try, and that is to have a calm divorce.
Yes, a calm divorce is possible, and it starts with the attorney you hire. There are some attorneys who look at your case as just that—a case—and neglect to also understand that you are a family. Part of the interests a good attorney will attempt to protect is your familial relationship. When it comes to a custody battle, it is important to forget all notions of the words “win” and “lose.” There is no such thing. The only goal in a calm divorce when children are involved, for both you and your lawyer, is advocating for the best interests of your children. Part of that is doing what is possible to enable you and your spouse to maintain some semblance of a co-parent relationship during and after the divorce. All too often lawyers begin a case with mudslinging, and at that point the co-parent relationship is all but lost. An attorney who really has your family in mind will focus on your strengths as a parent, and not the other parent’s weaknesses.
Another way to facilitate a calm divorce with children involved is to keep the lines of communication between you and your spouse open during the process. Too often one parent’s inquiries regarding the children are met with “have your lawyer contact mine.” Or, another common response is a simple one word answer like “yes,” “no” or “okay.” While these types of responses may convey the point you are trying to make, they do nothing to help keep open lines of communication. Instead, consider a response such as “no, because…” and explain your reasoning. Or “yes, thank you so much for checking with me first.” The more you and the other parent are able to communicate, the better it is for your children. When parents don’t communicate, it burdens the children who are commonly forced to ferry their parents’ messages.
Also think about utilizing a family portal, such as ourfamilywizard.com or cozi.com. Websites such as these allow both parents to use the same calendar for the children’s schedules, and offer a messaging system through which parents can limit their conversations to issues surrounding the kids. What many parents don’t realize when considering divorce is that they may have to co-parent with their now (or soon to be) ex-spouse more than they ever did during the marriage. Consider this: during the marriage both parents may not have needed to know specifically when a homework assignment was due, when there was a quiz coming up, or when dance practice is, so long as at least one parent was aware of what was coming up and had it covered. Now, both parents are going to need to know these things at all times. If you have been working on a homework assignment with your child, but it is due on a morning during the other parent’s parenting time, it is vital that they know not only when the assignment is due, but how they can continue to help with the assignment until such time. Websites like the ones listed above can help families accomplish this through shared calendars, messengers, and to-do lists.
Divorce is an emotional process, especially when there are children involved. But divorce doesn’t have to mark an end to your family unit. Judge Haas’ words were directed at two parents at the end of their litigation, but they are just as important, if not more so, to parents who are beginning the divorce process. It is easy to put your interests first during the divorce, but keep in mind that no matter the outcome of the proceedings, your children will always have the same parents, and it is important to find a lawyer who recognizes that, too.