Divorce is about you. Custody is about your kids
In all the sound and fury of your divorce and fight for child custody, you should keep one thought ever-present in your mind. The marriage was a choice you made with your ex when both of you felt that there was love to be shared and the promise of a future together. This was a choice of romantic partner, something we are all free to make and free to break when betrayal or loss of feeling dissolves that romantic bond. But no matter what you feel about your ex-spouse personally, no matter how badly they hurt you or how reprehensible they acted as a romantic partner, there is a big difference between being a bad spouse and being a bad Co-Parent. A difference that many divorcees have trouble seeing and working with after the divorce.
Custody Battles Hurt Children
The first and most important thing to understand is that fighting between parents, any fighting ever, hurts the children of that couple. If they see it, if they hear it, if they know it’s happening children become afraid for themselves and their parents and less sure of their own safety. Not to mention blaming themselves for a fight that is clearly about them.
This is why custody battles are so damaging to your kids. Children of divorce can be happy and healthy if their parents are calm and cooperative. Almost universally, if you see a child of divorce with unfortunate emotional or behaviour problems, the parents likely fought over custody. You may want to hurt your ex to get back at them or deny them any form of happiness, but this hurts your children much more. Children need both parents and if you can be calm about this, everyone including you can get what they need.
What Makes a Bad Spouse
The biggest conflict between divorce and co-parenting is trust. Marrying someone is like saying “I trust you to always care about me”. When a marriage breaks down because of abuse, infidelity, or even simple neglect, it is a betrayal of that trust. Your spouse failed to hold up their end of the bargain to love and cherish you forever and to always make decisions with your shared best interests in mind. They may have spent money irresponsibly, had romantic interaction with other people, or even turned hostility toward you in the home. That makes them a bad spouse and if you were mistreated or neglected, divorce was the right option. However, these traits and actions aren’t necessarily what makes a good or bad parent.
What Makes a Good Parent
What makes a good parent is responsibility and compassion for the kids. If your ex is always on time to pick them up from school or events, if they attend soccer games and make time for homework in the evening, and if they would at least try to lift a car or stop a train to save your children; they are most likely a good parent. There are many people who never have a supportive romantic relationship who are still devoted to their children. There may even be a few traits you don’t care for, like a certain amount of childishness, that make them bad partners but better parents.
It’s important to remember that even the actions they took that hurt you so badly may not be dangerous for the kids if they continue. If your spouse was a heartless partner, judge their compassion with the children before crying ‘unfit’. If they were financially irresponsible, set reasonable requirements for safe visitation but don’t try to deny custody rights completely. This is bad for the kids and may even reflect badly on you in the custody courts.
Learning to Co-Parent
Finally, the most important thing about separating the divorce from the custody agreement is the need to co-parent. Many studies have found that children are happier and healthier with a strong loving connection to both parents. Even if one parent was the cause of the divorce. Remember, the divorce wasn’t about the kids and custody shouldn’t be made to be about the divorce.
The most important thing about co-parenting is simultaneously establishing personal boundaries between you and your ex while working together to build a good parenting network. Two homes, two phone numbers, two safety nets for your kids to fall back on when school gets tough. Try treating your ex like one of your kids’ teachers you don’t much care for. You have to work with them, both of you want what’s best for the kids. A united front is better that conflicting messages. You don’t have to like each other, you just have to coordinate parenting and be there to support your children.
No matter how you feel about the divorce, work together to do what is best for the kids.