“The truth remains hidden from him who is in the bondage of hate and desire.” — Buddha

Q: I am going through the court with my divorce and it’s not fun. We have two young kids and because we both want them as much as possible, we are fighting with each other, and trying to make the other parent look really bad. This situation keeps getting worse, so now it’s hard for us to talk about the kids at all without it ending in a big argument. My kids are reacting to their parents fighting, which is often in front of them when we switch houses. I’m not sure what to do to change this, because I know it’s only going to get worse, and the things we’re saying to our lawyers and the judge make us more mad at each other. Both of us are guilty of saying nasty things about the other, and some of it doesn’t really matter. It’s who is bad and who is good. The funny part is underneath this we know we are both good people and good parents, but this court stuff turns everything upside down, with us trying to make the other parent lose and look bad. How do we get on track again?

A: Divorce litigation is never positive. The process is inherently contentious and polarizing. Unfortunately, parents who once might have believed their spouse was a good person and a good parent begin shifting their focus to how many flaws they can uncover. Acting like detectives in search of “bad behavior” becomes the norm, rather than building a healthy, solid co-parenting relationship. Divorce is painful, no matter what method the parties choose for making their divorce decisions — if we look at the continuum of most to least autonomy with this process, making some or all decisions on their own provides the most autonomy, followed by mediation, collaborative law, negotiation through attorneys, and finally the judge deciding the final outcome (litigation), offering the least autonomy. Certainly, having minimal say in the decisions for your family, which is what happens with litigation, doesn’t facilitate respectful, positive communication between the parents.

When you’re hoping to win, rendering your spouse powerless in the process, each of you will be looking for as much “dirt” as possible on each other. You mentioned you both “know you’re good people and good parents,” which is what you should now be focusing on for the best interests of your children. Each of you will ultimately heal, recovering from the terrible wounds litigation will leave, moving on with your respective lives. However, your children will not heal from their parents’ hostile dynamics and ongoing contention, becoming the unfortunate casualties. You have the control to stop this process at any time and collaborate on the outcome of your divorce, crafting a parenting plan that best fits your children — taking into account their stages of development, temperaments, and needs. Divorce should never be about using the children as pawns in an unhealthy chess game. They are not possessions to be “equitably distributed” between the two parents, with the goal of what’s “fair” to each parent. Rather, the goal must be what’s best for the children; how will they feel most comfortable and safe? Ideally, shaping a balanced co-parenting relationship — which may or may not be 50/50 — is what’s in the children’s best interests.

Try stepping back, disengaging from the conflict to acknowledge what the other parent has to offer your children. If you’re honest — knowing from experience that he/she loves your children, puts their needs first, is attentive and involved — ask yourself what is to be gained by the hostile approach you’re following. Think about what your spouse contributes to your children’s lives. Reflect on the qualities that first attracted you to your spouse. These same qualities are still present and available to your children. What’s overshadowing this perspective is your shared need to win this power struggle. If you’re able to recognize and appreciate what advantages the other parent offers your children, perhaps you might be more motivated to work towards a peaceful, healthy, collaborative co-parenting relationship. That’s what is best for your children. More parents are now navigating through these decisions to create a positive parenting partnership, understanding that it is what benefits their children and creates stability for them. If parents continue to do their job, despite no longer being husband and wife, their children are secure knowing their parents are still working together, allowing them to have their childhood. Otherwise, they will continually be caught in the “crossfire” of their parents’ battles, which is the outcome of litigation.

It’s never realistic to expect and/or demand perfection from the other parent. There will be mistakes, especially considering new routines, new responsibilities, and redefining one’s role — all being part of the next chapter. It’s normal to expect a period of adjustment and some setbacks. As much as each of you is angry and bitter towards the other parent as this process continues, the best approach is to focus on his/her reliability, connection, and different worldview to which your children are exposed. Although you may not regard your spouse as an ideal marriage partner, switch your lens to all that he/she offers your children. The more you both seek revenge, labeling each other as bad, looking for anything nasty to report about the other, the more your children will suffer. Recovering from litigation takes a very long time, rarely setting the stage for a positive parenting partnership.

What would happen if you made a respectful request to your spouse to work together for the best interests of your children, before proceeding any further? I suspect you might be surprised at how relieved he/she would be, agreeing to disarm the hostile attacks and reshaping the process to one of collaboration. It’s certainly worth a try, and a path I fully endorse. Being child-centered, I see this as the only way you can successfully and respectfully co-parent after the divorce is final. Had you not mentioned that you both know you’re good people and good parents, I might have assumed a different tack. That said, I always advocate for parents to put aside their marital/relational bitterness to renegotiate a parenting partnership for the best interests of their children. I sincerely hope you and your spouse can do the same. You owe this to your children. It’s never too late!

“People can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.” — William James