The very same conflicts that drive a couple apart are likely to be at the heart of why there is still discord as the couple attempts to raise their children in two different households. Very often, arguments over children’s bedtimes, where they should attend school, what religion they should be brought up in, and how much allowance they should be given, are only a few points of friction that a couple may not have been able to agree on when they were married, let alone now that they are divorced.
Studies show, however, that children who live under two different roofs with two disparate sets of household rules can suffer severe psychological problems including depression and anxiety. They can also be confused with establishing a value system—ideals they can and should live by as they mature into grown ups.
What parents should keep in mind is that the children they produced together need consistency and boundaries—despite the couple’s different lifestyles and edicts on what a child’s “rules and regulations” should look like.
In my years of practice, I have watched couples fight over property and wealth, as well as tussle over who should get the children and when, but what I find most troubling is when parents lay down ground rules for the children that are 180-degrees apart. It seems while one parent is enforcing rules that the other parent will reprove, it is the children that ultimately bear the brunt.
Many of the battles over how to raise the children are nothing more than power struggles. I try to tell my clients that they really ought to put their differences aside and focus on a joint program—one that both can agree on—to raise their children in order to avoid irreparable damage to their youngsters’ already fragile psyches.
The following are some solid suggestions relative to finding common ground for establishing a consistent set of rules that both parents can implement in their respective households. Though some divorced parents may not agree on everything, coming to agreement on some fronts is most certainly a means to ensure that the children can live with some constancy.
· Begin with some open communication with your ex: Sure you may not see eye-to-eye on how to raise your children but you can agree on one thing: you need to talk it out in order to get closer to a “work-together” program. In other words, you need to discuss what would work reasonably well for the two of you in the way of schedules and values so that your children are not living a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of existence as they bounce between two households and attempt to uphold two sets of every day rules. For example, if you find it perfectly acceptable for your child to watch endless hours of television and your ex restricts that activity to one hour a day, you are bound to confuse your child(ren) on what is permissible.
· Prepare carefully for that open discussion: Make a list of what you can and cannot live with. For instance, if you want the children to be in bed at 9 p.m. and your ex let’s them stay up until they fall asleep on the sofa in front of the television, decide if that “rule” is more important than how much supervision they should be given when it comes to monitoring their Internet use. As you make that list, label one column: “Reluctant to concede,” the other “Willing to concede.”
· Find a neutral meeting place and person to manage your discussion: Maybe this negotiating session takes place at your child’s psychologist’s office or before a court-appointed mediator. It is wise to find a neutral party to oversee your discussion because the last thing you want is to get to the table, get into a heated argument and face a stalemate. A mediator type can help you work through your different points of view and keep the two of you level-headed. He or she can also help the two of you see your conflicts from a fresh or different perspective. If the mediator person is any good at all, he or she will approach the discussion from your child’s (or children’s) point of view and/or best interests. This can often be eye-opening and productive.
· Give to get: If, during your open discussion you can agree to approach your talk in a spirit of compromise, you will make some headway. To remain stuck in your proposed regimen of principles for the children to live by is foolish. That will only set up a dynamic where you are bound to get nowhere. Be prepared to make some concessions no matter how hard they may be.
· When you begin your discussion remember that it is not about you: Often, parents will make the mistake of focusing on getting his or her way, rather than focusing on the purpose of the meeting which is to arrive at a child-rearing agreement plan you both can live with. Save the power struggles for another day, another time. This meeting should be about the welfare of your children, not about having it your way because you think your way is best.
· If they are old enough, let your children know about the meeting: If you and your ex have been fighting over one particular “household rule” or many, let the child(ren) know that you and your ex are both committed to working out a “rules and regulation” plan that is equitable for all, including them. Such notice could well boost your child(ren’s) morale. Keep in mind that the one thing children find extremely difficult is when their parents fight. It’s been proven that children do live what they learn. Teach them that they can have conflicts with others but that conflict does not mean they cannot find reasonable solutions to resolve them. Since life includes conflicts and differences with others, teaching your children how to resolve and negotiate them is one of the greatest lessons they can learn.
· Keep your word: If the two of you have agreed to honor certain stipulations in both households, stick to them. For instance, if your ex’s grievance has been that you allow your 10-year old to eat as much candy as he or she wants, and you have now agreed that he or she will see that your youngster consumes a larger intake of vegetables and cut the candy down to one treat a day, be consistent in backing it up. If you renege on any one of your agreements your ex may do the same. If you have gone to the trouble of preparing for a discussion and attending one, and if you have resolved at least some of your conflicts about how to raise your children in two different households, that is a big step. Building trust with your former mate is important if you expect to work as a team in parenting. With that in mind, be sure to honor what it is you have agreed to despite your prior resistance to do so.
I realize that it is very hard for most divorced couples to work together for the good of the children, but it is essential. Children will suffer the consequences when rules in one house differ greatly from those in the other, and this holds true long after they reach adulthood. Don’t forget, your children will pass on to their children what it is they have learned from you. Set a good example. Let them witness your ability to compromise and problem-solve.
Robert J. Nachshin is co-author of the book "I Do, You Do...But Just Sign Here: A Quick and Easy Guide to Cohabitation, Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements." He represents many celebrities in film, television, music and sports. He is best known for the precedent-setting win in the Barry Bonds prenuptial case that was ultimately decided by the California Supreme Court, where he prevailed on Bonds' behalf. For more information, visit www.nldivorce.com.