Custody Battle, No Matter How Bloody, Can Yield An Unexpected Prize
Kosovo and Rwanda. If you have a taste for ruthless combat, go no
further than the nearest domestic relations courtroom. Despite the
cessation of hostilities with our Cold War adversaries, we are still
a nation at war. With ourselves.
You may think the comparison to war is extreme, but the impact is
much the same. The primary difference is that it happens to one family
at a time. Whether inflicted by military campaign or court order,
the result is that each year, hundreds of thousands of households
are destroyed, possessions scattered, families dispersed. Children
often become hostages, watching as their parents are reduced to bitterness
and hatred, intent on psychological and financial annihilation of
the other. There is no Red Cross to aid the wounded, no Amnesty International
to monitor for violations of human dignity. We simply pay the lawyers
and the therapists and try to act as if things are perfectly normal.
And learn to live with the post-traumatic stress, like victims of
war around the world.
Why do so many divorces turn into nightmares? How can we avoid making
a catastrophe from what once was a loving union of hopeful romantics?
What should men know about the rules of engagement in the theater
of gender warfare? And what does it mean to be a father in the heat
of a custody struggle?
Roots of Conflict.
There are several powerful forces that can turn a tragedy into a disaster.
The first is passion, which can be either a negative force or an ecstatic
one. When we are dependent on someone else, or deeply entangled with
them, we can find ourselves swept away by feeling of betrayal, abandonment
and rejection. If we lack the ability to process these feelings (that
is, to express, digest and then eliminate them), or to put them in
a larger philosophical or spiritual context, then they can take over
our lives and run us into a brick wall. When you add a good dose of
deception (present in so many failing relationships), then the "injured
party" feels himself or herself to be morally superior and thus
is able to justify even the most extreme form of revenge.
It takes a great deal of courage to deal honestly with the emotional
truths that underlie the failure of a marriage. But doing so, and
facing these realities together, is the only sure way I know to navigate
the dangerous waters that begin to roil when love fades. One couple
I know had a conversation that began with a fearless statement by
the wife: "Ted, I have to accept responsibility for the fact
that several years ago, when I decided to embark on my own career,
I changed. I was no longer the woman you once loved and were so completely
committed to. It's not you--it's me. So we need to find a way to bring
things to an end, and work together to make sure the kids get what
they need from us both. We both deserve to be happy."
When we don't face the difficult facts of life squarely, then our
passions make us "passive"--we become pawns in a power struggle
that we no longer can easily control. Even perfectly civilized people
will find themselves on a quest to injure, disable or annihilate the
other person (at least metaphorically, but often physically), whom
we now think has transformed into the very embodiment of "evil."
A follower of the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung would say that
we are in the grip of our "shadows"--the parts of ourselves
we like to think don't exist, or hope that no one can detect. But
when we encounter the crisis of divorce, we may stop caring about
keeping the shadow in the closet. Not if it will help us "win."
Divorcing couples often believe that an all-out battle will be cathartic,
that it will clear the air and help us reach "closure."
Perhaps. But it always inflicts a deep wound on the children, no matter
who is right or emerges victorious. Why are children the target? Because,
if you really want to devastate an enemy, take away the future. Attack
the reproductive system. Hit 'em where it hurts. Accuse them of incompetence
or even abuse. And then take away their children.
Wisdom of Fatherhood.
Men and women can both be at fault when things go too far. But there
is something about being a father, if we can operate from that place,
that has the strength to pull us out of the nose dive. Even if the
husband in us wants to go to war, the father in us knows better. The
father is the one who can keep things in perspective, who rises above
the fray when it matters, who is able to sacrifice the momentary spoils
of war in favor of establishing peace in the realm. If the archetype
(or ideal) of Mother is nurturing and loving, then the ideal of Father
is wise and empowering.
We can lose track of these ideals when our survival seems at stake.
So, even before fighting for our children, we may first have to fight
for our fatherhood. Once we have our footing as fathers, then it may
become clearer what road to take and how to get where you're going
without becoming completely unglued.
Competence and Contribution.
One of the real gifts of divorce is that it forces us to decide
our priorities. Maybe the marriage suffered because we worked long
hours or didn't help out enough, but that doesn't mean that we don't
love our children passionately. And the decision to leave a relationship
with our children's mother doesn't have anything to do with leaving
our children. In fact, divorce for many men opens a direct channel
to their children that may never have existed before. For the first
time, the father may be making plans and choices that the mother may
have made in the past.
So, let it flow. Enjoy the privilege and pleasure of nurturing your
children into their own fullness. No matter what the decree says,
no one can take your children away from you. Be there for them, and
show them how much they mean to you every chance you get. It's okay
if you feel selfish in loving them that much. Love doesn't always
have to be a sacrifice.
But being involved doesn't have to mean they sleep over at your house
three or four times a week. It doesn't even necessarily mean that
you have joint custody. Being a father may mean loving from a distance,
with telephone calls a few times a week, special trips, constant prayers,
and openly empowering your ex-wife to carry the torch for now. When
a man's heart is open to his children, there is nothing he won't do
to help them through life's puddles and pains. A loving heart is a
wise heart. It will know what to do.
In the world of lawyers and judges and professionals (such as testifying
psychologists and children's court-appointed advocates) who deal with
child custody disputes on a daily basis, the unspoken (and untrue)
conventional wisdom often is that men are less well-suited to parenting
than are women. Perhaps in the same way that women have to go the
extra distance to prove themselves in the working world, when it comes
to parenting, men have to establish that they are both as committed
and competent as the children's mother. So be prepared to demonstrate
that you are something special, and not just a casual presence in
your children's lives. Be impeccable: never violate any court order,
never even touch your wife (or ex-wife) in an unfriendly way, always
show up on time and bring them back as agreed. Know your children--the
names of their teachers and friends, what they do in school, their
favorite games, their dreams and fears. Be generous with their mother's
requests and accountable for your own screw-ups. Be there for the
kids. Leave work early, get to all the games, help with homework,
dress them in clean clothes, let them know how much you love them.
And don't tell them what you really think of their mother when she
In other words, be a great parent.
One of the most common complaints about men is that, "He only
wants custody to avoid having to pay me child support." It's
true that many divorced dads feel that, not only do their kids get
taken away from them, but they have to pay ten or more years of penalty
payments to their gloating ex-wives for the privilege. But the solution
may be to negotiate an agreement that both provides enough time with
your children (whatever the custody arrangement) and also makes financial
sense for everyone involved. Don't demand unrealistic or artificial
parenting schedules as a way to circumvent child support. Make sure
the schedule is practical for everyone involved, and then address
the monetary issues without tying them together. Perhaps (if the two
of you get along well) you can create a joint bank account to be used
for agreed expenses, to which both contribute. Maybe there are certain
expenses for which each of you will be responsible. Get creative.
But resist the pressure to entangle parenting questions with money
issues. That way, if your spouse starts to use one as leverage for
the other, you can remind her that you will always carry your share
of the kids' expenses no matter what the arrangement.
Peace with Fatherhood.
Divorce shapes us, challenges us, pushes us to the edge. It forces us to learn the real meaning of fatherhood, and over that the courts have no jurisdiction. It doesn't depend on judgments or decrees. When we win the fight for fatherhood, we lose our fear of losing our children. And, perhaps, that's the gift that even the worst divorce can bring: that in forcing us to fight, it forces us to remember what matters most.
Brian Muldoon, the father of three, is a mediator in Evanston, Illinois, and the author of The Heart of Conflict (Penguin/Putnam,1996)
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