Is it Possible to Co-Parent Well During the Separation and Divorce Process, or Does Co-Parenting Have to be Handled After the Divorce or the End of the Romantic Relationship is Finalized?
- Co-Parenting should be discussed at the onset of separation, or as soon as you know that you will not be raising your child or children in one home.
- COVID-19 is still causing significant delays in the Court System. Co-parents can use this time to streamline their cases, especially by identifying areas of importance (“non-negotiables”) as well as areas of mutual agreement.
- Two common conflicts that impede settlements between co-parents are the belief that there has to be one “primary managing conservator” (and the struggle to be that conservator), and the prioritization of quantity of time over quality of time (and the struggle to have more hours with the child/children than the other parent). These can both be addressed with education and perspective adjustment.
- More often than not, if a co-parenting relationship has broken down, both parents have likely played some role in the breakdown.
If you have children, you must think about and consider co-parenting at the initial onset of separation.
There are many different types of relationships that create children, and many different reasons for those relationships to end. For example, perhaps there never really was a relationship, as the child was born out of an encounter that did not develop into something committed and long-term. In that case, co-parenting should be discussed as soon as the parties realize they’re going to become parents and are not going to be together romantically.
In the case of romantic relationships that do exist and are ending—whether they are official marriages or not—co-parenting should be discussed at the initial outset of the end of the relationship. If you have reached the point where it is certain or even seriously likely that the romantic element of the relationship is ending, that is the time when you need to talk about the details of your new co-parenting relationship.
Today’s court system is still affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that there are very long delays in virtually all courts. It takes quite a bit of time to get into a courtroom and to get your case heard, and even longer to get contested matters handled and resolved by a judge.
Therefore, co-parents should be encouraged to take matters into their own hands to work together and create agreements. Before getting to the point where a Court hearing is even possible—which may be long in the future—co-parents can get ahead and figure out together, in order to best raise their child or children.
For example, some of the discussions between co-parents could include what is most important to each party, or what is each side’s “non-negotiables”. You can also identify the areas that you already agree on. Having these issues established and handled will help you streamline your case in the court system. Streamlining your case this way may even get you in front of a judge a little bit faster, since there are far fewer steps to even a partially resolved case than a completely unresolved case.
So, from the moment you realize that you are not going to be parenting your child together in one home, it is very important to start talking about co-parenting and what your co-parenting relationship will look like.
What are the Most Common Issues That You See Come up When it Comes to Co-Parenting?
The most common issue that I see is fighting over who is going to be the child or children’s “primary managing conservator.” In Texas, being named a child’s primary managing conservator basically means you are going to have the most control over the child and over decisions related to the child.
For example, the primary conservator generally decides where the child or children live (meaning the child or children’s primary residence). This often determines where the child or children will go to school, which is another decision made by the primary conservator. Primary conservators may also have more time with the children than the other parent.
Notably, it is possible to avoid naming either party as the primary managing conservator all together. This is a popular new trend in Texas family law courts. Conflict around this issue only arises when one or both parties are committed to the idea of having one primary conservator. In this circumstance, it is important for the legal professionals involved to educate the co-parents on the benefits of avoiding a primary managing conservator and sharing the responsibilities for the children jointly..
In these situations, my goal is to help the parties reach an agreement that is better for the child, where perhaps we don’t have a single primary conservator. There are tools we can use in situations like this, such as restricting the child’s residence to a specific geographical area (regardless of which parent the child lives with for what percentage of the time). We also encourage co-parents to have the child or children continue attending school in one school system for the duration of their education, for the sake of continuity. Because of how public schools are usually organized, the school system often corresponds to the fixed address of the child. Crafting specific geographical restrictions for each family can avoid the pitfalls of a single managing conservator, but also protect the benefits as well.
The second most common source of conflict that we see in co-parents comes down to the amount of time each parent is allotted with the child or children. There is certainly a very strong, very common feeling among parents or caretakers that they feel better about their role as a parent if they think that they have more actual hours in the year with their child than the opposing party. This turns things into a competition which can become very counterproductive.
To combat these conflicts, I always remind the parties that it’s not about the number of days or the number of nights they have with the child. Of course, quantity of time is important, and children need to spend a significant quantity of time with their parents to develop a bond and a relationship. But immediately behind the quantity of time is the more important issue of quality of time.
We try to explain to co-parents that it doesn’t really matter if you have more hours with the child if that time doesn’t amount to quality time. That is, for example, if the majority of a parent’s hours take place when the child is in school, or when the parent is working or exhausted from work or otherwise distracted, that isn’t really quality time (while it may be a larger quantity of time).
To avoid this co-parenting conflict, our goal is to create parenting plans that allow parents to have quality time with their children, setting aside who has the greater number of hours in a year with their child.
These two issues—the misconception that there has to be one primary conservator/the ensuing conflict about who that will be, and prioritizing quantity of time over quality of time—definitely tend to cause the most disruption to co-parents when trying to create a parenting plan that they can both agree with.
When A Co-Parenting Situation Breaks Down, Is There Usually One Parent Who Is Causing the Problems, or Is It More Common for Both Parents to be Partially Responsible?
This may be surprising, but I think that more often than not, both parents are at least partially responsible. I think most parents would disagree with that statement, especially if they have particularly difficult co-parents. And of course, there are situations in which one parent is clearly the antagonist and obviously most at fault, for derailing the co-parenting relationship.
However, in my experience, when you dive in a little bit deeper and start asking some questions about the thoughts, feelings, past history, and current dynamic of both parties, things look a little less black-and-white most of the time. More often than not, t both parties have at least some role in not being able to have a successful co-parenting relationship. By encouraging all of the parties involved to shift their focus from “what is best for me?” to “what is best for our child?” we see much greater successful case closures.