In her first Shrink4Men article, LiliM offers suggestions on how to navigate the divorce process with a high-conflict ex when children are involved based on her and her husband’s hard won firsthand experiences:
One of the biggest issues people struggle with in dealing with a high-conflict (HCP) ex is when children are part of the equation. It’s hard enough to shed a HCP spouse or partner; when children are involved, it becomes the never-ending trickle of salt into the open wound you’re trying to heal.
As noted in a previous Shrink4Men article, the trick to neutralizing the Crazy is boundaries. For some of us, creating boundaries for ourselves is difficult enough. It becomes hellishly difficult to implement healthy boundaries when there are children to consider.
Why is it so difficult? In many cases, the answer is fear.
HCPs are predators, as Dr T and Micksbabe so aptly identified them. They know the smell of fear. If you have any, they will know it. They might not be the sharpest pencil in the box otherwise, but boy, do they know how to sniff out fear. Then they capitalize on it to the nth degree.
Once you or the HCP decide the marriage or relationship is over, you need to immediately be on your guard. At that point, regardless of what your HCP ex says, you are now the enemy in their mind. Many men are often lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that she seems to be behaving and seems to be thinking and acting rationally at the beginning of the break-up or divorce.
She is not. It’s a trap! (Think Admiral Ackbar here.)
This is when it becomes very important that you start changing the way you see your wife or partner.
She is your wife, for a little bit longer. She is also the mother of your children. That’s a powerful old saw that many high-conflict exes play to the death. My response to these tired old chestnuts is, yes, she is the mother of your children — and heaven help them because she is also the Crazy.
She is the parent who will sow deep gaping trenches into your kids if you don’t create boundaries for yourself and show the kids what a non-Crazy parent looks like. At this point, you are your kids’ best hope for normalcy.
One way to protect yourself and your kids, is to begin reading your state’s laws on custody and visitation and how these issues are decided. Read the guidelines for the state child support calculator. Then read them again. And again. You want to be familiar with the laws that will be governing your divorce and custody cases. To know what you’re facing legally gives you not only knowledge, but power.
Then begin documenting why you’re the best parent to have residential custody. This is where having read the divorce and custody statutes will come in handy. When laying out your case, do not badmouth your soon-to-be-HCP-ex.
Focus on the strengths you bring to the table as the custodial parent. This seems counter-intuitive, but the courts don’t like parents who are at each others throats. Unfortunately, it’s fathers who suffer the most when judges get mad, even when it’s the mother who is the HCP and behaving horribly. So don’t go that route.
Research parenting plans, so that you know what sort of things to ask for in your court order. My husband found that the more specific the court order became, the better off he was. This didn’t happen overnight, however. He learned this the hard way. So get out in front of that, because there are still courts who will assign visitation as “reasonable visitation to be agreed upon by both parties.”
Be specific. Who meets who for drop-off and pick-up. Where do you meet? If she’s high-conflict, I recommend the local police department. Meet in the lobby. The parent taking the child(ren) leaves first. A police station drop-off/pick-up provides witnesses and, oftentimes, cameras.
My husband went this route after his Crazy ex had her then boyfriend and father pull shotguns on his parents. The exchanges became a lot calmer after that.
Who will decide on educational issues, medical issues, who has legal custody? If it is shared, how is a decision reached? How will holidays be split between parents? Can either parent move away?
Then, you have to think about how you will handle things with your children.
It’s unlikely the Crazy will play fair with the kids. Assume she’ll begin talking poorly about you to the kids, that is, if she hasn’t already while you were still together.
She’ll probably tell them legal issues, financial issues — anything that makes you look bad. In Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking The Ties That Bind, Dr. Amy Baker interviews 40 adults who suffered from parental alienation syndrome as children. One of the things that nearly all the survivors said was that they wanted to know the target parent’s side of things. They didn’t want to hear badmouthing of their alienating parent, but they did want to hear the target parent speak up for themselves.
Talk to your children. Tell them, “Mom and I are going through some tough issues right now. You may hear some things that are not very nice, or don’t make you feel good. If you do, I am sorry. It shouldn’t be that way, but sometimes, kids hear things that they don’t really need to. If you do, I want you to know that you can come to me with anything. You can ask questions, you can talk to me about how you feel. I am always open to talking with you, no matter how hard or uncomfortable the subject is. I love you, and your mom loves you (don’t choke on that one). Nothing will ever change that. I am always here for you.”
Your kids need to be reassured that you love them and that you want them. If they’re already hearing negative things about you from your ex, even more so. Modify what you tell your kids so that it’s age appropriate.
Shock and awe.
Even when you know how crazy your Crazy is, it’s hard to believe someone could act the way they do. You don’t want to believe it. You want to think the high-conflict parent loves the children as much as you do. (Honestly, they all seem to have the same large-print handbook on how to be as horrific as possible.)
HCPs know this. On some level, they know you won’t sink to the same depths they do in your desire to get what you want and they count on it. They count on you not wanting to go against your upbringing that includes manners and not behaving badly. They know your desire to behave as a decent member of society holds you back from responding to their behavior no matter what. No one wants to be the bad guy and they count on your desire to be Mr Nice Guy.
Know that. Recognize that the Crazy will not fight fair, will not behave in a way that is socially acceptable, will use your children, will threaten you and play on your fear at every opportunity, and will sacrifice herself to “win” against you. To the Crazy, any means justify their ends.
You don’t have to stoop to their level. Instead, prepare yourself from a legal standpoint. Again, do your research and understand the laws you’ll be subject to once in the court system. Document the Crazy behavior and show how the Crazy does not support a positive relationship between your kids and yourself. Also, understand the financial implications. Get very familiar with your state’s child support guidelines. Even if you have an attorney, having this knowledge will serve you well.
Speaking of divorce attorneys . . .
Interview your attorney before you hire them. Make sure they’re well-versed in family law. Impress upon them that you’re not dealing with a normal person, but a HCP who will make everything as big an ordeal as possible.
Emphasize that you want to protect your children and yourself as much as possible from this without handing over the keys to your life to the HCP. It’s extremely important to have an attorney who understands you have a Crazy and who will fight for you and the kids. Please take your time finding an attorney and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
This probably seems like a long and involved list. When children are involved, it ups the ante for the HCP. They know they have a valuable weapon in their arsenal. And boy howdy, do they use it. Kids are insta-power for them.
Take that away. The more you educate yourself and the more you know what you’re dealing with, the less you’ll bet at the mercy of the HCP’s threats. Why? Because you’ll know and understand the laws.
You’ll know what the guidelines are. You’ll have talked to your children and will have begun the insulation they’ll need until they become adults because they have a high-conflict parent.
Remember, people can and do threaten all sorts of things that “they’re going to do to you” via the courts. Until it happens, it’s nothing more than words. Don’t let the words of the Crazy demoralize you.
While this advice doesn’t guarantee anything in court, because family court is one of the goofiest things I’ve ever seen, it will, hopefully, reduce the sense of powerlessness you may feel at the hands of your high-conflict ex.
My personal opinion is that no one truly wins anything once you take your family life to court. You can, however, make it less painful for yourself and your children by preparing beforehand. You’ll be the one who shields your children and helps the grow, fingers crossed, into healthy adults.
In Dr. Baker’s book, she profiles horrible stories of alienation. All of the children who were victims of PAS eventually stepped away from their alienating parent, and went about attempting to resurrect the relationship with the target parent. This was true even in some of the most awful cases.
While it may not seem to be doing much at the time, your children will remember who loved them and demonstrated it using more than words, who was there for them, and who didn’t hop on the Crazy train and drive it into the abyss.
Do your due diligence, get professional support if you need it, focus on long-term gains instead of the short-term, permanent present guerrilla warfare tactics many HCPs engage in and you and your children will survive this.
Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.