Many parents get stuck arguing about Custody and Visitation. That is probably no surprise. It’s a difficult time for everyone. Usually one or both parties are feeling hurt or betrayed. They are in the midst of a great change and loss. Their financial and emotional resources are low. And the topic is perhaps the most sensitive topic for any parent – it’s about providing for their children and protecting them from the worst part of the family’s reorganization. It is actually amazing that more parents don’t get stuck here. How do parents successfully navigate this conversation? In my experience as a Mediator and Collaborative Professional, I think parents who negotiate a parenting plan successfully have three things in common:[Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way. The author is not trained as an attorney. This is not legal advice, but the author’s experience with hundreds of families who are creating parenting plans. The author is aware of extreme cases that don’t match his generalizations about most families and you pray that you are not one of those extreme cases.]
1. Successful parents know it’s not about custody OR visitation. Successful parents understand that in most cases, custody and visitation are outdated terms. No one is going to have “custody” of their child like some prized trophy. No parent should ever “visit” their child. They understand that in most situations, they will both have the title of Joint Managing Conservator, so there is no fight for a title. They understand that the child is now going to have two homes and the child is going to spend about equal times in those two homes. When your child is in your care, nobody is visiting, you are simply parenting your child.
2. Successful parents know they are co-parents forever. This isn’t a one time argument that someone can win or lose. While they may be restructuring their relationship, these parents are going to continue to make decisions together, as well as independent decisions that impact one another for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t end when the children are 18. Who is going to sit where at graduation? Who will play which part in the celebration of your child’s marriage? Who will attend the birth of your grandchild? Therefore, this isn’t the time to think about a short term win. This is the time to start building new skills and strategies for negotiating the thousands of parent decisions that you will jointly make.
3. Successful parents learn how to negotiate and then negotiate face to face. Many parenting plans have been settled by using “caucus” mediation – where each party huddles privately with their attorney and the skilled mediator walks between two rooms with offers and counteroffers. The skill that helped them settle is the mediator’s and she is taking it home with her. In the long run (see item #2), better agreements are made by parents who take the time to learn good negotiation skills, and then use those skills to create agreements that support their child’s interests. At the end of their mediation, they take those skills with them. Even if their initial agreements were the same (Johnny will attend Denton Elementary), parents who negotiate face to face have learned and successfully utilized the skills they will need over and over in their growing co-parent relationship.
Jake Jacobson helps parents acquire and use negotiation skills as a face to face mediator and as as a mental health professional in collaborative law cases. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.