We’ve all seen the portrayals of high conflict custody cases on television and in the movies. From the classic example of Kramer v. Kramer to the more recent Marriage Story, not much seems to have changed. We watch with sadness while angry parents play tug of war with their kids. From the outside, it’s easy to see the process hurting everyone involved. What should you do when this becomes your real life and those are your children in the middle? Here are our tips for handling your high conflict child custody case:
Find common ground:
When tempers flare, it may feel like you and your ex do not see eye to eye on anything. That’s probably not true. Most importantly, odds are that you both love your children and want what is best for them, even though you might approach that in a different way. Look for things you agree upon. Start small. This could mean agreeing you will keep the pediatrician and/or dentist in place or keep up with extracurricular activities your child has enjoyed. Try to look for agreements even where you disagree. For example, in a fight over camp, you may prefer one camp and your ex may prefer another. Instead of focusing on the disagreement (which camp), focus on the agreement (both of you think camp is the right choice), and go from there. If you focus on looking for things you agree upon instead of where there is conflict, you may find that you are not so far apart.
Embrace the label “co-parent.”
While your marital relationship has ended, your parenting relationship has not. Your kids have two parents whom they love and you will each play a role in their lives long after the divorce is final, regardless of the outcome of a child custody case. Odds are that your ex has something positive to contribute to parenting. The odds are even higher that those contributions will be different than those you bring to parenting. That doesn’t mean that one contribution or parenting style is better than the other. Co-parenting does not mean doing things the same way. It means working together when you need to, and understanding that you each have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to parenting your children. If you start thinking of your ex as a “co-parent” rather than just your “ex” it might be easier to accept those contributions.
Keep a record.
The worst high conflict child custody cases drag on for years. By the time you get to trial, if you get there, you may have trouble recalling all of the details. Keep a personal log to track things like missed visits. You may also want to email your spouse to create a record of a certain event or situation. In that case, we recommend consulting with your lawyer before you hit “send”. There is a right way and a wrong way to send a documenting email. Your lawyer can help you draft one the right way.
Lean on your village.
Going through a high conflict divorce probably is one of the most difficult challenges you can face in your life. Don’t be surprised if you are having trouble handling it emotionally. Identify the friends and family members that are supportive and reach out to them when you need help. If you are not already in therapy, this might be a good time to start. Look into divorce support groups in your area. A therapist, clergy or community center should be able to help you find one. Connecting with others who are facing the same issues as you are can give you the strength you need to make it through.
Hire the right lawyer for you.
There are countless matrimonial lawyers you can hire but not every lawyer will be the right fit for your needs. You will be discussing the most personal aspects of your life, so make sure you are comfortable with the attorney you choose. Look for someone who listens and offers constructive advice. While a lot of people focus on the “wins” in court, ask about the types of cases they have settled. The vast majority of custody cases settle and you will learn a lot about a lawyer by hearing them recount their methods for getting there. Having these conversations should also give you a sense of whether the attorney enjoys handling these types of cases. Some lawyers prefer to stick to financial cases. If you are going to be fighting over child custody, you need someone who wants to be there by your side.
No one sets out to be in a high conflict custody case when they divorce. There are some situations in which this type of litigation is unavoidable, such as domestic violence or drug/alcohol abuse. No matter the reason you find yourself in this situation, you want to be sure you speak to a lawyer that has experience litigating and settling these types of cases.