Tips on handling visitation problems
In our years of legal work for divorced and never-married couples, we've found that miscommunication is the main reason custodial parents withhold visitation. Many times the parties disagree over when contact was to occur. You can solve these problems by simply improving the way you exchange information:
Create a calendar. Charting a contact calendar for the entire year will help keep exchanges clear. Although parents should remain flexible when their schedules or their children's needs dictate, firm contact dates will help. Even if you disagree over setting up the calendar, at least you can address issues in advance, rather than waiting for problems to arise.
Comply with the decree. Besides improving communication, noncustodial parents should make every effort to fully comply with their divorce decrees. Though some people believe that bad behavior by one parent warrants retaliation, the courts disagree. Noncompliance pushes you further away from one of your key goals: protecting the fragile co-parenting relationship.
Examine yourself. Look first to your own behavior. If you have done something that requires forgiveness, rejoice. Now you have a great entrée for a conversation with your ex. For example, you might say, "I'm sorry for being late to my last weekend pickup. That must frustrate you and make the kids feel anxious. I've talked to my boss about the problem, and I should be able to show up by 5 o'clock from now on."
Owning your mistakes will allow your ex-spouse to do the same, opening the door to better communication.
Choose not to lash out. What if you're not at fault? Perhaps you were denied contact on Father's Day because your ex took an unplanned out-of-town trip with the kids. You may think, Fine, next year she won't get Mother's Day or There goes her Fourth of July party. But this "eye for an eye" mentality will get you nowhere in negotiations with your ex-spouse or in the courtroom. Though you may feel tempted to lash out, smart single parents gently confront or turn the other cheek.
Offer options. Noncustodial parents can get more cooperation on visitation by offering their exes multiple options. You can say, "I have several ideas that might help with the Friday pickup, but I need your input on what might work best. I could send my mother to get the boys, we could move the pickup time to a later hour, or you can drop the kids off at my office. What do you think?" By giving your ex power in the decision-making process, you improve your chances for smooth transfers.
Help your child. Not all visitation problems involve the custodial parent. Sometimes a child will refuse to see the noncustodial parent, making it difficult for either parent to comply with court orders. If talking with the child doesn't improve matters, take him to a psychologist or counselor. In choosing a professional, ask how much experience she has with divorce and co-parenting cases and whether she appears on your insurance provider list. Both parents should agree on the person selected. For the names of Christian counselors in your area, call the Focus on the Family Counseling department at 719-531-3400, ext. 7700.
Three Allies and 13 Ideas
If your visitation problems persist, some outside assistance may help:
Use a mediator. Many divorce decrees now require mediation before allowing court action. And even if yours doesn't, many judges appreciate the use of this less costly and less confrontational option.
A mediator helps parties clarify issues, communicate effectively and find solutions. He does not have the authority to tell the parents what to do. Nonetheless, he can provide a safe forum for the exchange of ideas and help feuding parents deal with their most common problem: miscommunication. A typical mediation lasts only a few hours and often brings about positive results. A court case usually costs many times more than mediation.
To find a mediator, talk with friends who have used mediation or your lawyer or counselor. As with the selection of a counselor, both parents should agree on the choice of the mediator.
Pursue a parenting coordinator. Like a mediator, a parenting coordinator uses mediation skills in an attempt to clarify concerns and seek solutions. Unlike a mediator, if parents can't agree, in some states this person can make a legally binding decision that both parties must honor. Tiebreaker decisions typically deal only with fairly minor matters, such as where or when to pick up a child or what activities a child should attend. The best bet for you and your ex is to ask your attorneys to recommend some parenting coordinators in your area.
Legal recourse. If all else fails, you can ask your attorney to prepare a court action. The court will often appoint a special master or co-parenting arbitrator to make recommendations on your case subject to the court's approval. Parents with ongoing conflicts may choose to submit their differences to this person.
While a lawyer can help you get a final, enforceable decision, many single parents want more time-sensitive and cost-effective remedies. By the time a judge makes a ruling on your case, the visitation event you sued over could be long past. Moreover, the minimum retainer for an attorney can run to several thousand dollars. As a result, only engage in a courtroom battle as a last resort.
A few general rules: Regardless of what tack you take, a few general rules on visitation apply to all situations. We suggest the following ways to improve your chances for a peaceful resolution to your post-marital problems:
- Refuse opportunities for revenge.
- Let your dealings with everyone be nonjudgmental.
- Maintain honesty in your communication.
- Show sensitivity to the feelings of others, even if those feelings seem silly.
- Set reasonable goals.
- Determine the best way to talk with your ex, then start doing it.
- Take another look at your positions on issues, even if you have a legal contract on your side. Nothing prevents you from being more generous and flexible than the law requires.
- Put yourself in the other person's shoes.
- Don't assume the worst in anyone.
- Understand you can win the battle and lose the war.
- Realize you pay a high price for control.
- Approach problems positively.
- Focus on the future, not the past.
Though noncustodial parents may never get rid of verbal shoot-outs over visitation, you can make sure the battles don't draw blood. Clear communication, shared decision making, biblical conflict resolution and support from trained professionals can keep you out of expensive — and often counterproductive — legal actions. As attorneys and former single parents who have seen both sides of the issue, take our advice: An hour spent with your ex over coffee is worth 50 in the courtroom.
This article first appeared in the June 2000 issue of Single-Parent Family magazine. Copyright © 2000 Nancy and William Palmer. All rights reserved.