As peculiar as it might appear in the context of a website all about divorces, custody battles and various other aspects of domestic litigation often viewed as more divisive than unifying, and as obvious as it might seem to those of us who try day in and day out to conduct ourselves appropriately and even admirably, maintaining good relationships is an absolute must when it comes to engaging in continuing domestic litigation.
And that goes for relationships not only between soon-to-be former spouses or co-parents, but between individual spouses and parents and those inextricably intertwined with the lives of any children involved.
Burying the Hatchet (or At Least Trying To)
In cases in which children are involved, maintaining a decent relationship with an estranged spouse or co-parent is preferable to the alternative. Inevitably, down the road, the two parties will be sitting in the same bleachers at sporting events, in the same auditorium for graduations, and on the same side of the aisle for weddings.
Pete Wyckoff, a real estate attorney here in Summerville, South Carolina, is fond of recalling his days years ago practicing family law, and once told me that he would ask male clients whether they wanted “to be that dad who was invited to barbecues and graduations and got to walk their daughter down the aisle,” or whether they wanted to be “that jerk who isn’t welcome anymore.”
I have a different way of explaining things–perhaps gleaned from myself being that child of divorce sometimes feeling as though I was left in the middle–and I believe that it applies equally to both men and women engaged in domestic litigation: During a divorce involving children and even after those proceedings reach fruition, the two now-separated co-parents have two available relationships between them — a business relationship and a personal relationship.
The business relationship is a partnership: those two now-separated co-parents are business partners, their “product” or “widget” is their child or children, and they must do everything possible to maintain enough of a businesslike relationship to produce the best possible “widget” in spite of the changed circumstances. That means that the two of them should ideally be able to be in the room together, and should ideally be capable of working well enough together to make those difficult and important health, educational and extracurricular decisions that shape and prepare every child to be a healthy, prosperous and–at the very least–a self-sustainable adult.
Some co-parents are better prepared for that than others.
Some are just collectively incapable of working with one another, and every spark of conflict becomes an absolute conflagration. Those parents require structure, generally in the form of a Court Order or agreement that sets out guidelines for visitation, conduct, restraints and everything in between that are specific enough to eliminate natural pinch-points that could lead to sparks, but is not so specific that one party or the other will be in violation of that Order or agreement on a given day.
Others are just predisposed toward obstructionism, and require strict judicial incentive to work well enough with their counterpart to ensure the manufacture of worthwhile widgets. That incentive can be provided by a finding of contempt of court following an enforcement action brought about after the repeated–or even singular–intentional violation of a prior Court Order or court-ratified agreement. Having fines, fees, sanctions and jail time on the table goes a long way to ensuring that the troublesome parent behaves him- or herself at the next Little League game.
The personal relationship, the second of those two relationships available to co-parents during or after domestic proceedings, is something that can come along down the road, if necessary. That’s the interpersonal relationship that goes above and beyond the bare minimum required by the business relationship; it could involve shared birthday parties, car pools, family events, and the like.
From personal experience, I can tell you that personal relationships do not always come about. From professional experience, however, I can tell you that they certainly sometimes do. There is nothing better than seeing people who have survived contentious litigation working extremely well to establish a good personal relationship for the sake of their child.
Staying On the Good Side of Anyone Who Matters
Sometimes, however, the complete degradation of a relationship between parents or spouses is utterly unavoidable. Sometimes, those spouses and parents have their attorneys on speed dial for years and practically obsess about edging out their counterpart whenever the opportunity to grab an advantage presents itself.
Whether involved in litigation anticipated to be ongoing long after that Final Hearing, or whether involved in litigation expected to end with a final determination of matters of custody, visitation and such, it is always essential to maintain solid personal relationships with anyone and everyone relevant to your particular case.
While brown-nosing is never good, often reeks of ulterior motives, and can certainly backfire, it is nonetheless absolutely essential to maintain the best possible relationship with any and all teachers, caregivers, coaches, counselors and others who see the child or children on a regular enough basis to have a sense of how that child is feeling, and whether or not something is wrong. Request a parent-teacher conference. Stay late after that soccer game to speak with the coach. Do whatever is necessary to provide that person with the impression that the best interests of the child are perpetually at the forefront of mind, and that the respective lives of parent and child are prioritized properly.
Also, avoid appearing vindictive. I often counsel clients that the person who seems most vindictive rarely achieves their goals, and I stand by that. In terms of maintaining personal relationships with those people inextricably intertwined within the lives of the children, always try to be the parent who never speaks ill of the other. First, it’s better that way for the children. Second, it shows focus solely on the best interests of the children. Finally, it lays the foundation for appropriate demeanor, so when the other parent speaks ill of you, whatever is being said will seem immediately out of character, exaggerated, and wholly indicative of someone hell-bent on being petty.
While I am very much a fan of taking the proverbial gloves off and engaging in a fight when a fight is necessary, at all times discourse should be truthful, professional, and of the sort that further subsequent review will show that all such conduct and contact was justified and appropriate. Credibility is difficult to build but very easy to lose, and it is difficult down the road to argue the merits of your position when your conduct has left you with unclean hands.
On a personal level, I try to remember to deal with everyone how I would like to be dealt with myself. There are ways to be strict, to argue strenuously, and to be extremely persuasive without crossing that line into being unprofessional, impolite or uncouth. In terms of maintaining interpersonal relationships, I would much rather allow someone else to burn a particular bridge than to do it myself, and I will do everything within reason to keep that bridge from burning. Sometimes, when the other party is unavoidably hurt or just unable to curtail pettiness in favor of a continued relationship in one form or another, burning that bridge is unfortunately inevitable. But it is never, ever of my doing.
Relationships are essential, and domestic litigation has a way of relying upon interpersonal relationships like no other area of law. Before you speak, think. So long as you think perceptionally, and be wary of our your words, actions, behavior and conduct will be perceived down the road, you’ll be fine.