Even Amicable Spouses Need Good Parenting Agreements

Co-parenting with an ex-spouse can be tremendously challenging, even under the best of circumstances. I have been doing it myself now for about six years, and as a family law attorney and mediator, I’ve seen a full spectrum of co-parenting relationships from genuinely amicable and supportive, to destructive and even toxic. Most tend to fall somewhere in the middle, as does mine, but it has been at times a trial by fire type of situation. What I have come to appreciate, though, first by going through my own divorce with limited professional help or the benefit of a family law background, then by helping to guide couples as they go through divorce as a family law attorney and mediator, is the value of having clear, well-thought-out parenting agreements.

If I knew then what I know now ...

Much of what I have learned from my own divorce and co-parenting relationship informs my work, and my work helps me continuously learn new ways of approaching co-parenting conflicts and managing my own in a more conscious way. I was divorced before I transitioned to practicing family law and mediation, so at the time I lacked the perspective I’ve gained as a result of my professional experience. Predictably, had I known then what I know now, I would have done some important things differently.

When my daughter’s father and I divorced five years ago, both of us needed a lot of space to heal from the marriage; but we were still in near-constant contact, doing our best to raise a two-year old, with all of the demands that entails. We mediated the complicated financial questions of our divorce but paid little attention to the parenting plan, checking a few boxes on the standard court form indicating we agreed to share equal parenting time and decision-making, and rotating the dependency exemption on our tax returns. In addition to our daughter, we shared (and theoretically still share) a Labrador retriever, a good amount of outdoor gear, and some close friends. We had plenty of arguments in the first two years, but we occasionally also went to dinner at the local brewpub with our daughter and even once tried to go rafting as a modern family (which was a terrible idea by the way). All this is to say that we still interacted regularly and mostly got along well enough to have a casual parenting arrangement where we loosely followed a schedule but accommodated trips we wanted to take and family visits. For the most part, we still have the same flexible arrangement but there has been, at times, a lot of stress and entanglement in the process; stress that impacts not only us but the well-being of our daughter.

What I failed to anticipate was that with the passing of time our relationship would change significantly, and we didn’t have any formalized terms around how the actual day-to-day job of co-parenting would work. It is nearly impossible to anticipate all of the varied scenarios that arise with co-parenting a child of any age, but at the time I got divorced I just assumed we’d “work it out.” I didn’t (and realistically couldn’t) consider the myriad of decisions we’d be faced with making together, or how having new partners would change and often complicate things. I naively expected that I’d be able to persuade my ex to see my perspective about issues as they arose.

Memorialize the terms around your co-parenting arrangement so that you have a default when needed

The reality for many is that as time goes by after divorce, parents can and do become strangers to each other, even as their children go back and forth between their respective homes. Where there was once some level of intimacy and familiarity, there is distance and other priorities. As a lay-person, you cannot know the level of detail necessary for workable divorce agreements, and when you are in the thick of your own divorce it can be difficult and overwhelming to make long-term decisions.

With nothing more than a court form that offered little detail on our parenting schedule and how we would share holidays, vacations and expenses, my ex and I were confronted post-divorce with having to reach agreements around things like what happened when we both wanted the same vacation week in the summer, who missed work to stay home with our daughter when she was sick, and what was a reasonable amount of time to take her out of school for a non-essential trip. While these may seem minor in the scheme of things, the potential for co-parents to become mired in conflict and distrust over such issues is real--especially when the same relationship dynamics that led to divorce keep repeating themselves, as they often do with ex partners.

Sort through the details at the outset

Coming to agreements on parenting issues with your ex, years after the divorce, when you each have your own life and maybe a new family, generally isn’t as easy as you might assume it will be when you first divorce.

I have clients say to me that they don’t want or need a detailed parenting plan because they and their ex are on good terms and have been able to work things out thus far (in the six months they’ve been separated). That is when I encourage them to consider working with their co-parent-to-be to memorialize agreements, whether through mediation or in consultation with an attorney or both. In fact, precisely because things are going well makes it an excellent time to contemplate in greater detail many of the issues they may face in the coming years. How might you feel, for example, if your co-parent bought your eight year-old a smartphone without consulting you first because they didn’t think it was the type of decision that had to be made jointly? What happens if one parent gets remarried and wants to move just far enough into the foothills that drop-offs aren’t convenient any more?

You and your co-parent can always do whatever you both want and agree to with respect to parenting matters after divorce. Problems only emerge when you don’t agree. Having a well-considered, durable parenting agreement in place will not only aid in minimizing conflict, but will also allow you to disengage and lead separate, more peaceful lives. A good agreement doesn’t mean you won’t still have flexibility; rather, it provides a default in the event you cannot agree.

Make conscious choices on how you want to interact as a co-parent

I’ve learned over time to make more conscious choices in how I interact as a co-parent. But I spent too much time writing argumentative emails and being frustrated and distracted by co-parenting dynamics that could have likely been avoided had we taken the time in mediation years ago to work out a more thoughtful parenting agreement. Not having to go back and forth with your ex on little issues all the time because you both know what you agreed to previously means you have more energy to live a more fulfilling post-divorce life, and more patience and serenity for parenting your child.

Amy Stengel is an attorney and mediator with Conscious Family Law & Mediation LLC, a law and mediation firm providing healthy family transitions by avoiding costly, painful legal battles.​

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

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