Monday, May 13, 2024

Anonymous Asks (302)

“How should parents who are divorcing/separating deal with child custody issues?”

How does one do a bad thing in the best possible way? This the dilemma for divorcing Christians. Finding the will of God in one area of your life when you are already rejecting the revealed will of God in another area is always going to be a losing battle. The Lord never intended Christians to divorce, and his word does not provide a great deal of direct guidance to those in the process of demonstrating they don’t want it.

The best we can do is derive some general principles from scripture about behavior patterns that are always good, and leave it at that.

A Christian Divorce?

I am going to assume both parties in the divorce proceeding have at least professed faith in Christ at one point, though that may not always be the case. At least one party must be genuinely saved and looking to the Lord for help, or there would be no point in dealing with such a question here.

Let’s be blunt: divorce is going to hurt your children. It’s going to hurt them now, later on, and probably for the rest of their lives. It will change the way they think about marriage and it may affect the relationship choices they make as teens and adults, for better or worse, and you will never know which problems they encounter in life are a product of your actions and which might have happened anyway. There are very few spousal dynamics so horrendous that parting ways will improve your children’s lot. It may improve yours in certain ways, but your gain will come at their expense, and you will also find, to one degree or another, that you have simply exchanged one bad situation for a different bad situation.

If you are the one driving the divorce, I’m not sure scripture has anything to say to you other than “stop”. The apostle Paul does make provision for situations in which a wife separates from her husband (and presumably the opposite applies as well), but these do not include permission to make it permanent and legal (“if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband”). In marriage, there’s no such thing as a divinely sanctioned do-over.

Two Different Situations

If you insist on driving a divorce forward, I’m not sure you can expect positive answers to prayer about dealing with child custody issues. The Lord loves our kids, and he loves them infinitely more than we do, but one of the ways that he shows his love is by giving them parents who can make genuine choices that have genuine consequences. We reap what we sow, and regrettably, sometimes others reap it too.

So let’s assume from hereon in that the person asking today’s question is in a situation where they have minimal agency and no ability to change the circumstances of their breakup. They are separated because their partner has deserted them, and the likely reason is that there is somebody else in the picture. If there is a divorce happening, the other party is driving it. You acknowledge you weren’t the perfect husband or wife, of course, because nobody is, but you never wanted this and you don’t want it now.

If that’s the case, I’d say there is real hope, though the road forward is bound to be difficult. I’ll have to speak about these things in the most general terms, because every situation is different. In your case, some advice may not apply.

Courts and Costs

If you can avoid it, don’t go to court over child custody issues. The financial and emotional cost is horrendous. An arbitrator is always better and cheaper. Whenever possible, work with the lawyer’s legal assistant directly rather than the lawyer; they know more about your specifics, and the hourly rate is much more reasonable. (I am not kidding here. In many cases, the lawyer’s first glance at the file after your original interview is on his way to court.) It’s best of all if you can settle things between yourselves and have a lawyer document your desires at minimal cost. That may not be realistic in the more antagonistic breakup situations, but don’t let the antagonism be coming from you. If it ends up in court, let it be because there was no other option.

As far as negotiations are concerned, be reasonable. Love your enemy. Pray for the ex, even if he despitefully uses you. That is tremendously difficult, but being riddled with guilt because you have made things worse for your kids by trying to win an ego contest is even more difficult. Take as much responsibility for them as you are able, but don’t expect to be awarded more than 50% of anything. If it happens, it’s a bonus.

When two people separate and start moving toward divorce, many options go out the window. There will be hard choices to make. Money is almost always going to be a problem. You may have to choose earning a living over time with your children because no other option is possible. That very much depends on what your former partner is willing to negotiate and what a judge eventually has to say about it. Both of these are out of your hands, other than to the extent that you cast yourself on the Lord in prayer.

Hours and Schedules

I mention money because the presence or absence of it will heavily influence the hours you have available to care for a child. There is no point in asking for full custody of a child if you know you are going to have to work outside the home forty hours a week just to survive. Even if you are on the receiving end of spousal or child support, there is no guarantee your former partner will be able to meet their obligations consistently, especially if the judge’s order has been onerous, and especially if there are new mouths to feed in his or her life. I have seen mothers celebrate the great deal the judge gave them at their former husband’s expense, only to find he’s shortly unemployed or has headed for Parts Unknown. Beware of what appears to be a great settlement, because if it’s too good, it won’t last. The best settlements are as fair as possible to both sides and as close as possible to sustainable over the long term.

Some social workers these days will tell you it is better for the children to have a single home than two, even if it means one parent is basically cut out of their lives. There is some truth to this. If they live in one home seven days a week, they may do better at school, have more consistency in their schedule, discipline and diet, be able to make and keep friends, and have a greater sense of security. The downside is that if they are not with you, you will quickly lose almost all constructive input into their lives. Taking them out one afternoon every week or two is no substitute for consistent involvement.

On the other hand, a 50/50 or 60/40 arrangement will keep you actually parenting, but it will also be very disruptive to your children’s lives. If you do not live in the same neighborhood as your ex, you will do a lot more driving and they will eat a lot more take out food, or else have meals at strange hours. If you do live in the same neighborhood, that may have its own problems. You will have to weigh the pros and cons before deciding what to request, and you may not get what you are looking for in any case.

Relating to the Ex and Others

Don’t expect to be able to control what happens in your former partner’s new home. You may not like the new relationship he’s involved in, or want that person around your children. The bottom line is, that’s not your call. Fighting about it with your ex-spouse or in court is always going to be a losing battle, and God has called us to peace. Leave it with the Lord and determine to make your own home the kindest and most Christian environment possible, a place where your children will want to be because they feel safe and loved.

It may be obvious, but never talk trash to your children about your ex. It’s not Christian, and it’s tremendously destructive. If your former partner is an undependable loser or an unloving jerk, they do not need to be told that. They will eventually figure it out for themselves, and at least you will not be responsible for creating even more insecurity and unhappiness in their lives. One day they will appreciate you for zipping your lips when you were desperate to defend yourself. Be supportive of your former partner in every possible way, and encourage your children to obey your former spouse’s house rules even if they are different from yours. Get involved at their school if possible. Offer to take them to the doctor, dentist or orthodontist when your ex is working or busy. Nobody wants that job, and if you don’t get it at first, you will probably get it later.

Even if you feel morally free to start a new relationship because your ex has already done so, you are probably better to abandon that “right”. I cannot think of a single situation I have ever seen where introducing a new body into a fractured family dynamic made anything better, though I have certainly seen it rationalized to death. In some cases, the conflict of loyalties appears to have damaged the parent/child relationship beyond repair.

Hope and Help

All this is mostly negative, but that’s realistic. But I did say there is hope, and there is. When you are doing the right thing yourself, you can come to the Lord in confidence and ask for his help, knowing that he is full of grace and mercy in time of need. That is true even if you have messed up in times past. Our Father loves your children and wants the best for them. If they know the Lord, the difficulties of their present experiences may in the end help them to become better people than if their lives were comparatively harmonious. He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think. In any case, suffering will certainly lower unrealistic expectations of life. Your child will not wind up an entitled prima donna.

It’s also important to realize that a bad situation today may not be the same tomorrow. It almost never is. You may start with 30% custody very much against your wishes, and end up with 70% a few years later if your ex-partner finds the children are cramping his or her style or creating problems in another relationship. Small children do not have much of a voice in custody decisions, but an articulate ten-year old does, and he or she may express their wishes strongly enough to get their way in time.

The most loving, sacrificial parent often takes a hit in the short term, but my experience is that taking the high road always pays off in the long run.

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