Clear Court Orders for Shared Parenting
© 2010 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
I’ve been asked to say more about clear court orders when a reasonable parent shares parenting with someone with a borderline personality or narcissistic personality. This is an issue in most high conflict divorce cases. People with borderline or narcissistic personality disorders often find the loopholes in family court orders (apparently to get a sense of power and control to compensate for feeling so powerless in general and especially from having to live under someone else's rules).
In general, the court orders must be very specific about WHO does WHAT, WHEN and WHERE. For example: “Parenting exchanges will be done ‘curbside,’ meaning that the returning parent shall pull up to the curb in front of the other parent’s house at the scheduled time. The receiving parent shall open the door to indicate that he or she is ready to receive the children. The returning parent shall remain in the car while the children get out with their belongings and go to the other parent. The parents shall not converse or have negative non-verbal interactions during these parenting exchanges. A positive wave and smile are encouraged, but not required, during a parent exchange.”
Any subject that has been in controversy may need such specific orders, such as having parents communicate only by email, with a maximum of one email per day, which contains only one topic per email, and it must be about care of the children. In one court case, the judge ordered the parents to communicate by email using the B.I.F.F. Method® described by the psychological evaluator in the case. (I developed the B.I.F.F. Method® and it’s described in my new book Don’t Alienate the Kids!)
Such specific orders help borderlines, narcissists, and everyone restrain themselves from engaging in unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors (such as used to occur at their unstructured exchanges, and with frequent disparaging phone calls or emails). With such specific orders, I have seen some reasonable parents share parenting with a borderline or narcissistic parent over several years.
Of course, the larger issues must also be addressed in court orders, such as a schedule that is appropriate for the children that avoids terms that create a parent contest, with a winner parent and a loser parent. For example, many fights are over the terms “physical custody” and “visitation” which imply an important parent and an unimportant parent. There is no need to use either of these words. (Various states and many Canadian provinces use the term "access" instead of visitation.)
A specific and clear parenting schedule is sufficient in a court order, without labels. If one parent has more time, it doesn’t mean the other parent has a lesser role. Most research shows that the influence a parent has on a child’s development is not directly related to time. From my experience, alienation is less about parenting time and more about the spill-over of intense emotions and extreme behavior by a high conflict parent and other high-conflict people in the child’s life. Therefore, each parent should be the best parent possible during his or her time, even if one has more time than the other.
Of course, an exception is to establish who has “legal custody” meaning the right to make big decisions. Most divorced parents have “joint legal custody” (terms vary by state and province), which means they get to share in making decisions about the children’s school, doctor, activities, and counseling. In some cases, the court orders Joint Legal Custody, but makes specific orders identifying one parent to make the educational decisions and the other parent to make the medical decisions.
This is an increasingly common approach in high-conflict families using a “parallel parenting” arrangement, in which the parents have minimal or no direct communication. Some such families also have a Parenting Coordinator, who helps resolve future disputes after the basic court orders have been made. By interpreting and refining the court orders to be even more specific, the Parenting Coordinator can close the loopholes and help the parents manage better.
In short, successful shared parenting with a borderline or narcissistic parent may be possible in many cases, so long as court orders are highly specific to manage the unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors. I have seen this work in some (not all) cases, and I believe it is preferable to arrangements that seek to eliminate the other parent. Of course, protection is an issue and safety must be provided. But if we don’t want kids growing up alienated, then they need to have some relationship with both parents. Clear court orders are one way to help manage potentially alienating behavior without all-or-nothing solutions. I cover this in more detail in my new book "Don't Alienate the Kids".
As always, I value your opinion so please leave a comment. Tell me what you think?
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.