When divorce involves children, the parenting discussions tend to be dominated by time and money issues: Where are the kids going to live? What days do I get to see the kids? How will we divide the holidays? How much child support will I receive? How are we going to pay for school and activities?
It’s easy to understand why these issues take up so much space; they are the tangible, physical and measurable aspects of the parent-child relationship. It’s the parenting equivalent to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In that hierarchy, physical needs are the base followed by emotional needs. In simple terms, focusing on the physical aspects of life such as eating, breathing and finding shelter needs to happen before you focus on your feelings.
Early theories on parent-child attachment also followed this theme. They looked at a parent’s ability to meet their child’s physical needs as the primary driver of attachment. It wasn’t until the 1970s and the rise of “psychological parenting” that the importance of meeting a child’s emotional needs moved to the forefront of parent-child attachment theory.
While the “physical” aspects of parenting are certainly important for divorcing couples, it is critical that that couples spend as much (if not more) energy on the emotional aspects of parenting during divorce: How is my child adjusting to the changes in our family? What is the developmental stage my child is going through? What is his/her unique personality and how do these intersect with decisions we are making for the divorce? What is my child’s relationship like with me? What is it like with his/her other parent? How can I improve those relationships? Am I taking care of my child or is he/she taking care of me? The list could go on and on.
When I do a parenting plan with divorcing couples that have children, my first questions are about their goals and concerns regarding the divorce. Almost all of them list the effect of the divorce on their children as their #1 worry and helping their children successfully adjust as their #1 goal. These answers become the touchstone we use whenever the process seems to be getting derailed.
The processes of collaborative divorce and mediation are designed to improve communication and problem-solving in a constructive way. When couples use these processes, it can often be easier to keep the emotional part of parenting present in the discussions and move away from the rigidity of the numbers.
For example, many people say, “I want 50% of the parenting time.” What does that really mean? Would you be happy with 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., which is technically 50% of the time? Most people mean they want a meaningful relationship with their child and to be engaged in both weekday and weekend activities with their child. From this point, they can begin talking about what that really looks like for their child in this stage of life, and that discussion allows for the child’s emotional needs to be considered alongside their financial and physical needs.
It would be unrealistic to ignore the physical and financial realities of parenting; these are important aspects of parenting. At the same time though, recognizing the importance of the emotional aspects of divorce on your child’s life and proactively creating a plan to help your child navigate divorce will allow you to make better decisions in the long run.