Many of my clients have come to me wondering how they should handle the relationship with their ex-spouse or significant other as it pertains to their children. Sadly, divorce or separation has become imminent due to the presence of continued substance abuse or numerous unsuccessful attempts at sobriety.
This blog is not about judging the disposition of the marriage or partnership or to give comment as to whether the couple has done everything they can to save the relationship. Also, I am not a child psychologist so other options may be important to take into consideration other than my opinion on this issue.
However, if the die is cast, then so be it, but the children involved in this scenario are innocent to the situation and still have two parents that hopefully want to be a participant in their lives. Rarely have I known a father or mother to abandon their children in order to live a life of substance abuse, but I did have a client who shared that her ex-husband would rather live in a box; virtually homeless and drink each day than have any contact with his children. A heartbreaking state of affairs all around.
So, what are the options for the parent that has primary custody for the child/children and the other parent who is trying to either work a clean and sober program or vows only to drink on days where he or she has no involvement with the children has? It goes without saying that if one parent is totally irresponsible or time and time again has exhibited out of control behavior or puts the children in danger due to reckless behavior, than all bets are off for any participation. A substantial amount of time must pass in order for the alcoholic/addict to demonstrate a responsible, tethered clean and sober life style, before supervised visits or co-parenting can occur.
But, let's look at the circumstances where the temperament of the alcoholic/addict parent does not present a risk to their child or children.
The most important thing the custodial parent can do is formulate a co-parental agreement. What I mean by this, is that that parent should WRITE down what their expectations are when the child/children are in the supervision of the alcoholic/addict parent.
If the separation or divorce is somewhat amicable and the children's happiness and their well being is of paramount importance to both father and mother, then I have advised my clients to reiterate their hope and desire that the children can have two loving parents. The following is a short parental agreement that a custodial client and I drafted together to present to his mate.
We have two wonderful children together and they deserve both of our love and attention as caring and responsible parents and adults; I know that you would not disagree. I'm certain we are both desirous of raising happy, healthy children, where we can both participate in their lives, so I propose the following:
1) I will have the children 3 days a week unencumbered and you will have them 3 days a week. On the 7th day, we will use best efforts to share the company of our children jointly. In the event that is not possible for whatever reason, then the fourth day will rotate between us every other week.
2) You will commit to picking up and returning the children at a certain hour/certain day, unless other arrangements have been made.
3) You will not take the children outside an agreed upon mileage radius, unless I approve beforehand.
4) The children will call the custodial parent every night before bed, after school (or whatever time is firmly committed to).
5) Neither one of us may make significant decisions regarding vacations, parties, medical issues, etc...without discussing and obtaining the approval of the other prior to the intended date.
6) I am concerned about your alcoholic intake. Though it is none of my business if you wish to drink or not, it is my concern if it happens while the children are in your custody. I need to hear from you by phone (not text or e-mail) by 9:00 am on the days that you have the children. Please be aware that if I don't, I will come and get them.
7) If I am not comfortable with your state of responsibility or question your sobriety, I will have no choice but to get child welfare services or the police involved. As a concerned parent I will do whatever the safest, healthiest and proper steps are to ensure our children's best interest.
This agreement may sound harsh to the alcoholic/addict, so be prepared for the possible back lash of anger and retaliation in some way. They may feel it is unfair to be on such a short leash, but as trust and dependability is restored, you can always extend the length of that leash.
If you feel so inclined, you may allow the alcoholic/addict parent to come up with their own proposal and possibly come to a mutual agreement and understanding. However, I caution you that staying clean and sober while in custody of the children's needs should never be compromised. For example, a few social drinks at a family birthday party are not part of the agreement.
Regardless of how the contract shakes out between the two of you, the important factor here is that there is a solid commitment and understanding in writing. Bumping along the bottom, hoping things work out is a recipe for disaster. With a contract in place, if an issue comes up, neither party can say..."well I thought that would be okay", or "I didn't know you wanted this or that". It's in writing and confusion can therefore not be an excuse.
Our children are so central to our lives and their well being should be dominant on a daily basis. A bit of uncertainty or uneasiness in putting together an agreement that can be clear, honest and fair to both loving and caring parents is a small price to pay in establishing a safe, comfortable haven as each parent enjoys the pleasure of their children.
In addition, I am offering a holiday counseling special "Are your boundaries wrapped up tight for the holidays?" My website has more information.