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Are You Getting a Divorce and Thinking About Nesting?

Five goals and qualities all potential nesters should have.

Birdnesting (or nesting, as it is more commonly referred to) in a divorce or separation is where parents take turns staying in the family home. Rather than making the kids traipse back and forth between two homes, the kids stay put and the parents trade off being the "on-duty parent."

While having different homes can certainly be hard on the adults in one sense, it can make their lives easier in another. It's probably much easier to track their own items than it is having to remember homework, books, soccer uniforms, toys, enough socks and underwear to last and any number of other "kid" items. When kids have two homes, parents not only have to track what goes out to the other parent's home, they have to make sure it comes back—so there's actually double the work!

Nesting makes sense in many, but not all, cases. To help you decide whether nesting might make sense for you, I have enlisted the help of my colleague, Ann Buscho. She has a private therapy practice in San Rafael, California, where she specializes in family issues and issues related to divorce, parenting, parenting planning, and co-parenting counseling.

When I asked Buscho why couples should consider nesting, she told me that by allowing the children to stay in the home full-time, they have more time to adapt to changes in the family and it makes kids feel more secure during a time of major transition. "It's not unlike birds who alternately swoop in and out caring for the babies while the babies remain safe and secure in their soft, protected nest. Parents work together to create a home for their children that is safe, stable, and loving."

That said, nesting does not have a cookie-cutter approach. Some parents share an off-site residence or stay with friends or family, while others may find separate living quarters within the home. But there are common goals for all nesters. According to Buscho, "What every nesting has in common is that the most important goals are to reduce conflict and provide a consistent, stable home for the children while the marital status is in flux."

"Jim and Marie (not their real names) worked it out so that Jim could sleep in his office on a sofa-bed, and Marie was able to stay with her parents when she was off duty. This wasn’t easy for them, yet they did it for almost a year. They told me that they now understand what it must be like for their children to go 'back and forth.'”

Buscho stated that, besides stabilizing the kids, there are other reasons to consider nesting. For example, nesting is a good option for parents who can’t afford to divorce or to support two homes: "During the recession, we saw many couples who wanted to divorce but couldn’t afford to. Nesting was a helpful option, at least for a while."

Couples rarely feel emotionally stable at this juncture of their relationship. Parents may use nesting as a transition time, according to Buscho. Rather than rush into selling the family home, buying a new home (or two), nesting provides the couple time to consider their options: whether to work on reconciliation or move toward divorce. Having time to get perspective on the future helps everyone.

I will share the rest of our Q&A here:

Q: Can anyone set up a nesting arrangement?

A: Nesting definitely isn’t for everyone. The most important factor is whether the parents can put their own emotions aside for the sake of the children. Whatever the state of the marriage, or the reasons for the divorce, most parents agree that they want their kids to be safe, happy, and thrive. In my work with parents, that agreement is my starting point. Of course, it isn’t easy to set aside emotions where there has been a betrayal, or when the hopes and dreams you had at your wedding have unraveled.

Q: What are some of the other factors parents should consider?

A: There are a number of important factors. Parents should be willing to develop, perhaps with help from a therapist, a detailed and structured nesting plan that spells out predictable issues and how they will be resolved. Good communication, mutual respect and trust may need to be strengthened, which requires a commitment by both parents to do so. Another factor is how much contact the separating spouses can tolerate, since minimizing conflict is an overarching goal. Parents need to be able to make and keep agreements.

Q: Is there research that supports the value of nesting?

A: Unfortunately, not that I know of. Perhaps a doctoral student reading this will want to explore that! I have helped many families nest, and have found that, empirically, nesting may help children experience a healthier and more harmonious, or at least less adversarial, separation or divorce. I think keeping the children stable during a major family transition must support their resilience.

Q: In your experience, what are some advantages to nesting?

A: Nesting can support the creation or continuation of the children’s positive and secure attachment to each parent. Nesting will also help each parent adjust to being single parents while minimizing the stress on the children. Successful nesting will give each the time to be fully involved in the children’s growth and upbringing.

Q: How did you get interested in nesting?

A: I am a psychologist with more than twenty-five years of experience working with children, parents, and families around divorce issues. But I also have firsthand experience with nesting. In 1993, my ex-husband and I set up a nesting plan in order to keep the children in a stable environment while we made our decisions about next steps. We nested for fifteen months, until our divorce was complete, we understood our finances and what our future living arrangements would be.

Q: So how long does the nesting last?

A: Nesting is usually temporary, sometimes a few months, and often longer. In fact, I have worked with parents who decided to nest until all the children were grown, the longest was nine years! Usually nesting ends when one of the parents wants to establish a separate home, perhaps with a new relationship. Sometimes other markers might be set in advance, such as the finalization of the divorce.

Q: You mentioned a “nesting plan.” Can you describe what that is?

A: The plan is tailored to each family’s unique situation. At a minimum, it lays out a schedule of each parent’s on-duty and off-duty times. It states clearly how bills will be funded and paid. It could spell out responsibilities in the home, such as maintenance, and an agreement to leave the home in reasonable condition when the on-duty parent goes off-duty. It describes what is private, such as each one’s personal computer, and parents agree to leave important documents and papers accessible to each. Often it includes an agreement regarding new relationships.

Q: New relationships must be a hot button issue! Can you give an example of how that might be in the plan?

A: One couple, Marty and Irene, agreed to restrict all dating to off-duty time, and this is generally what I recommend. These parents were sharing an off-site location when they were off-duty, so they also agreed to keep all new relationships out of that apartment.

New relationships are generally not introduced to the children at all—at least not until both parents believe the children are prepared.

Another couple promised to postpone all dating until their decision to divorce was final and nesting was over. It isn’t unusual for an affair to be the catalyst for the divorce and, often, the relationship continues while the parents are nesting.

Jake and Jackie (not their real names) had to process the affair in therapy before Jackie was ready to accept Jake’s relationship while they were nesting. In this situation, Jake traveled for work, and his new relationship was in another city. This, and the fact that she felt as Jake did—that the romance had long ago left their marriage—made it easier for Jackie to accept that it was over. She wanted to remain friends with Jack. A formalized nesting agreement allowed them both to remain in the home, and each was independent during his or her off-duty time. They saw each other at the weekly family dinners with their children they arranged. It has worked so well, in fact, that they have been nesting for several years now.

Q: So you have described all the positives, but what if things go wrong?

A: I think nesting goes off the rails in two ways. The first is a breach of trust and the second way that nesting can fail is when one or both parents cannot manage their emotions. Here are two stories that illustrate what can go wrong.

Eric and Meghan had been nesting for months when she noticed that some things were disappearing each week, just a few things at a time. At first she thought perhaps things had been misplaced. When she noticed her treasured baby books were missing, she confronted Eric.

Eric admitted that he had been moving things he wanted to his parents’ home, and was not willing to return them or stop taking things. Meghan felt she could no longer trust him, and called off the nesting.

Broken agreements will sabotage the nesting arrangement.

In the second example, Dirk and Francis (both men) had hot tempers. They wanted to nest for the sake of the children. After only a few months of living like this, communication broke down, and the children witnessed conflicts that escalated to threats, and even some shoving.

There had not been a history of intimate partner violence in their marriage, but this was a red flag that both recognized. They agreed to end the nesting and they were able to go their separate ways feeling better for having tried this arrangement.

Q: Speaking of domestic violence, for whom is nesting not appropriate?

A: Nesting requires good communication, trust, respect for the other parent and an ability to follow rules and agreement. Parents who have a hard time with these guidelines should not nest. In addition to a history of coercive control issues in the marriage, or recent domestic violence, other nesting deal breakers would include unmanaged alcohol or drug abuse by either parent. There are also certain mental illnesses that could make nesting challenging such as severe depression, severe anxiety, or certain character disorders. If you're not sure whether you are a good candidate to nest, seek professional help from a therapist who is familiar with nesting and co-parenting.

The pain of a failed nesting plan can disappoint and hurt the kids and the family, so it is important that spouses consider carefully whether nesting is appropriate for their situation.

Q: This has been so informative. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: There is so much to say about nesting. As you can see, I am passionate about it. My hope is that more parents will consider whether nesting would be a good option for their family, because of the benefits it offers to each member of the family. I’d like to say much more about constructing nesting plans in some future conversation.

5 goals for kids and parents:

  1. Respite from conflict.
  2. Stability for the kids.
  3. Have more time to make decisions about the marriage or the divorce.
  4. Have time to adjust to being a single parent.
  5. Have time to adjust to the post-divorce time-share schedule.

5 qualities parents should possess:

  1. Respect for your (soon-to-be-ex) spouse.
  2. The ability to make and keep agreements.
  3. The ability to have "good enough" communication (with support, if necessary)
  4. The ability to trust one another.
  5. No recent domestic violence, and no untreated or unmanaged substance abuse or mental illnesses.

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