Toward a More Civil Divorce

Policy makers and family courts can put children first when parents can’t

Posted Jul 16, 2015

Photo by Jonathan Malm/Freeimages.com
Source: Photo by Jonathan Malm/Freeimages.com

As I prepare for the latest round of hearings on whatever it is my ex-husband and I are fighting about this month, I’m feeling unexpectedly grateful: at least my kids aren’t in jail because they wouldn’t go to lunch with their father.

Many couples with minor children manage to put their children first when the adults decide to uncouple. Sure, the parents may not like each other much, and occasional tensions will arise, especially as new partners enter the picture. But by and large, many divorces are civil; the parents learn to co-parent, and the children of those divorces grow up just fine.

Then there are divorces like the Tsimhonis, whose children, ages 9-14, were found in contempt of court by a Michigan judge for refusing to go to lunch with their father.[1] These “War of the Roses” divorces make headlines and clog already overwhelmed family court dockets. Mine is one of them.

In a high conflict divorce, both adults share the blame. We both made mistakes early on that we cannot recover from, and as a result, more than seven years after the initial order, we continue to pay for our lawyers’ children’s college instead of setting up a 529 plan for our own kids. I have no reason to expect that this pattern will change until our youngest child turns 18.

Our case is complicated by the fact that one of our children has mental illness, and his symptoms included severe emotional disturbance for several years. But his illness was not the cause of our divorce—it just became one more thing to fight about in the aftermath of the apocalypse, possibly setting my son's recovery back years. For example. as I described in my book, The Price of Silence,[2] in June 2013, I was sitting on a train with my son headed to Westport, Connecticut to see one of the world’s foremost experts in juvenile bipolar disorder when I finally got my ex-husband’s permission to take my son to the visit—contingent on me paying all the treatment costs myself.

The cause of our high conflict divorce is this: We are fundamentally unable to communicate with each other. We have no respect or understanding for the other’s values or worldview. We cannot just “get along,” not for the sake of our children, not for the sake of anyone. No matter how many well-meaning Family Connections social workers try to get us to see eye-to-eye, it’s not going to happen. We cannot co-parent. The best we and our children can hope for—and we’re not there yet—is low-engagement parallel parenting. Unfortunately, the adversarial nature of the judicial system creates a perfect storm for parents like us, and for our children.

The early mistakes I made are too numerous to mention. Reading over emails from a few years ago, I’m embarrassed and ashamed. Fortunately, years of therapy—and some truly wonderful, forgiving children—have helped me to reach a place of equilibrium and even humor about my messy divorce. The endless court filings are now just routine to me. It’s what we do because we cannot communicate or agree, so a judge has to decide.

But the undeniable effects that grown-up bad behavior have had on my children also break my heart. What I wanted was a park bench divorce, where the children always came first. Because I was an idealist, I didn’t fight back hard enough or early enough when it became clear that my ex-husband had very different ideas, preferring a much different narrative.

And while I don’t solely blame my ex, I also know firsthand that mothers bear the brunt of challenges in divorce, especially when special needs children are involved. Judith Wallerstein, author of The Good Divorce, has spent her career studying marital break-ups and their effects on children and families. In her (2013) longitudinal 25-year study of post-divorce families, she observes:

Following divorce, the mother is faced with the enormous task of compartmentalizing her anger, hurt, and disappointment in the failed marriage, and of maintaining that cauldron of feelings separate from her parenting, and, in fact, separate from her continuing relationship with her ex-husband. Additionally, the mother typically must confront the greater economic pressures of postdivorce life, the loneliness of sole parenting, and the vulnerabilities of entering the postdivorce social scene as a woman alone with children to attend.[3]

Mothers of special needs children are hit particularly hard by divorce. Another longitudinal study found that parents of children with emotional disturbance were 81 percent more likely to experience divorce than parents of children with learning disabilities: the authors concluded that “families of children with emotional disturbances appear to be particularly at risk for negative family experiences.” The same study showed that mothers bear the economic brunt of caregiving.[4] Another study found that having a special needs child negatively impacts mothers’ (but not fathers’) health.[5]

In the United States, 23 percent of households with children have a child with special needs, including mental illness. Of these, in households where the child’s needs affect daily family life, which is often the case with serious emotional disturbance, nearly 40 percent of parents reported financial problems as a result of their child’s condition. Thirty percent of these families spend 11 or more hours per week in coordinating or providing their children’s care, and nearly 50 percent of these families cut back their work hours or stopped working altogether.[6]

Tricia Slavik, mother and caregiver of two young adult children who have mental illness, knows firsthand how costly court battles and caregiving can be. When I asked her about her experiences in trying to get her children’s father to provide financial support, she said, “The last go-around of hearings lasted well over a year and took four hearings to resolve. During that time we were left destitute, received food stamps, and lived with a friend. The children’s father took issue with having to pay support for our two adult children, who are incapacitated from a variety of mental illnesses. He wanted us to apply for government aid, even though he was earning $18,000 a month.”

Although Slavik and her children ultimately prevailed, she may never recover financially. The judge in her case could have issued a temporary support order but failed to do so. Recently she lost her job when she could not balance the conflicting demands of caregiving and full-time employment. Her frustration with the fragmented mental healthcare system and her ongoing attempts to provide for her children inspired her to start @WitsEnd (www.atwitsend.org), a “parents helping parents” website that aims to connect families with resources.

Like Slavik’s ex-husband, Mr. Tsimhoni seems particularly blind to his children’s needs. Rather than expressing outrage over the appalling treatment his children received from family court judge Lisa Gorcya and demanding their release, their father, predictably, blamed his ex-wife in an interview with the New Orleans Observer. “I understand everybody’s pain—the children’s pain, my pain, that the children are where they are. But she [the mother] saw it coming and never tried to prevent it.”[7]

The judge’s comments to the children similarly missed the mark: “Your father has never been charged with anything. Your father’s never been convicted of anything. Your father doesn’t have a personal protection order against him. Your father is well-liked and loved by the community, his co-workers, his family (and) his colleagues.”[8] 

This doesn’t mean his kids have to like him, or that it’s their mother’s fault they don’t. It doesn’t mean their dad wasn’t violent toward their mom—or even toward them. A lot goes on behind closed doors.  

“If a kid doesn’t want to go to lunch with his dad, there is usually a pretty good reason,” my son who has mental illness, now 15 and managing his bipolar disorder well, told me when I asked him what he thought of the Tsimhoni case. “When my Dad is in public, he is the perfect father. I would go to lunch with my Dad, rather than to jail, as long as it’s in public. I would like to have a relationship with my Dad—but not the way he treats me now. I want a relationship with the Dad I had when I was six. But every moment of our past defines who we are today, and I am happy with the person I am today.”

“According to my Dad, it was my mom’s fault I didn’t want to see him. I think it was definitely more him and my step mom and the way they treated me. I mean, my mom was strict, but my Dad…it was his way or nothing. It was my word against an adult, and everyone knows, kids are so untrustworthy. The police will always believe an adult over a child. And if they don’t, the court system will. Sometimes the police would try to get me admitted to a mental hospital instead of juvenile detention. They would ask, ‘You’re suicidal, right?’ and kind of wink, like I should say yes. It was their way of saying would you rather go to the mental hospital or juvi?””

In fact, it may not be in the children’s best interests to see their father when high levels of parental conflict exist. One 2015 study of 156 white, non-Hispanic fathers found that regardless of the father’s level of involvement in the children’s lives, high levels of parental conflict were predictive of negative outcomes when the children became young adults, suggesting that whether or not Judge Gorcya is correct in asserting that the mother has “poisoned” her children against their father, they really might be better off without him, at least during their formative years.[9] 

I’ve had plenty of time sitting on court benches to think about specific recommendations for policy makers that would help children trapped in high conflict divorces. Here are a few of my ideas:

  1. Understand that many people simply don’t know how to divorce. A three hour “Focus on the Children” class is not sufficient to teach high-conflict parents how to put their children’s needs first. Family courts and state social services should provide a toolkit for parents that includes resources, and also provide ongoing case management to fragile families, especially where a child with serious emotional disturbance is involved. For example, one 2012 study suggested that more extensive co-parenting training could benefit high conflict parents.[10]
  2. For parents who truly cannot co-parent, implement parent coordinators and court appointed special masters to keep unruly parents in line and out of court. In Santa Clara County, parent coordinators resulted in a dramatic reduction in court appearances. Ideally, the parenting coordinator will be able to create an environment where successful low-engagement parallel parenting is possible.[11]
  3. To limit parental engagement, contract with or recommend use of services like Our Family Wizard or WeVorce (more on that in another article).
  4. Understand that special needs children, especially those with serious emotional disturbance, may require the stability and support of sole physical custody with the parent who has provided the most caregiving.
  5. Do not punish children for their parents’ inability to co-parent.

What is probably truly best for his children may be hard on Mr. Tsimonhi, at least for now. But sometimes if you love someone, you have to let go. It’s just lunch.


[1] Balko, R. (2015, July 9). Michigan judge bullies children in open court for refusing to see their dad. Washington Post. 

[2] Long, L. (2014). The price of silence: A mom’s perspective on mental illness. Hudson Street Press.

[3] Wallerstein, J., Lewis, J., & Packer Rosenthal, S. (2013). Mothers and their children after divorce: Report from a 25-year longitudinal study. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 30(2), 167.

[4] Wei, X., & Jennifer, W. Y. (2012). The concurrent and longitudinal effects of child disability types and health on family experiences. Maternal and child health journal, 16(1), 100-108. 

[5] Burton, P., Lethbridge, L. and Phipps, S. (2008). Children with disabilities and chronic conditions and longer-term parental health,” Journal of Socio-Economics 37 (2008): 1168–86.

[6] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. The National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs Chartbook 2009–2010. Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2013. 

[7]Kurson, K. (2015, July 8). Exclusive Interview: Dad Whose Kids Were ‘Locked Up for Not Having Lunch With Him’. New Orleans Observer.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Modecki, K. L., Hagan, M. J., Sandler, I., & Wolchik, S. A. (2015). Latent profiles of nonresidential father engagement six years after divorce predict long-term offspring outcomes. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology,44(1), 123-136.

[10] Owen, J., & Rhoades, G. K. (2012). Reducing interparental conflict among parents in contentious child custody disputes: An initial investigation of the Working Together Program. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(3), 542-555

[11] Sullivan, M. J. (2013). Parenting coordination: Coming of age?. Family Court Review, 51(1), 56-62.