Avoiding the Revolving Courtroom Door

by Brette Sember

children playing with parents watching onIt's to be expected that you and your ex are going to have some disagreements as you continue to parent your children together. All parents disagree and those who are separated or divorced are likely to have differing views on a lot of things.

Having different opinions isn't a problem, as long as you're able to find a way to work out the conflict on your own. You aren't going to always see things eye to eye, and you're going to have to learn to compromise and work together somehow.

Some families find that they can't work out these conflicts together, and so they end up heading back to court. When I was practicing as an attorney, many of the families I worked with went through the Family Court revolving door. They would come back again and again, asking the court to help them sort out their problems.

They were recidivists. Some families were back every few months. And the problems they brought to court were small. The issues were not changes in the family or big new developments, rather the underlying problem was that they had no basic conflict resolution skills to use when disagreements did occur.

Family Court is there to help you, and there are definitely times when you have no other option but to go to court and ask for intervention. However, constantly swinging in and out of that revolving courtroom door does more damage than good.

Some parents use court as payback. "If you don't give me what I want I'll take you back to court."

Some find it hard to imagine working out a compromise on their own, having been trained to believe that they don't have the power or the ability to solve family problems themselves. Family Court does certainly discourage cooperation between parents. Think about it -- you sit on opposite sides of the room so you can't even see each and aren't allowed to speak to each other at all, while a man or woman in a black robe listens to everything you say about your family and then makes a decision about how your family should be arranged.

Returning to court creates an environment of ongoing conflict in your family. You and the other parent are always waiting for another court date, or are about to file papers. Your child grows up believing that mothers and fathers must always work against each other. Your child never gets the sense that you and the other parent are working together for him or her.

Not only is this disturbing for your child, but it's incredibly disruptive in your own life. It's next to impossible to hold down a job if you're spending half a day every few weeks at the courthouse. And all of you are on constant pins and needles because nothing is certain for any length of time. There's always the possibility of a big change depending on what the judge decides.

You can avoid the revolving door. Follow these tips:

  • First, have a meeting with your ex to try to talk through whatever it is you are disagreeing about. Set some rules about what you will discuss and how you will treat each other. Hold the meeting for a scheduled period of time and try again another day if you don't reach an agreement. Focus on reaching a compromise -- this means neither one of you gets everything you want. Instead it means give and take.

  • If you get nowhere in person, try negotiating by email or written notes. This gives you time to think over what you're going to say and how to say it, whereas in person some people are more likely to fly off the handle. Focus not on proving you are right, but instead on finding something you can both live with.

  • Try to develop an attitude that allows you to tolerate some of what your ex does. Ok, so maybe he drops your child off half an hour late each week. Is it really worth several months of turmoil and court appearances to get that changed? Try to live with the small things if you can. Conflict feeds on itself. If you can gradually de-escalate your battles, you may find there is less to fight about.

If you have big problems that can't be resolved, try going to mediation before heading back to court. Mediation is less expensive than hiring lawyers and is much faster than going through court. In mediation, you and your ex make all the decisions and the mediator is there as a neutral third party to guide you along. Mediation not only helps you resolve today's disputes, but it also trains you to handle future disputes on your own.

If you absolutely have no choice but to go back to court, tell your attorney you want to work out a settlement. The two attorneys can meet to hammer something out, or you and your ex can meet along with your attorneys and discuss your options.

Brette McWhorter Sember is a retired family attorney and mediator and nationally known expert about divorce and parenting after divorce. She is the author of:

Learn more about Brette on her web site.

Copyright © Brette McWhorter Sember. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.