In the Best Interest of the Child: How to Protect Your Child from the Pain of Your Divorce
By Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D.
I've seen parents stop at nothing in their attempts to defeat each other, including using their sons and daughters as pawns. I recall a mother and father referring to the transfer of their daughter from one house to the other as the hostage exchange. I know two other parents who decided one full year after their divorce that the only way to avoid open warfare was to meet in front of a police station to pick up or deliver their two-year-old! I've seen children cry because their birthday party was canceled when a parent planned a competing event and failed to notify the other parent. I've heard of boys and girls tearfully refusing to visit a parent, then being taken forcibly. I can't count the number of times I've heard about one parent berating the other in front of their child because the youngster was returned just a few minutes late.
When a judge or the attorneys for the parents ask me to participate in these civil cases, it's almost always because the proceedings have hit rock bottom. The litigants are being anything but civil to each other. Marriage counseling has failed, mediation has failed, and even litigation has so far not resolved what would be in the best interest of the child.
Let me tell you how, as a clinical psychologist, I became involved in the area of child custody and visitation, which has occupied me for nearly seventeen years. In 1978, I opened my practice of clinical psychology. Until then I was chief psychologist in the Program for the Investigation of Criminal Behavior at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. My specialty was the evaluation and counseling of adult and juvenile offenders sent to me through the courts, referred by various agencies, or dragged to my office by distraught family members. I have written books about criminal thinking and behavior and have presented speeches and workshops for professionals throughout the United States and Canada. I've acted as an expert witness in courts regarding criminal sentencing.
In 1984, a judge asked me to take a case quite different from any I had handled before. It was a child custody dispute in which allegations, including those of sexual abuse, were flying. I was to conduct an evaluation and make recommendations to the court. To my surprise, I discovered that this case and many subsequent ones had much in common with my work with criminals. Regrettably, I've found the very thought processes and behavior characteristic of the criminal personality in many parents who single-mindedly pursue their objective to "win" custody at any cost and, in the process, hurt those they profess to love most-their own children.
In my writings on the criminal personality, I've described in detail the thinking and behavior patterns of individuals who pursue any means to an end. They rarely put themselves in the place of others, are untruthful and unrelenting in their efforts to control other people, harbor unrealistic expectations, and frequently fail to consider what will be beneficial or harmful to others. Ferreting out and preying upon vulnerability, they leave a trail of emotional, financial, and physical destruction. When held accountable, these victimizers claim that they are not at fault and blame others.
Of course, I am not suggesting that all parents who seek custody of their children think and behave like criminals, but usually the parents I encounter have ceased being reasonable and are engaged in protracted warfare with each other. Stating the best of intentions, these mothers and fathers have become so enmeshed in battle that they have lost sight of the needs of their children. They resort to subterfuge, engage in machinations to build themselves up at the expense of the other spouse, and demonstrate tunnel vision.
In all the situations I encounter, the marriage is over. The parents may still be living in the same house, or each may have his or her own residence. In the best of circumstances, both parents want to talk to me to work out a way both can be involved in their child's life. The mother and father want to avoid conflict, not create it. They don't question each other's fitness, devotion, or competence as a parent. But in most of my cases, unfortunately, the situation is far more contentious. One or both parents are referred by a domestic relations attorney and are gearing up to litigate. There may be no legal custody arrangement, or the court may have ordered a temporary arrangement (pendente lite, as it is called). The child is likely to be shuttling between Mom and Dad. The atmosphere is hostile.
Whether the parents come to me prepared to be reasonable or determined to eviscerate each other, they have one thing in common: They always declare that they wish to spare their child turmoil and trauma. Initially, most are sincere about protecting their child, but their sensitivity diminishes if there is a custody war. Even when their parents' separation and divorce are relatively amicable, children suffer as family life changes forever and they are forced to adapt to a situation not of their own making. They fare much worse if their parents' divorce is contentious.
You are doubtless reading this book in crisis. You, too, declare that you want to spare your child turmoil and trauma. You'll mean it when you say it, but I promise you that divorce proceedings can and will test your resolve. I've written this book to help you keep your promise to yourself and to your child. I'll discuss the difficulties that parents and children encounter as the family breaks up. By describing numerous pitfalls and how to avoid them, I will help you protect your child during a traumatic time.