Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Co-parenting: A good divorce is worth the effort

Co-parenting: A good divorce is worth the effort from the Times Mail, Bedford Indiana.

By CAROL JOHNSON, Times-Mail Staff Writer

"They (the children) understand that just because we didn't get along, it wasn't their fault. They are so important to us, we're willing to put aside our feelings for their behalf." - Gina Sullivan

Divorce may end the marriage, but if children are involved, the relationship between former spouses never really ends.

Weekend visits, holidays, summer vacations medical bills and school events are on the short list of issues that come up for discussion between former spouses who share children. Vickie and Kevin Moon's marriage ended seven years ago. They were married 14 years and have two children, 12 and 11."When we divorced, we knew we wanted the kids to know we get along," said Vickie of Paoli.

It was hard in the beginning. But both were committed to getting along and avoiding petty disagreements. Kevin remarried and Vickie is in a relationship."We talk every day or every other day. If not with him, then I talk with his wife about what the kids are doing," she said. When the kids have sporting events, Vickie often joins Kevin and his wife Doris on the sidelines. Vickie and Kevin attend parent-teacher conferences together."Teachers always say, if every parent would put their differences aside like you have, it would be easier on them," Vickie said.

Visitation is shared equally. A schedule allows each parent to spend time with the children and avoid any work conflicts. Discipline, another potential pitfall, is shared."We honor each other's discipline and respect each other enough we don't say, 'That's your problem, not mine,' " Vickie said.

"It takes a tremendous amount of strength and psychological energy to have what we'd call a 'good' divorce," said Robert Billingham, an associate professor in Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Applied Health science. Billingham has been studying divorce and its aftermath since 1986. As divorce has become commonplace, divorces have become more cordial, he said.

Research since the 1990s has shown that children benefit immensely from good relationships with both parents. Courts are beginning to realize they must protect the children's relationships with their parents if they want to protect the children, he said. More and more courts are moving away from awarding custody to one parent and adopting co-parenting plans. The old system of sole custody fed the anger that was at the heart of the divorce, Billingham said."When you look at divorce, one parent gets the child and the other gets visits, it's structured so parents have to fight each other," he said.

Divorce, in its previous form, discouraged good parenting, Billingham said."Number one, one parent became a visiting parent. Two, only one parent knew what was best. And three, was the idea that one parent had supreme authority over the child's life."In that culture the mom was considered supremely important and the father was irrelevant."Co-parenting puts each parent on a level plane and sets them up to cooperate.

Indiana is moving toward co-parenting, Billingham said, in cases where abuse and violence are not factors. Vickie Moon said the effort they have put into a cordial divorce has paid off for everyone."I get along great with their stepmom," she said. "She's really a good stepmother, helps them with homework, whatever they need."

Kenny and Gina Sullivan of Greene County each had one divorce behind them when they married. Both had children from their first marriages. His are grown; hers are still at home. They have one son together. Gina's sons, now 13 and 9, struggled with the divorce in the beginning and the mixed emotions that arise when a step-parent joins the family.

She's had to reassure them it's OK to enjoy their time with Kenny and still love their dad."I've told them, 'He's not trying to take your dad's place. Your dad will always be your dad,' "she said. "It's always important to let kids know they can love their parent and be close to their step-parent."

Children are better able to love parents and step-parents if they are not pressured to choose one over the other, Billingham said. Making the children choose usually backfires."It's not the divorce that causes bad things to happen, it's the relationship kids live in that we find is so detrimental," he said. Holidays can be a flashpoint even for divorced families that get along the rest of the year. Billingham recommends working out holiday visits ahead of time, but also encourages parents to be flexible when necessary.

That's what the Sullivans do."It's not worth a huge argument," Gina said. "Because they live with me so much of the time, I let him have them on any holiday he wants them. We're not so stuck on things that if something comes up, the other won't bend."

The Sullivans have put their divorce and experience as a blended family to work for others. They lead the Divorce Care group at Crossroads Community Church."I've been there and know how it hurts," Kenny said. "We can relate to people who come through our class."Divorce Care covers several topics, including loneliness, financial issues, fear, rejection issues and avoiding putting children in the middle of disputes.

You don't have to like an ex-spouse to get along with him or her, Billingham said. But how well ex-spouses do get along is critical to children surviving divorce."It's made a world of difference," Gina said. "They understand that just because we didn't get along, it wasn't their fault. They are so important to us, we're willing to put aside our feelings for their behalf."

Times-Mail Staff Writer Carol Johnson can be reached at 277-7252 or at carol@tmnews.com.

Divorce Care What: 13-week course for adults who are divorced or going through a divorce. When: Tuesday nights, 7-9 p.m. Where: Crossroads Community Church, Ind. 37 and Trogden Lane. Information: Call 279-0131 to find out when the next session begins.

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