Adversarial lawyers who jockey for position when litigating custody issues involving young children often treat custodial time as if it were a bottom line numbers issue like support and asset division. This goes to jaw-dropping extremes sometimes–unmarried fathers who have never had a functioning relationship with the mother but who insist on being present at the birth and on having bottled breast milk so that they can claim equal time with infants, treating the baby’s hours as a divisible commodity like a loaf of bread.
More sophisticated divorce lawyers develop custody arguments focusing on who is or is not the primary parent, and how much time the young child can handle away from that attachment figure without experiencing misery. The focus here is on the child’s immediate subjective experience of grieving the absent parent and how long the child is able from a developmental perspective to hold onto the sense of relationship when not actually with that parent.
But if we unpack those arguments, at bottom we see that they are not exactly about what’s best for the child. A balancing test is often going on, implicitly or explicitly, between an apparent attachment relationship that’s central to the child’s existence right now and the wish of the other parent during a divorce or other relationship fracture to form such a relationship with the young child where it doesn’t already exist.
It’s said that over time the child benefits from having a close relationship with both parents (or nowadays sometimes three, four, or more parent figures). And that’s probably true, if we mean close relationships within a system of caring adults who can put aside the resentments attendant upon divorce to focus on the kids. But when we are looking at custody litigation from the perspective of young children—infants, toddlers, children below school age—from this point of view judicial orders prescribing access to children within a frame of entirely dysfunctional adult relationships looks to me more and more like social engineering on the part of courts. Judges are meddling in matters fraught with deep psycho-biological consequences when they attempt to create parent-child relationships that do not already exist. And, in the hostile environment of adversarial litigation they must do it with a meat cleaver rather than a scalpel.
The stakes are enormous: re-engineering existing attachment relationships by judicial fiat impacts not only the child’s immediate, short term subjective and objective well-being, but also the development of personality and the emotional timbre of adult intimate relationships–perhaps even the capacity to sustain intimate relationships at all.
Here is an area where the engagement of a fully-staffed, effective collaborative team (two lawyers, two coaches, and a child specialist) offers potentially life-changing possibilities for children as well as parents. Helping both parents keep the focus on building a functional restructured parenting relationship goes far beyond negotiating the timesharing details of a written parenting plan. These teams build in dispassionate child development information (from the child specialist) that the two ally-coaches can help highly anxious and angry divorcing parents to integrate and act upon together for the benefit of the child.
Put another way: if it’s important for young children to build intimate connections with both parents, then it’s really important for divorce lawyers to educate their clients about the unparalleled resources a good collaborative team can offer parents in service of helping them sustain a healthy parenting system after divorce that nourishes their child.
If you want to know more about how attachment theory is integral to the formation of our adult personalities, here are two outstanding books:
A General Theory of Love, by Thomas B. Lewis, M.D. Tom and I co-trained at the Straus Dispute Resolution Institute (Pepperdine Law School) for several years and the Neuro-Resolution courses I offer now are infused with what I learned from Tom.
Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape our Capacity to Love, by Robert Karen. This accessible but serious book pulls together and explains the implications of a broad swath of research about the workings of attachment in infancy, childhood, and adult life:
To learn about how interdisciplinary Collaborative Divorce teams work with children and parents during and after a divorce judgment, far beyond merely dividing up the child’s time between the parents, read my book: