Joint Custody: Why Is Neutral Language So Important?

Q: Your ten strategies for coparenting with an uncooperative ex were passed to me and there is substantial good advice there-in, but I make a strict practise of never lying to my daughter.

Thus while it is good when you write "If it is true, your child will love hearing that she was conceived in love, or that Mommy and Daddy were so happy when he was born", I cannot come at your insistence "You'll need a neutral and non-judgmental answer" to explain why parents divorced.

I told my daughter (15 now, 13 when she asked) the truth - "Your mother left without explanation, just a note on the table saying she had taken you, and I had to go to court to have any time with you. She applied for divorce, I opposed it (one of a tiny minority), but the Registrar granted it. The reasons you say she gave you are false."

How, why, would you recommend making the unilateral decisions of one party "neutral" when they are not?

- Divorced Dad

A: Thanks for your email - I always enjoy having the opportunity to think more deeply on these things.

I support and encourage your determination not to lie to your daughter. To me, your answer, except for the last sentence, sounds relatively neutral and nonjudgmental.

The reason I'd modify the last sentence ("The reasons you say she gave you are false") is because there are as many perspectives and interpretations of any event as there are observers of it. So while you and her mother may differ on your understanding of what happened and why, it doesn't necessarily mean that either of you is right or wrong or more accurate than the other. It just means that you each experienced it differently, which is absolutely normal and natural and to be expected.

So personally, I'd probably soften the wording into something more like, Mom and I have different perspectives on what happened and why, and we may never agree on that. And I want you to know that you were so important to me that I was willing to do whatever it took to maintain my relationship with you. And I am so glad I did!

The next step then would be to listen attentively to your daughter if she wants to share anything about the impact the divorce had on her, or tell you about any feelings she is having. Put the focus back on her, rather than spending a lot of time defending your perspective or correcting her mom's.

Typically, our children identify themselves as having some traits in common with each of their parents. The risk of 'demonizing' the other parent, in my opinion, is that our children may feel ashamed or guilty for being like them at times. It's likely that at some point your daughter will hear from a well-meaning person that she's just like her mom. And if whenever she hears that, she becomes worried that you will disapprove of her like you disapprove of her mom, that can be pretty stressful.

She may or may not be consciously aware of that fear, of course, but at some level, it's hard for kids to avoid drawing that conclusion.

So if we can make some room for the validity of different parental perspectives, we can also make room for our child to see things differently than we do without fearing the loss of our acceptance or approval.

Personally, I want my children to feel free to disagree with me rather than just tell me what they think I want to hear. Disagreement can generate a lot of closeness and creativity, and I want that in our relationship. I highly value honesty and integrity, as you do, and I want to make it as safe as possible for my children to be frank with me.

So that's my two cents. I write these articles and share my perspective in the hope that it will stimulate thought and clarity, not as a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. I'm thrilled when people disagree with or modify what they read to better suit their values and preferences.

I hope this helps. If so, the other posts in the Divorce/Joint Custody category in the sidebar on the right may be useful, as well.

warm regards,

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