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The spotlight is very much on divorce this month and not just because Adele has released an album which she says tells the story of her recent divorce and subsequent experiences of co-parenting. It is Good Divorce Week 2021 from 29 November to 3 December and this year Resolution are focusing on efforts to kickstart a national conversation about how parents can embrace a child-focused approach to separation.
First things first, this is easier said than done. Whilst a lot could be said about Adele’s decision to discuss her divorce and her relationship with her son within an album which will inevitably be listened to by millions, what this does shine a light on is the challenges that many parents face when attempting to cooperatively parent with one another.
Co-parenting is challenging and unexpected regardless of the wider circumstances and relationships. Whether co-parenting relationships are planned as part of a modern family dynamic prior to the birth of a child, or whether they come about through separation, each situation is unique and presents its own set of (often unanticipated) complications.
The second thing to remember – whatever your situation – you are not alone. There are a huge amount of resources available to parents attempting to navigate their relationship and the needs of their children and I have included links and references within this blog to some good places to start.
In recent years Good Divorce Week has primarily been focused with the push to bring “no fault divorce” to fruition. As of 6 April 2022, parents who are married but have taken the decision to separate will be able to proceed with a joint divorce petition which does not lay blame at the door of either party.
The importance of this change in the law for the future of co-parenting relationships cannot be understated. The placing of blame and citing details of one party’s behaviour (where other facts are not available due to time limits) within divorce petitions can cause untold harm to what may previously have been an amicable relationship on separation. The impact that this then has on the ability of both parties to co-operatively parent with one another is hindered by hurt and upset and starts everyone off on a difficult path.
The focus from the outset of any separation must be on the children involved and what is in their best interests. It is far easier to maintain this focus when the process of divorce itself has been initiated on a mutual and agreed basis. Again, easier said than done, but there are resources and process options available to assist parties to a divorce in reaching an agreed approach and working through any obstacles to this in a constructive manner.
Whilst no doubt all parents begin with the best of intentions, navigating an amicable separation is incredibly difficult and there are many challenges along the way. Separation, divorce, parenting are all life events which are recognised as some of the most impactful and challenging things that can happen to us within our lifetimes. Despite this, many people go through separation, divorce and the trials and tribulations of re-formulating a relationship as that of co-parents without seeking any external support.
Whether this is through an unwillingness to share what is of course a very private and personal life experience, or whether this is through a lack of awareness of the resources available, it makes an already difficult task nigh on impossible. I have therefore set out below some examples and signposts to positive places to start when it comes to approaching divorce and co-parenting from the very outset.
We recently welcomed Kim Crewe – our Director of Client Wellbeing – to Family Law Partners and the work she does is just one example of how third-party support can help parents move forwards positively with their children’s happiness and wellbeing at front and centre. Kim is able to work with parents from the very outset, before the commencement of divorce proceedings, to ensure that a constructive approach is taken from the word go and parents are given the tools they may need to effectively manage the process.
Kim is a qualified counsellor and family consultant and the support she is able to offer to families ranges from individual therapy sessions to a more coaching style with joint meetings to work with parents on how they might best engage with one another and agree on how they wish to parent their children together but apart.
This type of support is invaluable and the earlier it is sought the better. Going into the legal process of divorce and managing both finances and co-parenting having already processed the hurt and other emotions felt on separation gives everyone a much better chance of the “good divorce” being sought and promoted by Good Divorce Week.
The process of divorce is of course a very private matter and some families may feel uncomfortable involving third parties or indeed may not have the resources to do so. In those circumstances, there are still a number of support services and resources available to provide guidance and advice on how to proceed.
A good starting point when adjusting to parenting following separation and ensuring that the focus remains on the children involved and their best interests is the Resolution Parenting Through Separation guide: https://resolution.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Parenting-through-separation-guide.pdf.
This resource is free and available to all, it shares stories from the writers and provides step by step guidance for further help and assistance available and things to think about when approaching separation and the formation of a new co-parenting relationship.
Planning is key. It is impossible to anticipate every decision you might need to make in respect of your children but having a framework in place for how you might approach those decisions is important. The Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) have many resources available for separating parents and one of these is a template Parenting Plan which may be found here: https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/parents-and-carers/divorce-and-separation/parenting-together/parenting-plan/
The template is divided into categories and asks questions as to how you wish to approach co-parenting your child or children. At the very least, this template is a good starting point for a conversation about how you wish to parent and could be used effectively by all parents, whether separating, co-parenting as part of a modern family arrangement or parenting within a relationship.
One of our Brighton based directors, Gemma Hope, has written the following helpful toolkit for parents putting together a parenting plan and deciding how they wish to approach key issues in the upbringing of their children in a joined up manner: https://www.familylawpartners.co.uk/blog/building-a-successful-parenting-plan-a-tool-kit-for-separated-parents
Even with the best intentions and a commitment to constructively and co-operatively parenting with one another, differences of opinion inevitably arise when navigating this journey. Most parents have differing styles of parenting and whilst research shows that children benefit from exposure to different parenting styles, this can result in conflict arising when it comes to key decisions in a child’s life or agreeing the time they spend with each parent.
The key to maintaining a positive co-parenting relationship is how to manage these conflicts and come to an agreement without escalating tensions or causing harm to the children involved. There are many process options available to parents seeking to resolve disputes and I have set out below some examples with links to more detailed blogs discussing these:
The existence of these other options and other resources available to parents are vital at a time when the court system is heavily overburdened by applications, the result of which is lengthy delays in proceedings and risks including having hearings cancelled at the last minute. The court process is, in its current state at least, ineffective and can cause more harm than good to many situations. If agreement may be reached through one of the above process options it can pave the way for a future cooperative parenting relationship and in a way which court proceedings simply fail to do.
If agreement cannot be reached, and court proceedings are necessary, parents must think very carefully before making an application. Over the last 18 months applications to the court concerning arrangements for children have increased and judges have given severe warnings to parents who bring applications regarding minor decisions or without having attempted to resolve the matter outside of court – https://www.familylawpartners.co.uk/blog/unnecessary-applications-within-children-proceedings-wildbloods-word-of-warning
That said, for many families court proceedings have unfortunately been necessary and have resulted in a final order which sets out the time the children are to spend with each of their parents both in normal routine weeks and over special periods such as Easter, Christmas, birthdays. The existence of a court order, whilst helpful in providing certainty and security, does not however guarantee the end of all disputes or disagreements.
Court orders are brief and cannot anticipate each and every decision that parents may need to make within a child’s life. A court order also cannot remove years’ worth of conflict and bad feeling between parents which can make working together following the making of a court order impossible.
Again, there is help available for parents who find themselves in this situation in the form of parenting coordinators. The role of a parenting coordinator falls somewhere between that of mediator and judge – the hope is that they facilitate discussions between parents to allow them to reach decisions themselves but if they are unable to agree the parenting coordinator may make those decisions for them.
The Head of our Brighton office, Lisa Burton-Durham, has written a helpful summary of the role played by a Parenting Coordinator in her recent blog: https://www.familylawpartners.co.uk/blog/what-is-parenting-coordination
So, in summary, what can we learn from Good Divorce Week?