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  • Divorce reform should be focused on parental behavior, not gender, or allotment of time with children. Tweet This
  • The dynamics of parenting change after divorce; the principles in family law should reflect those changes. Tweet This

“If we value dad soothing his fretful baby at 3 a.m. or reading “Goodnight Moon” to his toddler while the parents are living together, why deprive the child of these expressions of fatherly love just because the parents no longer live together, or just because the sun has set?”

Thus concludes an article published this week in which shared parenting after divorce is presented as a boon; a welcome change of paradigm in a system which has for too long treated parents unequally and unfairly.

Indeed, our family law bureaucracy is in dire need of reform. And fathers have been the greatest victims of this unjust system—because more women file for divorce, and because the courts tend to grant custody to mothers, regardless of their behavior.

But contrary to the sentiment expressed in the excerpt above, the dynamics of parenting change drastically once divorce occurs and parents live apart, and our guiding principles in family law should reflect those changes. Divorce reform should be focused on parental behavior, not on gender, or allotment of time with children, or any other variable. In cases of marital abandonment (we don’t know how many of all divorces meet this description), one parent often exposes the children to people and experiences that threaten their moral, spiritual, and emotional development and well-being. The responsible parent in these cases is already at an extreme disadvantage in our family courts.

Under “no-fault,” any systemic, morally destructive behaviors engaged in by one spouse throughout a contested divorce are virtually ignored by the court. “Shared parenting” guidelines render such behaviors even more irrelevant if that’s possible. An underlying premise of shared parenting is that parental behaviors and choices, so long as they are legal, should not guide the decisions of family judges. Thus, equal time with each parent is the goal.

My observation is that when marital abandonment occurs, it is most often the faithful parent who has the emotional bandwidth and maturity to carry on the commitment the couple made to raise the children in the moral context to which they were accustomed prior to the divorce. In those cases, it would seem wise from a practical perspective for the court to provide preferential support to such spouses, who may be indispensable resources in helping to break the generational cycle of divorce.

Guided by the knowledge that law shapes beliefs and behaviors over time, courts should reward spousal and parental behavior (via alimony, child support, division of property, and visitation) that supports the development of children into mature, morally upright adults of integrity. Ones who are more likely to sustain healthy, committed marriages themselves and become responsible citizens. (I have written about this before at IFS).

I am a psychologist who receives a steady stream of emails and phone calls from, or about, men and women whose spouses divorced them to move on with an affair partner (I once kept a running list, but stopped when the numbers became overwhelming). From my vantage point, focusing on “time equity” in family courts not only makes things worse for responsible parents who have been abandoned by an unfaithful spouse, but it avoids addressing the real problem with family law today.

The fundamental flaw in the current system is the court’s enforcement and ultimately encouragement, over generations, of unilateral, “no-fault” divorce. The partner who does not want a divorce has no recourse under our law, no mechanism of defending what are often years of emotional, financial, physical and psychological investment and sacrifice. An unfaithful spouse can single-handedly—and with the court’s stamp of approval and aid—end a marriage and swiftly “move on” with the adultery partner and half or more of all the family income and assets—pulling the children along with him or her (at least part-time).

What many children of marital abandonment experience in this netherworld of hedonism and adolescent pursuits is—well, let’s just say a far cry from snuggles and Goodnight Moon.

  • It’s waking up Saturday mornings to fend for yourself until around noon when dad and his girlfriend emerge from a dark bedroom in the dumpy, dingy apartment that is now your temporary home.
  • It’s being left high and dry when mom forgets to pick you up because she’s getting it on with her boyfriend at their new place together.
  • It’s regular exposure to pornography and troubling shows like “13 Reasons Why” in the vacuum of parental supervision under a new Disney mom or Disney dad regime.
  • It’s subsisting on too-little sleep, junk food, and soda two weekends a month and coming home exhausted and grumpy to the responsible parent who suffers the consequences for days.
  • It’s the repeated and prolonged (court-ordered) exposure of a preteen girl to mom’s burly new boyfriend who vacillates between ignoring and ogling her—the very man responsible for the constant pain she is experiencing at the loss of her family.
  • It’s the tummy aches and nightmares that won’t go away.
  • It’s the teen boy with the sparkle in his eye and love for his faith who in the wake of his father’s abandonment and remarriage hates God and speaks of suicide.
  • It’s the daughter, who once contemplated religious life, who now posts half-naked photos of herself on social media, slathered in makeup as if to mask the anguish of innocence lost in the emulation of her mother’s behavior.
  • It’s feeling the guilt and sadness of knowing that church is important, but having to watch TV sitcoms every other Sunday morning instead; the knowledge that to raise the issue with daddy would bring that sickly, torn apart inside feeling to the surface again.

Where do the children above (each of whom is real) fall in the shared parenting paradigm of “post-divorce equality leads to better adjustment?” What about the responsible parents who wish to protect not only their children’s physical but moral and spiritual well-being?

These matters are not just a quandary for those who believe adultery is wrong. Children living with a parent’s new sex partner— especially when the partner is a man—are at significant risk of sexual and physical abuse. Record numbers of divorcees are cohabiting.

So, how do we have an honest discussion about where children should spend the most time after divorce without accounting for the impact of infidelity (and all its negative behavioral correlates)—and the marital abandonment and subsequent cohabitation or remarriage that so often accompanies serial infidelity—on their moral and physical well-being, in childhood and beyond?

Professionals in every sphere of influence on this matter (family courts, social science, counseling) seem reluctant to acknowledge and investigate the distinction between consensual and unwanted divorce. Somehow abandoned spouses and their children are not represented in our representative studies of divorce.

Just this week, I learned of a mother of five children whose husband without warning announced he had a girlfriend and was seriously “contemplating divorce.” It seems he’s been spending their family money on the girlfriend for some time, a commonplace occurrence in cases of marital abandonment.

The mother, who was abandoned by her own father as a child, is rightly terrified that the court will order her young children to spend more time with her husband and his mistress, not less. It is precisely the prospect of “equal” parenting time that causes her to shudder.

What will she do to protect her babies? How can she afford a lawyer to defend herself and her children when he’s taken hold of their finances? Who is the “other woman,” and how can she minimize her time with the children?

What are their future plans? Cohabitation? Remarriage? Where will her husband, in his new role as footloose and fancy-free, take the children? To clubs? Adult parties? Where will her children sleep?

At night, she buries her head in her pillow and sobs as she considers the longer-term consequences of her husband’s fateful decision. What message will her children internalize about the value of fidelity and marriage? About the existence of God? Will they be able to sustain their own marriages as adults?

Our culture usually encourages the momma (or papa) bear instinct. These are our progeny— our job is to nourish and love and protect. How is it that just because one parent decides to shut down this instinct as part of his or her quest for self-actualization, the other must now follow suit or face legal consequences for resisting?

The real challenge is that little I’ve described so far would cause a family court judge to bat an eye. It’s all par for the course. Shared parenting, especially in situations involving infidelity, not only doesn’t help these families, it further constrains the ability of one parent to protect his or her child in situations which by any reasonable standard is destructive and fraught with moral and physical danger. Shared parenting makes a presumption of sameness—of "equality." When it does, it hampers the ability of moms and dads who have legitimate concerns to defend the real best interests of their child.

Over generations now, we have communicated to children of divorce that “no one has done anything wrong. It just didn’t work out” under the pretext of somehow protecting them from harm. But children are not protected by this false assertion. Research on the generational character of divorce suggests that their pain and confusion is only heightened and extended into adulthood by this message, where they are at increased risk of casting the same spurious judgment upon their own marriages. Children whose parents cheat are also more likely to cheat in their own future relationships.

And new work by Margaret Harper McCarthy and colleagues on children’s ontological experience of divorce suggests many of its most far-reaching and consequential effects are not amenable to our scientific tools and methods. This is because divorce strikes directly at the essence of one’s being, and may not be reflected in measurements of one’s doing.

A contributor to McCarthy’s book writes:

..there was the feeling that the ground had opened at my feet revealing a vast abyss underneath it. I felt that I was being extinguished, that I would fall into that abyss and disappear from the face of the earth. I did the only thing I thought I could do, the thing most children of divorce do. I tried not to think about it.

The walking wounded among us—adult children of divorce—have been silent for decades. Many of us have attributed to them “resilience” in the face of parental infidelity and abandonment, under the pretense of furthering their “best interests.” Many of them are now ready to convey the uncomfortable truths on their hearts, no matter how painful it is for us to listen.

We have an obligation to protect our children—not only from physical harm that meets the threshold of legality but from the moral harm associated with many divorces. “Shared parenting” after divorce isn’t the main problem, but it is a symptom of two tragic trends we adults must now work to reverse: our failure to listen, and our failure to protect.

Dr. Hilary Towers is a developmental psychologist and mother of five children. A non-resident scholar at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR), she writes and speaks on the subjects of marriage and spousal abandonment.