In a dysfunctional parenting relationship, there’s better than even odds that you’re the problem

Posted Saturday, March 4th, 2023 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney-Client Relations, Child Custody, Litigation Strategy, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, South Carolina Specific

Most of my contested custody litigation, especially those requiring trial, involve parents in a dysfunctional co-parenting relationship.  The inability of these parents to get along drives the disputes that require substantial family court involvement.

I would describe a dysfunctional parenting relationship as one in which even an ideal parent could not effectively co-parent with the other parent.  Plenty of flawed parents (is there any other kind?) co-parent together: practically every happily married couple with children manages it.  However, parents who need experienced family law counsel find themselves in situations in which one or both parents cannot co-parent.

Parents involved in custody disputes tend to blame the other parent for the parenting problems.  Often, they are only half-right. The folks who retain me for their custody disputes typically assume the other parent is the sole reason for the co-parenting problems.   I start my representation assuming my clients are wrong.  At least one parent in this dysfunctional relationship has to be causing the problems. Often both parents are engaging in significant dysfunctional behaviors.  Given a greater than 50% chance that my client’s behavior is a cause of the dysfunction, why shouldn’t I assume my client is a problematic parent?

Thus, I begin each representation in contested custody cases with two tasks: 1) develop evidence of the other parent’s dysfunctional behavior; 2) identify my own client’s dysfunctional behavior and guide my client toward correcting it.  My clients love me when I’m working on the first task and have negative feelings about me (they would likely use saltier language) when I work on the second.  Many potential clients go elsewhere when they understand that my view of “taking their side” does not involve agreeing with everything they believe about the cause of the problems in their parenting relationship.

One of the reasons I have the reputation I have as a custody lawyer is my willingness to engage in the second, less pleasant, task.  The time between custody litigation commencing and trial is rarely under a year and can often be two or more years.  I have no ability to change or guide the other parent’s behavior but I can try to change or guide my own client’s behavior.  A parent who demonstrates progress during that time period in identifying and reducing the behaviors that led to a dysfunctional co-parenting relationship enters trial in a much stronger position than the parent who does not.

Often fixing the dysfunctions that one’s client is responsible for leads to a better co-parenting relationship and allows the litigation to resolve with an agreement that leaves the client satisfied.  When a satisfactory settlement cannot be obtained, one enters trial with a strong claim that the other parent is the primary cause of the inability to co-parent.  In those cases, I am quite comfortable having my client let a judge resolve the dispute.

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