Custody Cases Not As Simple As Good vs Bad

by Honorable Anne Kass. Ann Kass is a District Judge in the Second Judicial District State of New Mexico

Divorced parents engaged in custody disputes typically agree about at least one point: their children have one good parent and one bad parent. Of course, they disagree about which of them is the good parent.

In reality, I have yet to see a custody case in which one party is a good parent and the other a bad parent. What I see are either two basically good parents or two parents each of whom has significant short-comings. They seem to come in matched pairs.

I know the old proverb says that opposites attract, but that's not quite accurate when we're talking about psychological dysfunction where the dependable prediction is that dysfunction attracts dysfunction. For example, in families where one parent is an alcoholic, frequently the other parent will be an "enabler".

A very common combination in custody cases is one parent having good nurturing skills, (he or she is able to cuddle the children and provide them unconditional love) but also being over-protective, which inhibits the children from becoming independent and self-sufficient. The other parent will be able to assist the children in becoming independent (often because the parent treats the child as a buddy) but is not able to meet the child's need to be treated like a child and not given too much responsibility or freedom.

The unfortunate fact in these cases is that together the parents make one-whole-parent, while separately neither is adequate.

As one would expect, each of the parents typically views the situation in right/wrong terms: I'm right; you're wrong. Each believes the other's parenting style is harmful to the child. Even worse, they each frequently become more extreme in applying their own philosophy to make up for the damage each believes the other is doing when the children are with them. For example, when the difference in parenting philosophy is discipline. I have seen the strict disciplinarian become just plain abusive while the more lax disciplinarian eliminates any and all rules and lets the children run wild.

It is obvious in these cases that the children need access to each parent's strengths, and the children need relief from each parent's weaknesses. The children need both parents. The conundrum for family court judges in these cases is that while the children need both parents, the children also need protection from parental conflict, and by definition the conflict between two such parents is intense. You can see, then, how simple a judge would find a case in which there is one good parent and one bad parent. Those would be easy to decide. They just don't seem to exist.


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