No matter how “amicable” a divorce may be, parties who have decided to end their marriage are faced with a variety of challenges as they, on one hand, transition to their next chapter and, on the other, process why the marriage is ending.
Most divorces in Maine are granted on the no-fault grounds of “irreconcilable marital differences,” 19-A MRSA §902, which Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court has described as being “irreconcilable differences of such a degree as to make living together intolerable.” Mattson v. Mattson, 376 A.2d 473, 476 (Me.1977)). In every divorce, economic uncertainties also loom as each party grapples with trying to understand what their post-divorce financial needs will be while also processing whether their marital contributions are being reflected in the division of finances.
Parties with children may also struggle with questions of whether they will be able to support their children or how they and the children will be able to not live with each other full time. These fears and economic uncertainties can create a ripe atmosphere for the parties to feel the need to engage against their spouse in more contentious divorce proceedings.
Legal vs. Co-Parenting Counseling
It is in this “adverse” atmosphere that parties with children are also introduced to the collaborative concept of “co-parenting.” This seeming juxtaposition can cause a bit of emotional whiplash while the divorce progresses.
Fortunately, many, if not most, clients will acknowledge to their attorneys at the outset that their spouse is a “good father” or “good mother” and that their spouse loves and are loved by their children. This is a great foundation for co-parenting, but what co-parenting actually will mean to any particular family can still be unknown.
Under Maine’s law, the court in making an award of parental rights and responsibilities and decisions regarding a child’s residence and parenting contact schedule will consider the safety and wellbeing of the child by applying the “best interest of the child” standard. 19-A MRSA §1653(3). This multi-faceted standard explicitly references co-parenting factors:
H. The capacity of each parent to allow and encourage frequent and continuing contact between the child and the other parent, including physical access.
J. Methods for assisting parental cooperation and resolving disputes and each parent's willingness to use those methods.
More generally, “a central tenet of Maine family law is that parents who share parental rights and responsibilities must make good faith efforts to communicate and make the difficult joint decisions that co-parenting demands.” Malenko v. Handrahan, 979 A.2d 1269, 2009 ME 96 (Me. 2009).
Even with this legal guidance, parties often struggle with making this pivot to co-parenting within the context of divorce. This is where, as an attorney, I am very clear to my clients that this is indisputably hard and not necessarily intuitive – it is okay to need help.
Classes for Developing Co-Parenting Skills
In addition to private counseling for my client, I then encourage early participation in Kid First’s “First Step: Foundation in Co-Parenting” which introduces foundational skills to support effective co-parenting. Clients inevitably report back that they learned something new from the program – often something that made perfect sense and they would not have thought of on their own. If the parties need further support, they may continue to turn to Kids First for additional co-parenting classes such as “Next Step: Putting Conflict Aside” or, if ordered by the court, “Intensive Co-Parent Education.”
These resources allow the parents to envision what a positive future parenting relationship with their spouse could look like with effort and open communication. The parties also begin to understand better that “it is the conflict that children experience between their parents that is harmful, not the divorce or separation itself.”
Gigi Sanchez, Esq. is a member of the Board of Directors at Kids First and a founding partner of her law firm Roach Ruprecht Sanchez & Bischoff, PC in Portland, Maine. She is a trial attorney with years of experience litigating civil and family matters.
“I learned how important our behavior (verbal and non-verbal) is, and how it impacts our children. How I can rise above all issues, and just focus on my babies.”
“What I learned was that the best thing I can do for my kids is to say something good about their other parent!”
“I appreciated the focus on how many different relationships my/our kids are dealing with.”
“I learned I am in control of my behavior; I can’t control my co-parent!”
“I received validation; it helped to know that I’m not alone. I appreciated the section on preparing for court – that is coming up soon and I am scared.”