Recently I heard a family court judge speak about divorced parents who had litigated about which Halloween vessel their child would use. One parent wanted the child to carry a plastic pumpkin and the other wanted the child to carry a pillowcase. The judge mentioned this argument to illustrate the foolishness that occurs in divorce court. The judge’s point was these parents should not spend time and money fighting over such small matters.
While on the surface this appears to be a silly issue, in my experience as a high-conflict divorce consultant, the presenting issue is rarely the real issue. It is stressful, time consuming, and expensive to go to court. Even without an attorney, a parent must take time off of work and prepare for the court hearing, an uncomfortable and intimidating experience at best. To believe that parents take on this daunting fight just to argue about plastic or linen, misses the point.
Parents don’t often pursue litigation unless the issue is representative of something more substantive, such as the child’s health. Perhaps the child is diabetic or has difficulty managing his or her eating habits. Perhaps one parent practices a religion that doesn’t celebrate Halloween and, while relenting to the child’s wishes to go trick-or-treating, is unwilling to support overindulgence. Judges don’t delve too deeply into why parents argue. They have neither the time nor the training to understand all of the underlying motivations. But recognizing the limitations of their perspective, judges should give parents the benefit of the doubt that there is more at stake than meets the eye.
I have seen parents willingly sacrifices the health and well-being of their child simply to provoke their ex-spouse. I have seen parents emotionally damage their children in service to their own hatred of their ex-spouse. And I have seen parents initiate legal battles simply to aggravate their ex-spouse. These are all forms of domestic violence, prevalent in high-conflict cases. Often the most effective weapon one parent uses against another is, sadly, the child. An argument about a plastic pumpkin is rarely about a plastic pumpkin.