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Section 5
Child Custody

Question 5 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed Children & Divorce After Violence.  This included explaining the violence to the children, maintaining connection after the abuser has left, getting back to normal relationship with the abuser, and life without the abuser.

Shifting away from the topic of an abusive spouse, do you have a client who feels uncomfortable with using  the term "ex" with their children?  Does he or she feel that using that word ex-husband or ex-wife solely defines him or her in terms of a past relationship?  What suggestions do you make? 

In this section, we will discuss The Language of Divorce.  This will include the Language of Victim and Survivor, Old vs. New Language and Co-parenting Language.  As you listen, think of your client.  Do they have language issues with their children following the separation?

Shawn, age 43, had been divorced for a year and had a 10-year-old daughter, Zoe.  Shawn stated, "My little girl came home the other day from school, crying, and asked me if her home was broken!  Apparently she has a project at school that involves making a family tree.  I guess Zoe asked her teacher about it, since her family tree would require more than just a single tree trunk to accommodate new half-siblings and step-siblings…etc.  Apparently her teacher used the terms 'broken home' and 'victim of divorce' with Zoe, and that prompted her to ask me that question!  When she asked me that, I flew into a rage!  I want my daughter to have a strong sense of self, but how can she if she's going to be constantly labeled as being from 'a broken home'?!  I mean, I'm sure Zoe is bound for a much better life now than she was before, with her mother and I arguing all the time…but I don't want her to be suffering at school just because she's a survivor of divorce." 

I stated, "As you have clearly experienced, words are powerful tools.  Language like 'broken home' is often used in a negative context, seeming to explain or validate a flaw in a child or parent's behavior.  I would suggest changing the language you use about divorce at home, and in turn asking Zoe's teacher to do the same."

3 Principles of the Language of Divorce

♦ Principle #1 - Victim and Survivor
Regarding victim and survivor labels, I continued to state, "What you call yourself and what others call you can greatly influence who you become.  For example, the term 'victim of divorce,' which you mentioned earlier, can keep you and Zoe feeling victimized, helpless and despairing.  Just using those words over and over again can lead a person to believe that his or her future can be seen only in reference to the divorce." 

Shawn stated, "That reminds me of how my mother dealt with her divorce.  She was always talking about how much of a victim she was, and it eventually led to a drinking problem!  I didn't want to use that excuse when I got my divorce, and so I use 'survivor' instead.  I got this term from my support group."  I stated, "Both the terms victim and survivor are labels, and they can filter future events through the event of the divorce."  Shawn stated, "I suppose I don’t need to define myself at all with terms like that…I would definitely call myself a father before I would call myself a divorcee…what alternative language would you suggest when talking about our family?"

Do you need to make a point with your client not to label him- or herself by the divorce?

♦ Principle #2 - Old vs. New Language
Regarding old vs. new language, I stated, "A change in language can also help you move on to a life that acknowledges the divorce as part of your past, but refuses to let it put a hold on the present or the future.  A recent term relating to families that span two households is binuclear family.  Whatever you and Zoe decide to call your two-home family, you can choose a term that is positive, realistic and meaningful for both of you."  Shawn asked, "What other terms would you use for, say, joint custody?"  I stated, "Joint custody might be replaced by co-parenting, shared parenting or shared responsibility.  It’s up to you which term feels best."

♦ Principle #3 - Co-parenting Language
In addition to victim and survivor language, a discussion of old vs. new language, we talked about co-parenting language.  Shawn stated, "I suppose changing language can make a difference with legal labels as well."  I stated, "Yes, especially in the tone that is set for co-parenting.  The terms ‘having custody’ and ‘visitation’ tend to set up a winner/loser scenario."  I added, "And to say that one parent won custody and the other has visitation rights tends to place more value on one parent’s contributions than the other’s."  Shawn stated, "God knows I don’t want to spend the next 8 years just visiting my daughter!" 

I stated, "An alternative way to talk about it might be to say, ‘Zoe will live with her dad every Thursday beginning at 5 p.m. through to the following Monday at school time.  The remainder of the time she will live with her mother…etc.’  This can help illustrate how both parents in this case play vital roles in how you parent Zoe.  It’s a joint responsibility instead of joint custody.  It’s not a 50-50 split either.  Both you and Zoe’s mother can recognize that your contributions are important, and both of you are willing to work together to make both contributions meaningful and functional."  Do you agree? 

Several weeks later, Shawn came back and related a story to me regarding his daughter's family tree project.  Shawn sated, 'Zoe had two different family trees, and they were colored and pasted together, and she presented it as 'Zoe's Family Forest' to her class.  Zoe said that other children asked the teacher if they could revise their projects after that to reflect more about their families.  Apparently kids were coming in with pet family trees and a few others came from binuclear families like Zoe's.  She doesn't feel so alone anymore."

Do you have a Shawn who feels defined by his or her past divorce?  Might he or she benefit from hearing this section? 

In this section, we have discussed The Language of Divorce.  This included the Language of Victim and Survivor, Old vs. New Language and Co-parenting Language. 

In the next section, we will discuss Setting Priorities in Divorce Disputes.  This will include discerning what is right and wrong, acting on what you have discerned and saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Leclair, V., St-Amand, A., & Bussières, È.-L. (2019). Association between child custody and postseparation coparenting: A meta-analysis. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 60(2), 90–101. 

Nielsen, L. (2017). Re-examining the research on parental conflict, coparenting, and custody arrangements. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 23(2), 211–231.

Rosso, A. M., Camoirano, A., & Chiorri, C. (2019). Validity of space responses: What can we learn from Rorschach protocols of divorcing couples fighting for child custody? Rorschachiana, 40(1), 3–21. 

Zemp, M., Johnson, M. D., & Bodenmann, G. (2019). Out of balance? Positivity–negativity ratios in couples’ interaction impact child adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 55(1), 135–147.

What terms might be used to replace visitation and custody? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 6
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