It Pays to Be Nice

Why Treating Your Co-Parent With Respect While Divorcing Not Only Helps Your Children, But Can Get You More Parenting Time

I had a college friend who, when I was frustrated and ready to say or do something awful, would remind me, “It’s nice to be nice to be nice.” I used to think this run-on saying was our private joke in which we edgy New Yorkers made fun of “nice” (often usually non-New Yorker) people. Now that I try child custody cases, however, I see a new take away point. When you’re divorcing, you are judged. And yes, niceness – like neatness – counts.

Counseling clients to be respectful to the other parent is one of the hardest parts of my job. No parent, raw from the wounds of separation, feels like being civil, let alone nice. Their world has been turned upside down. Roles are being torn apart and re-shaped. They feel attacked and abused. Think about the “fight or flight” reflex that is burned into the brains of mammalian parents. Think of the lioness fighting to protect her cubs from the prowling hyena. Why should divorcing parents not react differently and use all their claws and teeth against the other parent?

Ok, short answer: we’re not wild animals. Like it or not, and whether or not your case goes to trial, you are now being judged as a parent, as you were never judged before. If you are looking for ways to maintain or increase your parenting time, you need to show good behavior.

I’m not the only one who will give you this advice. A good therapist should tell you this. The other divorce lawyer you go see for a second opinion will tell you that judges will—absent extenuating circumstances—reward the “nicer” parent. If you need to reminded of what “nice” means in this context—and who doesn’t, given how hatred and anxiety can turn perfectly civil people into raging combatants—I’ve made a list. I would urge any divorcing parent to read, and re-read this list (especially before sending that e-mail to your co-parent).

Here’s what “being nice” means, for a divorcing parent:

• Communicating, with respect and without drama, with the other parent about the children.

• Getting humble and realizing that you don’t have the monopoly on good parenting.

• Recognizing that a child needs enough quality time with both parents.

• Understand that your soon-to-be former spouse may have a different parenting style than you, and that different doesn’t mean unacceptable or harmful.

• Promoting the other parent’s role in your child’s life, even though you are no longer be married to him or her, or you think another person could do a better job.