Lesson 6 of 7 - learn how to (parent) effectively

Avoid Conflicts Over
Parenting Agreements

Four Core Problems
 to Avoid

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/divorce/agree.htm

Updated 03-02-2015

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      Regardless of their reasons for divorcing, many parents have trouble creating, using, and maintaining effective parenting agreements. Major conflicts are specially likely when one or both ex mates commit to a new partner (a stepparent) who has her or his own ideas about effective child nurturance.

      This article is for divorcing and stepfamily adults and their supporters. including legal professionals and clergy. It ...

  • Defines an effective parenting agreement;

  • Gives an  example of a real couple conflicted over an agreement;

  • Summarizes common surface parenting-agreement problems

  • Proposes four core real problems, and...

  • Suggests what family adults can do to make an effective parenting agreement without resorting to costly legal intervention.  

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it   

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6 or 7  (stepfamilies)

  • these Q&A items about ex mates and divorce;

  • how to manage a family during divorce; and...

  • why ex-mate legal battles are always lose-lose.

What is an Effective Parenting Agreement?

      All separated and divorcing parents who actively nurture their minor kids need to negotiate ongoing decisions about child custody, visitations, holidays, schooling, health, diet, clothing, pets, vacations, financial support, housing, socializing, religion, hobbies, and special events. Depending on many factors, some couples can negotiate and implement these cooperatively and others can't.

      The purposes of an informal or legal parenting agreement are to...

  • ensure that all dependent kids get their developmental and special needs met consistently despite parental separation and differences, and to help family adults...

  • provide a high-nurturance environment for their multi-home family system.

Agreements that fulfill both goals - as judged by all family members - are effective. By definition, parenting agreements that require legal intervention are not effective.


      A divorcing Mom and Dad who consulted me by court order had been at a bitter impasse for over a year. The non-custodial Dad angrily accused his ex wife of arrogantly refusing to "obey" the parenting agreement they signed in court and dictating how and when he was able to contact their five-year-old daughter.

      She accused him of being "self-centered, intrusive, out of control, stuck, way too rigid in interpreting the parenting agreement, and using it to 'force me' to do things that don't fit our current circumstances" She claimed he was doing this to punish her for divorcing him.

      She got the court to issue two orders of protection against him for alleged threats of visitation-related violence to her. These enraged him as "totally unjustified and insulting," and were later each vacated. Her attorney got the court to order her ex to attend an "anger management class," which he did at his own expense. He says "It was worthless," though admitting "I've probably said some things (in anger) to her that I shouldn't have."

      These troubled, unaware parents were using the court to force each the other into compliance - which is inherently aggressive and disrespectful. They each claimed vehemently there was no alternative, and their legal battle was solely the other parent's fault.

      Their prior marital injuries and the new ones from suing each other will take years to heal, and will hinder each of them in trying to forge a healthy relationship with a new partner. Their vulnerable little daughter is the tragic victim of this complex scenario, just as each parent was victimized as a vulnerable child in a low-nurturance family.

      The court has ordered them to make visitation exchanges at a local police station, to minimize the chance of mutual outbursts. The father bitterly complains that his ex and their lawyers have cost him $25,000 on top of their divorce settlement, so that he is now "broke" and "on anti-depression medication."

      In my compassionate opinion, these (typical) parents each genuinely love their daughter, and are relentlessly accumulating stress for the core reasons outlined below. Neither they, their several attorneys (including a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) representing the little girl), or the presiding domestic-court judge know these reasons or what to do about them.

      Since 1981, I've worked with hundreds of divorcing families and stepfamilies like this who described insoluble disputes about co-parenting agreements as their "biggest problem." Many of them resorted to hiring lawyers to try and force the other co-parent/s into compliance - inevitably making the stress in and between their homes worse. None of these parents or legal professionals knew what the real problems were or how to resolve them.

      This article summarizes what I've learned about such conflicts, and suggests how to avoid or reduce disputes over "parenting agreements." Let's begin by examining...

 What are the Surface Problems?

      Parents who have trouble negotiating and/or following child-related agreements may choose to use lawyers, judges, and mediators to forge a legal parenting agreement. More often than not, this becomes a costly adversarial process which increases frustration and hostility between all people involved, including vocal kids. This is specially true if one or both parents claim the other is violating the legal agreement, and seeks to force compliance via court actions. 

      Typical surface problems include...

  • attacking each other for being irresponsible, selfish, manipulative, hostile, uncaring, dishonest, abusive, undependable, uncooperative, etc.

  • one or both parents refusing to compromise on certain child-related conflicts;

  • arguing over unfinished marital and divorce complaints and accusations;

  • relatives taking sides about parental disputes, specially grandparents;

  • family members blaming lawyers for being unfair, biased, and over-aggressive;

  • one parent demanding that the court force the other to get a psychological evaluation to "prove" they're "mentally ill;" 

  • blaming a court-appointed mediator for being incompetent, unfair, or biased;

  • arguing about a custodial parent moving the child geographically;

  • withholding child visitations and/or financial support as a punishment or a strategy;

  • requiring a child to side with or choose one parent over the other;

  • fighting over a stepparent's role or actions or other stepfamily issues.

Variations on these stressors are endless. Often parents battle over several or many of these at once.

      NONE of these parenting-agreement conflicts are the real problems. As long as the parents and any legal professionals focus on trying to resolve them permanently, they will probably fail - and hurt the child/ren in the process.

 Four Real Problems

      If you've studied the prior five Lessons in this educational Web site, you should be able to identify the real reasons typical couples divorce and can't negotiate and implement an effective parenting agreement by themselves:

1)  Wounds - One or both parents are psychologically wounded and don't (want to) know or admit that (Lesson 1); and...

2)  Unawareness - One or both parents don't know how to...

  • communicate and problem-solve effectively; (Lesson 2);

  • help each other grieve divorce-related (and other) losses effectively (Lesson 3);

  • co-create a high-nurturance family (Lessons 4 and 5); or how to...

  • parent effectively (Lesson 6).

These two factors combine to cause typical relationship barriers between ex mates (and others).

      Finally, average divorcing parents and any new partners are usually unaware of...

  • how to co-create a high-nurturance stepfamily (Lesson 7).

      This YouTube video summarizes how to do win-wn problem-solving. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site. I've reduced that to seven.

      Two more core problems are...

3)  Minor kids have been raised in a low-nurturance (dysfunctional) environment, and may have begun showing symptoms of their own psychological wounds; and...

4)  Other adults who try to resolve the surface issues above (like relatives, lawyers, mediators, social workers, and therapists) don't understand these three root problems. They focus fruitlessly on the surface issues, which inevitably causes more conflicts.

      When I proposed these four real problems to the couple in the example above  - and assured them they could resolve their version of the problems if they tried - they quit therapy. They were each dominated by protective false selves which weren't ready to give up control, and needed to fight and win.

      This lose-lose-lose position guaranteed that their vulnerable little daughter would become a Grown Wounded Child (GWC) who would probably pass on the [wounds and unawareness] cycle to the next generation.


      Significant conflicts over informal or legal parenting agreements between ex mates can be prevented if family adults study and apply Lessons 1 thru 6 or 7 in this nonprofit Web site. Many divorcing couples are unable or unwilling to do this because they are (a) unaware of these Lessons, and (b) are dominated by short-sighted, combative false selves.

      Parents who expect the legal system to resolve their disagreements are seldom satisfied, because (a) typical legal professionals (including judges) are wounded and unaware of what you're reading here, and (b) the adversarial court process always creates new conflicts - e.g. over legal expenses and disputed rulings.

      If you are a divorcing-family or stepfamily adult affected by a significant fight over a parenting agreement, and you don't study, apply, and advocate Lessons 1 thru 6 or 7 to the disputants and their supporters, you become part of the problem. The young people in your family and their descendents mutely depend on all you adults to protect them against inheriting the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle!

      To see if any of your family adults are wounded (controlled by false selves now), see this and this. To see if any of you are unaware of vital information, take and discuss these quizzes.


      This Lesson-6 article defines an effective parenting agreement, and gives an example of a real couple fighting over an agreement. It outlines common surface problems that hinder effective parenting agreements between divorcing parents, and proposes four underlying real problems springing from adults' psychological wounds and unawareness of this lethal cycle and the topics in this course.

      This implies that divorcing-family adults should take, discuss, and apply this course to (a) minimize parenting and other conflicts, and (b) protect their young people from inheriting the cycle and passing it on.

  For more perspective, see this related article on reducing ex mates' hostility - including the controversial "parental alienation syndrome" (PAS). Otherwise, continue studying Lesson 6.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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