Joint Custody, From a Distance

November 27th, 2012

MOST divorced couples would probably prefer not to see each other. Ever again. But when you share custody of your children, you have to assume a certain amount of face-to-face time amid the endless back-and-forthing.

Think of the clashing summer vacation plans, the who-goes-to-Lucy’s-birthday-party, the “Max forgot his homework again” at Dad’s. And those devilish contretemps that can arise if Mom, for example, decides to keep her house kosher while Dad serves the children pork chops. Or if her new boyfriend is suddenly sleeping over on “her” nights to host the children.

Let’s just say that no matter how well ex-spouses and still-parents coordinate, there’s a good chance of teary phone calls, angry exchanges during drop-off, and all-out fights about who’s not saving enough for college, often played out smack in front of the children.

Unless, of course, it’s all done remotely. These days, the cool aloofness of technology is helping temper sticky emotional exchanges between former spouses. And for the most part, according to divorce lawyers and joint-custody bearers, handling the details via high tech is a serious upgrade.

It’s joint custody — at a distance.

And it makes a big difference. Like many engaged women, Erin McGillivray, 26, broke up with her fiancé before they could marry. But unlike many engaged women, she also got pregnant. By the time the two split, their daughter was 8 months old. And now they’re tied by the bonds of parenthood for the rest of their lives.

Ms. McGillivray, a wardrobe stylist in Minneapolis, became mired in a custody dispute with her ex over their daughter, now 2. (The court eventually awarded her joint legal and primary physical custody.)

“Normally, when you break up with someone, you don’t have to see them constantly,” Ms. McGillivray said. “Now I have to see my ex and his current fiancée several times a week. He’ll be a presence in my life for at least 17 more years, and probably more than that.”

When they see each other in person, she said, they inevitably quarrel. And so she keeps him at a safe electronic remove. “When it comes to child arrangements,” she said, “we typically communicate via e-mail. Schedules, drop-offs, pickups, sick-day care: it’s all done electronically. Neither of us wants to argue in front of our daughter, but as much as we would want to avoid it, it would happen.”

It’s not surprising that most people don’t see eye-to-eye with the person they left seething on a couples therapist’s sofa. If you didn’t get along with someone well enough to stay married, chances are you will probably disagree after you divorce.

“People don’t want to talk to their exes because just the sound of their voice is irritating,” said Randy Kessler, chair of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section and a matrimonial lawyer in Atlanta. “But they can e-mail. They can share an online calendar. They can use any number of resources on the Internet. There are even divorce apps.”

E-mail and texting alone have practically revolutionized postdivorce family relationships. “E-mail absolutely takes away the in-your-face aggravation and emotional side of joint custody,” said Lubov Stark, a divorce lawyer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “You just write, ‘I want to pick up Kimmy at 5, but I’m running late and will be there at 6.’ It’s the best thing ever.”

When Zeita Jones, a 39-year-old nurse in Los Angeles, divorced her husband of 15 years in 2010, dealing with her ex while shuffling their three children every week was difficult. “When emotions were running high at the beginning, everything was e-mail and text,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s a lot easier not hearing the voice. It’s detached.”

For Cheryl Wu, a 34-year-old Manhattan pediatrician, nailing down details on a Google calendar makes all the difference. First, she and her ex-husband, who have joint legal custody (she has primary physical custody) of their 5-year-old son, will e-mail each other possible arrangements until they reach a point of agreement. Once there, it goes into the mutual calendar. Since the two separated in 2010, they have only had to talk face-to-face two or three times.

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