11 May 2017

Three Sides to the Story

You know that quintessential '70s scene where in the midst of a raging argument a wife leaves her husband and home, heading to her parents' house with kids in tow packed into a Pontiac station wagon?

I thank God, for the sake of every loving and engaged father out there, that such stories are seldom heard anymore.

My own short story in this regard is that I was put through the custody ringer (a legal racket, if ever there were one) during the course of my divorce. That is to say, when my ex filed for divorce (on fallacious grounds), she also vied for sole custody and removal (from the area) of our children, to which I responded with a simple no, and in so doing kicked off an excruciating eighteen-month legal process (because she chose to fight for it until it became obvious that it wouldn't go in her favor). If this reflects your current reality, take comfort. Fathers have rights recognized and protected in the courts these days. Oh, you still have to fight for them (they are unfortunately not assumed, as they are for most mothers), but while doing so is draining in every way imaginable, at least there's a clear opening these days to make your case. And what's more, judges are bound by laws protecting fathers' rights to judge according to the evidence.

So, take a breath. Calm down. And then get to work, protecting yourself and especially your children from the harm that groundless (and so I assume, vindictive) sole custody can do. For example, you'll want to start recording (e.g., on a calendar) the length, breadth, and depth of your loving engagement and presence with your children (as strange as that will feel). It's worth the effort and will cut lies off at the knees, should you perchance have the unfortunate luck to face such a thing.

I'm not at all suggesting that there aren't warranted instances where sole custody and even removal of the children (from the geographical locale) ought to be granted. Usually those are obvious to everyone but the toxic and irresponsible individual at the other end of the suit. But in a situation where you have two loving and engaged parents, being the cause of an unnecessary battle over custody until the bitter end makes no sense (it's deeply damaging to everyone involved—physically, financially, spiritually, etc.; and it also subverts any modicum of mutual respect you'll be needing to show while co-parenting). This isn't to deny that there are always two sides of a story (it's the third side in this instance that's too often forgotten). Of course there are, and of course those "reasons" put forward for sole custody and/or removal can be validated. That doesn't mean, however, that those validated reasons outweigh the reasons why sole custody and/or removal is not in the "best interests" of your children (get familiar with that phrase).

"Bitterness blinds life," preached Harry Emerson Fosdick, "love anoints its eyes."

Bitterness is like a tuberous weed—a gigantic pain in the ass to kill. Removing the growth above ground won't do; you must dig the entire root and all its tubers out. In the midst of an unwanted and subsequently acrimonious divorce due to specific hateful and hurtful actions revolving around the children on the part of the one suing, it requires a Herculean effort to avoid bitterness. If you do not, you will share in the cause of the malignancy to come. While you cannot control the victimization, self-absorption, manipulation and avenging that emerges in the actions of someone who has allowed bitterness to take deep root, you can control how you respond. There are wonderful resources out there (not least face-to-face therapy or just a friendly shoulder)—no matter what your learning style—to help you check yourself.

Even a few years on, I find myself continuing to battle with vigilance the bitterness before it takes root. It's hard to say this with absolute certainty, but I can imagine one getting over his or her divorce once the shock of it all subsides and the parties involved come to a relatively respectful parting. I mean, I can honestly say, on this side of it, that being divorced from that woman is A-OK. The battle with bitterness, it seems to me, would not feel so acute so often. But reflecting on what I had to go through in order to protect my children's lives and relationships with both their mom and dad still makes me angry. Add to that the burden of providing maintenance (and I'm not talking child support here) to a capable and educated person—really just an adult child, at this point—which puts both households at the poverty line, and bitterness and anger become very real and regular threats, indeed.

I've returned a few times to a helpful little booklet on bitterness written by Lou Priolo in the Resources for Biblical Living series published by P&R. Yeah, it's not the most robust treatment, leaning heavily as it does in the direction of nouthetic counseling, but I've found it useful each time I've read it. I know there are better (i.e., psychologically responsible) resources available out there on this issue, so I don't recommend it unless you're able to read it critically and openly, while at the same time attending to the trauma in your life that is in part one of the reasons you'd be struggling with bitterness in the first place (this booklet will not help you with trauma—in fact it may do more damage than good). Read with your eyes open, and probably don't read it first, is all I'm saying.

I'll leave you with Mary Baures helpfully highlighting the contours of bitterness and the role of hate and forgiveness in the wake of trauma (in the great article I link to in the above paragraph):
Allowing oneself to feel the fury of hate...is often a healthy part of the recovery process but it is only healthy if one can also learn to let it go. Hate minimizes a victim's feelings of powerlessness and self-blame and counteracts feelings of destruction. But after anger has been experienced, when self-compassion has replaced self-blame, and when the terror of the experience is no longer intrusive, letting go of hate can give survivors vitality and hope. ...The world is full of violence, and many are its victims. It is natural to become angry and even to hate as part of the healing process. But the final step is to forgive. Forgiveness does not condone evil behavior; it acknowledges evil without denying a person's potential humanity.

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