Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I've been divorced for 6 years and am recovering financially and emotionally. I'm dating with serious intent, and have found a woman who lives in another part of the country. We've met and have spent hours talking on the phone. We both have children, but mine are mostly adolescent or grown and have adjusted to the divorce very nicely. I believe they'd be thrilled to have me find a wife, and get a real place to live in.
The woman I've now met (let's call her Beth) has small children and a minimally-involved father who lives in the same city. Although the courtship is fresh, Beth and I have already discussed some of the potential impediments that might stand in the way of marriage.
The "father thing" plays out on a couple of levels. For me, even if the father is less than fully engaged in his children's lives, as a divorced father, it seems to me that interfering with a child's relationship with his father is a dangerous game -- dangerous because all children need as much of their fathers as they can get. One of the things I insisted on in my divorce was shared custody of my kids and the right to veto my ex-wife's moving out of the local area.
From my perspective, my children have survived the trauma of divorce with minimal emotional scars, mostly because I was ready and locally available, and because my ex and I forced ourselves to agree on how to raise and discipline the kids without all the carnage in court.
Now, here I am looking at a marriage that can only succeed by putting physical distance between a set of children and their father.
Beth sees the world from a different perspective. Her children get very little from their father. They stay with him one night a week and they split time between parents on the weekend. As often as not, the father ducks out on his one night a week and leaves the kids with her. In her mind, the children are starving for male attention, attention that they aren't getting from her ex-husband.
Then, of course, there's the legal stuff. Her divorce decree requires that the children remain in the state where they currently live. Since my job is in another state -- as well as my non-adult children -- I am not inclined to pull up stakes. If a marriage were to emerge, it would have to be in my neck of the woods.
According to Beth, this can be dealt with in a couple of ways. The easy way would be to "buy" her way out of the dilemma. Since her ex is unable to make child support payments as it is, getting consent on lifting the domicile restriction could be done by reducing the support payments. The other way out would be for Beth to demonstrate in court that the father is unfit to have any custody. She believes this can be established, and says she has been documenting all the problems throughout the divorce period.
Now, for two people who have known each other for a short time, this may seem like a lot to have discussed. However, before going much further, we both recognize that it would be a shame to burn a lot of emotional capital only to find that an impregnable barricade was visible all along.
Over time, Beth and I will have to get beyond life stories and share fun times. But is there really a future here? The emotional bonds are there, but we both have a sense that the father issue is the big one we'll have to deal with.
I appreciate your advice.
You are correct to deal with the "father issue" early in your courtship. After all, if relocation isn't practical for either of you, it isn't wise to continue to date.
As a family lawyer, Sherry has a slightly different perspective on Beth's ex's role in his children's lives. Many fathers are at a loss as to how to maintain a relationship with their children. Seeing them part-time on the weekends and occasionally during the week may be all the emotional energy this man is able to expend on his children, and he shouldn't be faulted for it. In fact, he may think that he is doing an adequate job as a divorced parent, since this is very close to the "traditional" pattern of visitation for a non-custodial parent. He may actually be expending more energy on his children now than he would have if he and Beth were still married!
At the same time, we can see that Beth doesn't perceive her ex being as emotionally invested in their children as she thinks he should be. It may very well be that the quality of time he spends with the children isn't high; he may ignore their needs or just go through the motions of being a parent. On the other hand, there's a strong likelihood that even though his style is very different than Beth's, or what her vision of a good father should be, he loves his children and appreciates the time he spends with them. (And vise-versa.)
We strongly suggest that Beth not underestimate the level of her ex's commitment to their children, and instead give him the benefit of the doubt. Not only is it important to always view others favorably, but a favorable attitude reaps added benefits when parents are divorced. If she tries to believe that he is doing his best under the circumstances, she will probably be right. It is so easy for a mother who doesn't receive timely child support, or adequate emotional support from her children's father, to feel resentful and angry -- and to allow her children to sense her negative attitude toward their father. In the long run, this takes a psychological toll on the children and affects them in their own marriages.
It takes a lot of self-control and a strong desire for a mother in Beth's position to project to her children a more positive, even respectful outlook about her ex-husband. But it's what's best for the children.
Because you are seeking a solution to the relocation issue, it seems the best solution will be through compromise and negotiation rather than by a court case. Sherry has found that a positive attitude toward a former spouse earns a lot of mileage, both when it comes to negotiating and when it comes to turning to the courts if negotiations fail. If Beth takes the approach that she knows how much her ex loves his children and wants to be involved in their lives, and comes up with creative ideas about how his involvement can be maximized if she were to relocate, the negotiations have a much stronger likelihood of success, than if she were to say, "You are an uninvolved and uncaring parent and I deserve the children more than you."
It seems crass to say, but when relocation and children are a consideration, money plays a big role. Is there enough money to facilitate frequent visits? Will the children be able to spend at least one 3-day weekend with their father each month, half of the Jewish holidays, and part of each school holiday? Is there enough money to enable him to visit them in their new home a few times a year? What about telephone calls, Internet access, and other ways to maintain the relationship?
(Oh, yes, offering a reduction in child support or an elimination of arrears might be helpful as part of the negotiations, but it isn't a big consideration for most fathers, even though they may have trouble making support payments. We don't recommend raising it in the "opening round" of negotiations, as it usually receives a negative reaction.)
More questions: Are the children old enough to have forged a strong enough bond with their father that they can maintain if they move away? Is Beth willing to encourage them to call their father a few times a week, e-mail him frequently, and keep him involved in their lives? Can she honestly give him these assurances?
These are all factors you and Beth will have to take into consideration before deciding whether to move your courtship forward. If you think there may be some workable solutions, we suggest that Beth consult with a family lawyer to find out the options available in her state.
We hope this has been helpful, and we wish you both the best of luck.
Rosie & Sherry