Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Why Are Custody Battles Getting Messier?

One compelling storyline in the Oscar-nominated film “Marriage Story” reveals how two people who still care for one another, and who adore their young son, end up in a bitter and costly divorce.

The Hollywood portrayal of a drawn-out, painful and expensive custody battle is hitting close to home for those in the trenches of relationship warfare. Katy Walter, chief executive officer for Kids In the Middle, a nonprofit organization that helps families during and after divorce, says they are seeing an increase in the number of high-conflict family transitions. Several divorce attorneys report the same trend.

“I think they’ve become more contentious,” said Joseph Lambson, a divorce attorney based in Clayton, Missouri. “It seems like divorces are falling on one of two paths,” he said. “Either they mutually realize it’s in their best interest to keep it focused on the best interests of the kids, or it’s a full-throttled attempt to gain the upper hand.”

So, why are custody battles getting messier?

Lambson said there’s a noticeable rise in the number of cases involving a mental health diagnosis for one or both parents, or one of their children.

“I have seen more cases in 2019 than the previous five years combined” that involve mental illness, he said. That puts one parent into the role of trying to protect the child from the other parent, or it can spar disagreements on how to handle a child’s special needs.

Attorney Susan Block, also of Clayton, agrees that mental health disorders are playing a bigger role in divorce proceedings, as are substance abuse issues. Sadly, the mental health of the children sometimes takes a back seat to the desire of sparring parents.

“Right now, we are seeing a lot of anxiety, isolation, social media being abused,” she said. The move toward shared custody may not be the best solution for children in this situation.

“A kid that is anxious cannot benefit from that many transitions,” she said, especially if there are different rules and routines in each household. Lambson agreed that the trend toward 50/50 custody has not reduced litigation in Missouri.

“There’s more to fight about,” he said.

Unique parenting plans can create more conflict among parents who already aren’t communicating well, Walter said. And when a plan breaks down or needs to be modified, the family ends up back in court. She said they are also dealing with more cases involving parents who have never been married, which can complicate co-parenting arrangements.

She added that many of the same tensions and problems present in society filter down to families. For example, if a parent airs his or her grievances on social media, a child could access that.

“When kids come in, the amount of information that they know (during a divorce) is pretty astounding,” she said. Most of this information isn’t helpful for the child.

Susan Myres, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said the rise in contention in divorce is mirroring the rise in conflict in society.

“There’s high conflict because bad behavior is not punished,” she said. “You can say and tweet all sorts of offensive things, which triggers an offensive response, and there doesn’t seem to be accountability.”

She suggested that if there were serious consequences for a person tweeting insults and mistruths, repeating bad things to children, or yelling at others during a divorce or separation, then these behaviors wouldn’t be as prevalent.

Today’s polarized environment can also make co-parenting more challenging for those on opposite sides of the political divide.

Jason Young, 49, of Chesterfield, Missouri, divorced nearly 11 years ago when his children were young. He and ex-wife Cynthia O’Toole, 43, of O’Fallon, Missouri, have vastly different political views.

Young said it has created some moments of tension -- for example, when his young daughter comes to his house wearing the T-shirt of a candidate his mother supports and he strongly opposes. Meanwhile, O’Toole says she is disturbed when her children come home “with a crazy idea or crazy view” they’ve heard from their father.

“That poses a challenge,” she said. “I basically bring them back to reality.”

Despite their differences, both Young and O’Toole say they had a relatively low-conflict divorce.

“I learned a long time ago that fighting doesn’t solve anything,” Young said. During their separation, they kept the best interests of their kids front and center.

That, experts say, is the key to avoiding additional heartache.