16 Mar Should I Stay or Should I Go: Cohabitation At Separation
At the point of separation, many parents reach out to a family law lawyer for advice on property matters as well as custody and access issues. Parents are filled with fears – fears of what the future will hold, where they will live, how they will financially manage and how to remain an active part of their children’s lives. The fears manifest themselves into defensive behaviours which often includes a legally supported position that a parent should not leave the matrimonial home until there is some kind of custody and access plan in place, no matter how long that takes. This is all well and good in relationships that end amicably.
Imagine for a moment a couple who has done nothing but argue for years. Or where one person has had another relationship outside of the marriage and their spouse has just become aware. There are many examples of separations that contain toxic conflict that negatively impacted children during the relationship and now that a separation is occurring, the children are in the middle of a “perfect storm”.
As parents focus on what they view are their rights in a situation, the wellbeing of a child seems to slip in priority from the conscious mind. Suddenly, children are now exposed to heightened levels of conflict in what should be, an environment of emotional safety. Parents follow the advice they have received from their advocate and the fear of losing their child or children takes over. All the while the role of protector leaves the radar screen and is replaced with strategizing and positioning. The thoughts that pass into the parent’s mind is, “If I leave the house without the children or a timesharing schedule, I risk status quo setting in and I am no longer the residential parent”.
It is common knowledge that decision makers in family law are hesitant to disrupt a child’s residential schedule when all the information suggests that the child is succeeding. The longer the situation has been in place, the more hesitancy exists in changing the routines and environment for a child. So the fear parents have is real. The question then becomes, “should I stay in the home with my estranged partner for how ever long it takes so that I don’t lose primary residence of the children?”
This is not an uncomplicated question, to say the least. What parents need to be conscious of is the fact that exposing their children to ongoing, unrelenting conflict has long term consequences.
It should be said that this kind of conflict can continue even when parents are physically separated too. So what do we really know? Conflict damages developing brains in children. There is a significant body of social science and medical research that supports this conclusion and it is every parent’s responsibility to be aware of this – it should be common knowledge. The same way we tell children to brush their teeth or make them eat their vegetables for long term health and wellness. Strongly consider your decisions and what, if any, negative consequences will be felt by the children in the situation in the face of conflict.