Sadly, keeping custody of your child after divorce is no longer a given in many countries. Women are facing the fact that an abuser and/or narcissist can win custody, with just a few lies, claiming he’s being denied parental rights, or with enough power and money. (That’s why I always suggest the book, “Splitting” to my clients who have this fear. Find that book, and others, in the lists on the resources page.)
When I received the divorce papers that my ex-husband filed, it included a few lines that read, “Plaintiff seeks sole custody and asks the Defendant to pay child support.” I was a homeschool mother who had not worked outside of the home since 2002. I still shake my head just thinking about that absurd request, done to just to show the power and control over me, my security, and my emotions.
What kind of lawyer would even write or even think such a thing if he was seeking what was best for the child?
NOTE: If you and your soon-to-be or ex-husband can agree on joint custody and each keep a safe, healthy environment for the child, then you probably don’t need to continue reading. If you’re a man coming to attack me because you feel a woman took away your parental rights, this is not written for you either!
If you are worried about or facing a fight for custody to protect your child from harm, then here are some tips I learned during my own divorce and custody trials, as well as while mentoring many women through the custody process.
1.) If possible, document co-parenting or lack thereof, before anyone files for divorce.
Who has always been the main caregiver? Who does the story-time and bedtime routine? The morning routine? Takes them for doctor’s appointments? Drops off and picks up from daycare? Volunteers at the school?
The best defense in court is always the truth! A narcissist fights for custody for two reasons: to compete to win and to retaliate against you for whatever he thinks you have done to him (calling the police when he was physically violent with you, setting up boundaries and not letting him walk all over you, or whatever else he feels you should not have done). It’s rarely even about the child, so you need to show that in your case, it’s all about the child!
Here’s the important thing, judges hear this stuff day in and day out. So not only did I document this and times where I was the only parent involved, but I also asked impartial witnesses to write letters explaining how they saw me very involved in my children’s lives from the time of their birth – even the times before when I was left alone in the hospital when pregnant. I also asked our family therapist to write a letter explaining how extended time away from me would emotionally harm the child, causing a setback in the healing that had already taken place.
You need to show the established emotional bond between you and your child. Documentation has a lot more weight in court than just telling the judge what you remember or trying to argue with your ex about what you believe to be true (don’t start a “he said, she said” argument). Get as much as you can in writing and organize it in a binder for easier retrieval to prove your case.
2.) Do not deny your children visits with their father.
You do not want to give anyone ammunition to say that you’re trying to alienate the child from his or her father. If you’re fighting for custody they’re looking for anything that can grab onto to prove you are unfit as a mother. Not allowing him to see or visit with the child, is the fastest way to lose custody.
At first, you might be fearful if he’s threatened to take the kids, or you may have a protection order, but still find a way that he can see or talk the child(ren) that you can feel okay about. Ask others for help and establish a public meeting place.
If there is a court order, follow that like the Bible. Do not deviate or ask him to change anything unless you’re doing so in writing. If you can work things out with your ex-husband great, but most women do not worry about losing custody with someone they can work with and trust. You do not have to trust him, but you cannot deny his parental rights – unless there is some extreme reason and you have the family court’s approval to this fact (in writing).
Also, have the child(ren) ready to go at the set time and be where you’re supposed to be at the end of the visitation. Those with habitual tardiness are less likely to get or keep physical custody of the child(ren). Children need routine and to know what to expect. You are showing you have the child’s best interest at heart by your actions, by following the rules and keeping with the written schedule.
3.) Know what is best for your child, and do that.
Judges prefer to “keep the status quo” for the children. The court is also looking for the “best interests of the child” as to who gets primary custody. To keep custody, you need to show and prove that you are what is best.
Try not to give the child too many huge changes, during and after divorce. If you need to move more than 50 miles, this could be a factor in custody as totally changing a child’s life can be seen as you trying to hamper the child’s relationship with the father. If your ex-husband can work from home while you need to return to work 60 hours a week outside of the home, this could look unfavorable for you. I know, I know not always possible. But recruit family to help you to have your child in the home as much as possible.
You could be healing or dealing with continued abuse during and after divorce, but you need to show that you can still support the needs of your child. If you’re emotionally unstable or looking to get back at your ex-husband, you could lose custody. The more cooperative parent, who is doing what is best for the child, is most often the preferred primary parent in the eyes of the court!
If you need help, get it! Telling a judge that you’re getting help from your church, family, from a therapist or other agencies (and can prove it) to be the best parent you can be, is much better than doing nothing at all or making excuses. Judges don’t want to have to decipher between truth and lies, they just want to see hard evidence.
4.) Keep a clean and safe environment for our child while in your care.
If your home is starting to look like a mild case for Hoarders, it’s time to do a deep cleaning and decluttering. If a case goes to trial, there could be a home study done. You may even want to suggest it if you know your home is the most stable for the child. I have worked with women to get themselves organized during a divorce, and it’s not easy to start days or hours before this all begins.
This includes who you use for daycare, if applicable. Do not give them anything to prove their case that you are a bad mother.
5.) Do not move in with a boyfriend or move someone in that is not family.
I’m not trying to judge anyone by saying this, but it happens way more often than not, even with Christians. You meet someone, he has a nice home and offers to allow you and your children to move in with him. Or he moves in with you so you both save money.
BUT… not only is this a red flag that you’re now living with a narcissist but courts do not look favorable to people living together outside of marriage or family relationships – even if nothing is going on.
Live with other family members or rent a small apartment. Just make sure the child(ren) has their own room, even if that means you sleep in the living room, to show you are always looking out for what is best for your child.
6.) Do not drink, have alcohol in the home, or take any unnecessary drugs (legal or not).
Having alcohol, drinking in front of the child, or offering it to the child (this has happened to one of my children) can definitely hurt you in a child custody case – even just a glass of wine. I believe you should practice self-care but during this time (and maybe while you’re raising children) use other forms of self-care to calm yourself (or only drink when your children are away for the weekend).
Remember, in order to lose your parental rights they have to prove you are unfit and/or his home is in the best interest of the child. If he’s given up drinking, at the advice of his lawyer, they see that as more favorable than someone who even just drinks every once and a while. This goes for any drugs, even some that are prescribed, as well. It’s always best when your children are not around this stuff, and yes they may see this during visitations, but don’t stoop to his level to show you can do it too. Just always think about your child instead!
7.) Keep the child out of parent conversations, whenever possible.
Do not allow your STBX/ex-husband to engage you in conversations in front of the child(ren). Have boundaries in place that prevent this and use email instead (this also helps you to keep documentation). At first, you may have to be a broken record saying you’ll discuss this via email only.
Also, do not use your child to find out information or to say information back and forth. Do not involve them in any adult or other dysfunctional family drama. This is a huge one and hard sometimes not to participate in, especially if this is how the other parent wants to act.
When your child comes home saying, my dad said this… or… dad showed me your emails, know that this he is spilling poison into your children and it’s not healthy. Do not participate in this emotional abuse of your child.
Instead, use as little damage control as you can (I am sorry your dad is pulling you into the middle of this), remind your child how healthy people behave, and then change the subject.
Keep moving forward in your own healing while creating a peaceful, safe environment for your child to grow up in.
Other helpful resources:
Any questions or advice for someone else fighting for custody?
May God bless protect you and your child during this time.
What if your ex isn’t trying to obtain custody? How do you handle the emotions of co parenting with a narcissist? My daughter is only one. I’m so afraid of him having unsupervised time with her.
Jen Grice says
I know this is a scary time for you. I talk a little about co-parenting with God in my book, You Can Survive Divorce. You protect your daughter by making sure you get/keep physical custody. Unfortunately, as we all have learned, you cannot keep your child from her father – and she’s too young to make up her own mind yet. And he will probably want more time with her when she is older – I’ve seen this many times! So you might need this information later. But know, it’s much better for a child to only be around a toxic person part time then full time. Watching you be a strong woman who can stand up and fight for her is better than seeing you being abused and taking it.
My Only minor child is 16 and has little interest in being with her dad. She does not want to spend a weekend let alone a night with him. How do I handle that?
Jen Grice says
My thoughts are you continue to encourage her to have a relationship with him – maybe just dinner out with him or a short visit. No one can fault you for discouraging the relationship if you are encouraging it. But she’s at an age that I think *most* courts won’t force her to see him or go with him – they let her decide. But I’ve worked with a court that forced it until 18 and there was nothing I could do. They just didn’t care what harm they did to the child by forcing every other weekend visits even through the busy teen years.
Kathy B. says
Wow this is such valuable advice!! Thank you Jen.
Jen Grice says
What are things to document to show that you are fit to parent? I’m worried that my stbx will try to say I am unfit because he feels he has to clean everything (which is untrue) and has made other claims in front of our children as to why I’m not a good mom. How do I document against these statements?
Jen Grice says
Megan, I wouldn’t entertain these false claims or try to defend yourself unless you had documentation of the truth. This becomes a he said-she said which most judges and courts hate. Document the truth about everything! If he just telling your kids things that aren’t true, then just ignore him, apologize to your kids for having to be in the middle of this, and show them who and how you really are. That’s all you can do.