Kramer.com vs. Kramer.com
By PAMELA PAUL
MOST divorced couples would probably prefer not to see each other. Ever again. But when you share custody of your children, you have to assume a certain amount of face-to-face time amid the endless back-and-forthing.
Think of the clashing summer vacation plans, the who-goes-to-Lucy’s-birthday-party, the “Max forgot his homework again” at Dad’s. And those devilish contretemps that can arise if Mom, for example, decides to keep her house kosher while Dad serves the children pork chops. Or if her new boyfriend is suddenly sleeping over on “her” nights to host the children.
Let’s just say that no matter how well ex-spouses and still-parents coordinate, there’s a good chance of teary phone calls, angry exchanges during drop-off, and all-out fights about who’s not saving enough for college, often played out smack in front of the children.
Unless, of course, it’s all done remotely. These days, the cool aloofness of technology is helping temper sticky emotional exchanges between former spouses. And for the most part, according to divorce lawyers and joint-custody bearers, handling the details via high tech is a serious upgrade.
It’s joint custody — at a distance.
And it makes a big difference. Like many engaged women, Erin McGillivray, 26, broke up with her fiancé before they could marry. But unlike many engaged women, she also got pregnant. By the time the two split, their daughter was 8 months old. And now they’re tied by the bonds of parenthood for the rest of their lives.
Ms. McGillivray, a wardrobe stylist in Minneapolis, became mired in a custody dispute with her ex over their daughter, now 2. (The court eventually awarded her joint legal and primary physical custody.)
“Normally, when you break up with someone, you don’t have to see them constantly,” Ms. McGillivray said. “Now I have to see my ex and his current fiancée several times a week. He’ll be a presence in my life for at least 17 more years, and probably more than that.”
When they see each other in person, she said, they inevitably quarrel. And so she keeps him at a safe electronic remove. “When it comes to child arrangements,” she said, “we typically communicate via e-mail. Schedules, drop-offs, pickups, sick-day care: it’s all done electronically. Neither of us wants to argue in front of our daughter, but as much as we would want to avoid it, it would happen.”
It’s not surprising that most people don’t see eye-to-eye with the person they left seething on a couples therapist’s sofa. If you didn’t get along with someone well enough to stay married, chances are you will probably disagree after you divorce.
“People don’t want to talk to their exes because just the sound of their voice is irritating,” said Randy Kessler, chair of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section and a matrimonial lawyer in Atlanta. “But they can e-mail. They can share an online calendar. They can use any number of resources on the Internet. There are even divorce apps.”
E-mail and texting alone have practically revolutionized postdivorce family relationships. “E-mail absolutely takes away the in-your-face aggravation and emotional side of joint custody,” said Lubov Stark, a divorce lawyer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “You just write, ‘I want to pick up Kimmy at 5, but I’m running late and will be there at 6.’ It’s the best thing ever.”
When Zeita Jones, a 39-year-old nurse in Los Angeles, divorced her husband of 15 years in 2010, dealing with her ex while shuffling their three children every week was difficult. “When emotions were running high at the beginning, everything was e-mail and text,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s a lot easier not hearing the voice. It’s detached.”
For Cheryl Wu, a 34-year-old Manhattan pediatrician, nailing down details on a Google calendar makes all the difference. First, she and her ex-husband, who have joint legal custody (she has primary physical custody) of their 5-year-old son, will e-mail each other possible arrangements until they reach a point of agreement. Once there, it goes into the mutual calendar. Since the two separated in 2010, they have only had to talk face-to-face two or three times.
“Everything on our calendar is jointly shared, so there’s no dispute,” Ms. Wu said. “For a while, I was doing all the entering of events, but I told him to put his share in, too, and now it’s all on there.”
Such arrangements are increasingly necessary. Unlike the “Kramer vs. Kramer” 1970s, when mothers won primary custody almost by default, today’s postdivorce “bi-nuclear family” setups are more egalitarian. Almost all states now offer some kind of joint custody. Joint legal custody, in which parents share or split decision-making, is almost the norm. And while laws vary widely by state, joint physical custody, where children divide their time between their father’s and mother’s homes, is increasingly common.
“In the ’80s, you used to see Dad on Sundays and get a Happy Meal and an ice cream cone,” said Leslie Barbara, a partner in the matrimonial and family law department at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron in Manhattan. “Now it’s all gender-neutral, and the parents each get spheres of influence. You put together what’s called an ‘access schedule,’ and ‘parenting coordinators’ help figure it all out.”
Former spouses aren’t the only parties to see a benefit in keeping their communiqués limited to the keyboard. Technology has become so commonplace in divorce arrangements that it has become part of the formal legal process, a development divorce lawyers and judges applaud. Many joint custody arrangements will stipulate weekly Skype sessions between parent and child while apart.
“It’s all set out in detail,” said Michael Kelly, a divorce lawyer and partner at Kelly, Fernandez & Karney in Los Angeles. “Your phone has to be available at certain hours, and if you don’t follow the rules, it’s a good way to lose custody.”
Parents are often required to buy a cellphone for their child, and call times are recorded to ensure an adequate amount of time. “That way, Mom can’t say, ‘O.K., you can talk to Daddy for two minutes, but that’s it,’ ” Mr. Kelly said. And with a parent calling children directly on their phone, there’s no possibility of a bitter intermediary exchange between parent and parent.
When relationships deteriorate to the point of renewed legal action, courts are increasingly ordering ex-couples to work out their differences via technology. A new crop of online custody tools has been specifically designed to keep sniping parents at bay.
Sherry Thomas, 56, shares physical custody of her two teenage sons with her ex-husband in Boca Raton, Fla. But since their divorce in 2005, the arrangement has been fraught with disagreement. When Ms. Thomas requested court-mandated parent counseling, the judge ordered the two to use an online tool called Our Family Wizard instead. Now, lawyers supervise e-mail exchanges between her and her ex, ensuring that each party responds to the other in a timely manner. All e-mails are time dated and tracked. Parents can create a shared expense log and receive automated notices and reminders about parental obligations.
“It’s a very good idea,” Ms. Thomas said. “Of course, provided both parents use it. Otherwise you can just end up back in court again.”
Many see the Wizard and similar online custody management tools as a postmarriage savior, especially after old-fashioned conversation has failed. In certain highly contentious divorces, parents are expressly forbidden to use the phone unless a child has broken a leg on the tricycle or some other emergency.
“The most hostile couples I see are the ones using the Wizard, and I think in those cases nothing would get done without it,” said Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based psychotherapist. “They wouldn’t have any other means of communicating if it weren’t online.”
Having negotiations set in writing (whether it’s a text, a cellphone log or an online calendar) also creates a permanent record of who did and wrote what. If somebody misbehaves, it can become evidence.
Pam Abrams, a 54-year-old freelance writer in Manhattan, had an amicable lawyer-free divorce in 2006. But over time, relations with her ex, with whom she shares custody of two children, frayed. There have been times the two could barely speak to each other. Money was a near-constant source of tension. “When we weren’t getting along, everything was arranged by text,” she said.
But as anyone who has ever quarreled electronically knows, keyboarded messages can nonetheless get testy. Humor, irony, sarcasm and even genuine kindness get lost in the cloud. Not every nuance carries over in a hastily tapped text. And people don’t answer e-mails from their ex-husbands the same way people don’t answer e-mails from anyone they don’t feel like corresponding with. “There was a moment when things were so acrimonious, I didn’t want to be textable or e-mailable at all,” Ms. Abrams recalled. Now where is the technology that can solve that?