Last month I wrote a personal column celebrating Kelly and my 30th anniversary. This column is not about us! Whereas we’re still happily married, other LGBT couples are dealing with divorce. Navigating a divorce is always difficult, and kids certainly complicate the situation.
Chris Wharton, a family law attorney at Wharton O’Brien, reminds clients that when kids are involved, the court always aims at the child’s welfare. At times, he says, desperate parents try to use negative LGBT stereotypes against their soon-to-be ex. “Legal factors for determining custody” don’t include sexual orientation and gender identification. In fact, courts consistently overrule decisions on custody based solely on those reasons.
“Judges aren’t impressed with who can do the most damage to the other,” Wharton advises. “They expect parents to act like adults and make every effort to protect the children from conflict.”
Psychologist Carolina Castaños, Ph.D., LMFT, and founder of Movingonhelp.com, an interactive program designed to help people overcome heartbreak, echoes the advice. “The way parents deal with divorce, how they talk about it with their children, and what they do once one of the parents has moved out is crucial.”
Dr. Castaños also notes that gay parents face a plethora of difficult challenges that straight parents don’t. Unless there’s a double adoption — as in the case of our kids — only one parent is the legal parent. Wharton adds, “It is critical to understand that having your name on the child’s birth certificate or raising the child for any number of years does not necessarily guarantee parental rights. Under current Utah law, there must be a biological relationship or adoption to secure full parental rights to the child.”
He warns that stepparents have no parental rights after a divorce — an important factor when you consider the number of kids in LGBT families in Utah, whom one of the parents brought from a previous heterosexual union. Personally, I can’t imagine how incredibly painful it would be to end our relationship and then lose the children, who are such an important part of my life.
It’s not surprising that taking care of yourself is the best move you can make to help your child. Dr. Castaños suggests allowing yourself to heal, be kind to yourself, sleep well, eat well, exercise, and most importantly, find a friend or family member with whom you can share your feelings — never rely on your child for that role.
One of the best ways to take care of yourself is to retain a competent and experienced lawyer. It isn’t a boxing match, as Wharton says, the courts want civility. It’s not about who can punch the hardest. The Gay Family Law Center suggests finding an experienced attorney in these kinds of cases. Plus, look for an affordable attorney but also one dedicated to your case and skilled at creative solutions.
Too often divorcing parents look to their children as a protector and ally. Dragging kids into the mud will only cause unnecessary hurt and disappointment. Instead, encourage a positive relationship with both parents. Dr. Castaños says, “Kids learn through observation. If you continue having a peaceful relationship with your former partner and can reach agreements, your kids can internalize that people divorce and things will be fine.”
That’s a message about divorce that we can all stand behind.