“Gotcha” Games in your Virginia Custody Case

Posted on Sep 6, 2021 by Katie Carter

I can’t tell you how many cases I’ve seen where the parents engage in some version of the “gotcha” games. That’s not a technical term, of course; it’s a term I’ve more or less created myself to describe some of the drama that can surround a custody case. Though I’m writing specifically about my experience in Virginia, I do think this is one of those things that – unfortunately – is more or less universal.

An example? Happy to share. In fact, I think that’s one of the best ways to learn.

In my opinion, the best way to illustrate a ‘gotcha’ game is to discuss the winter coat.

Mom brings the child, in his winter coat, at the designated time, to the visitation exchange point. The child goes off with dad for dad’s parenting time, and dad returns the child, at the designated time at the visitation exchange point. The child is not wearing the winter coat.

At the next visitation exchange, mom brings the child without a coat.

Dad is ready for this. Dad has his iPhone camera recording the exchange already. “What?” he says, “No winter coat? You do know it’s thirty degrees out, right? I don’t have his coat; is he supposed to FREEZE until I can get him home?”

It’s a vicious circle. Mom, afraid that dad is going to show the recording in court and that, without context, the court would assume that she would really send her child out in thirty degree weather without a coat, responds in kind.

A fight often breaks out over the child’s head, in the middle of the exchange. And even more often than that, there’s an ongoing attempt to show the other parent in as bad a light as possible.

We see this in recorded visitation exchanges, in text message conversations, in altercations that play out on social media, and in virtually every other setting where ex partners can be seen ‘sharing’ custody and visitation after a break up.

It happens in a million different ways. When he blames you for not sharing information about picture day, or a parent teacher conference, or a sporting event (even if he had access to all of the information but just chose not to utilize it). When he shares something nasty on social media to call you out for something you did (or didn’t do). When stories are passed around, second hand, in an immature game of telephone, between your different acquaintances in an effort to build support amongst a shared group. Whatever the situation, it’s designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain and embarrassment – and to convince you to lash back out in a way that proves to him that he’s right in calling you out the way he does.

You are, in short, that much of a b**ch. Or slut, or whatever the case may be.

It’s incredibly uncomfortable for bystanders and profoundly traumatic for the child. It’s really not very good for the parents themselves, either.

“Gotcha” games are a continuous, vicious cycle where no one comes out better than anyone else – least of all the child. I understand, though – I really do. You have to give yourself some grace, if you’ve fallen into this trap before, but you also have to understand some of the root causes and try to do better next time.
I’m not here to preach sunshine and rainbows and turning the other cheek just for the sake of turning the other cheek. I’m no Mother Teresa, and I’m sure you aren’t, either. I get angry. I think about revenge. I, sometimes, really want to hurt someone else the way they’ve hurt me, especially if I feel that they have done so deliberately.

You’re human. And you’re in incredibly difficult circumstances. In a divorce or custody case, you’re so scared that your fight or flight response is triggered. It’s unconscious, in a lot of ways. When we’re stressed, our bodies let out a million different signals to indicate that we’re uncomfortable or scared or need to get the heck out of here. Those feelings manifest themselves mostly with unpredictable behavior, designed to help us protect ourselves.

You’re thinking with your ‘reptilian’ brain. It’s understandable. Your body perceives a threat; your mind responds in kind. It’s normal.

It’s also not helpful. At least, not in this application.

Aside from causing trauma to your children, it also doesn’t do anything to deescalate the situation. You’ll find yourself in this constant no-win tug of war, and you won’t come out better for it.

My advice? Don’t play this game, no matter how hard it seems. Don’t record visitation exchanges. Don’t ‘forget’ to return things the kids brought from his house. Don’t talk about him in front of the children. Just..don’t.

Let him, if he must. Hire an attorney, who can help you navigate this situation. Work with a therapist, who can help you work through the anger and resentment you may feel. But don’t involve your children, and don’t stoop to his level.

“Your children will learn what kind of man their dad is.”

Were any sadder words ever spoken? I’m not sure. I’ve heard attorneys say it. Heck, I’ve said it. But the older I get, the more I do this kind of work, the more I raise my own children, the more I feel the weight of the trauma of those words.

What if, instead of letting him show them what kind of man he is, you show them all what kind of mom you are?

Because, each time a child ‘learns’ who his dad is, there’s a little wound made on their hearts. You can’t protect them from everything, but you can do what you can to help ease the sting.

So (unless he’s an abuser), put a picture of him in the child’s room. Talk him up. Support him. Not for him, but for them. And also for you, too, because it’s more peaceful to live in a world that isn’t dominated by gotcha games. Because maybe – just maybe – if you DO turn the other cheek, there could eventually be an end to the madness.

Not only will gotcha games have an adverse impact on your mental health and well being (not to mention your pocketbook), but it could also ultimately have the opposite impact on your custody case that you might wish. I’ve heard of judges refusing to give 50/50 custody because of the parents’ inability to coparent together. So, you mind find that instead of sharing custody, you actually lose it – which is obviously not a position you want to find yourself in.

If anyone risks ‘losing’ custody, let it be him. Work with your attorney to make sure your legal strategy is on point, and so that, if there is a loser, it’s him.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment with an attorney about the gotcha games you’re caught in the middle of, give us a call at 757-425-5200.