“Gotcha” Moments in Virginia Custody Cases

Every mother worries about the impact of her divorce or break up from her child’s father on her children.

Even as much as she knows that she needs the break up – probably for about a million different reasons – considering the impact of that on the children involved can feel overwhelming. That’s especially true in a case where the child’s father is bound and determined to make things as difficult as possible.
I’m not a therapist. I’m not a pediatrician, or a developmental psychologist, or an expert in any way on children’s mental health.

Like you, though, I am a mom – and a mom who worries endlessly about my children’s well-being. I’m also an attorney, and I’ve seen hundreds of these types of cases.

Generally speaking, studies show that divorce is hard on children. But most also suggest that it’s not really the divorce itself, it’s more the question of how the parents cope with the divorce after it happens. Children are pretty resilient, and, especially when they’re young, can get used to a whole lot of things. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a damaging experience.  (But that’s also not to say that they’ll just ‘forget’ it, either!)

In fact, for many children, the break up is good. After all, we hear that children who grow up in high conflict homes do worse than children of divorce who then go on to live in households with less conflict. It’s not nearly as confusing to have ‘mom’s house’ and ‘dad’s house’ or even stepbrothers and stepsisters as it is to grow up in a house filled with violence, aggression, trauma, and anger. Kids – studies have also shown – internalize most of this and look for reasons to blame themselves.

I’m not here to talk to you about studies, though, or children’s psychological development. I just wanted to suggest that the divorce itself doesn’t inflict the kind of trauma that the conflict does, over time. A healthy, productive divorce is better than an unhealthy, anger-filled marriage, both for the parents and the children involved.

But a divorce isn’t always healthy and productive.

Even if you have the best of intentions for coparenting and being a better version of yourself, that doesn’t mean that your child’s father will comply.
Some of the most difficult cases I’ve seen are the ones where the dads seem hellbent to create these ‘gotcha’ moments.

A ‘gotcha’ moment is one I’d describe as being at least partially contrived – when a child’s father sets the scene for a fight and is prepared with his camera in hand to record the consequences. When he refuses to return a winter coat and then, at the next visitation exchange, throws a fit because mom didn’t send the child in a new coat – of course, with camera in hand.

When a dad rails against a mom for refusing to get a job on social media – even though her actually getting a job could actually cause his child support to increase. But that’s not the point – the point is sharing his dissatisfaction with others, who’ll call her a ‘gold digger’ or ‘entitled’ or worse.

When a dad knows about something – a doctor’s appointment, school pictures, a parent/teacher conference – but pretends he doesn’t. Then he misses it, and throws a fit because mom didn’t specifically tell him about it. “But I have the text messages to prove it,” he’ll say, nastily. “She never told me!”

There are a million different types of ‘gotcha’ moments, so I couldn’t begin to describe them all here. I just wanted to paint a picture of what it could look like, so that you’ll start to recognize when you’re being set up for your own ‘gotcha’ moment.

It’s a terrible feeling. You know he’s trying to provoke a reaction, gather evidence, and save it to use against you in court. You know he’s over there, simmering, talking to other people about the case – maybe, even, talking to your own children about the case, even if the judge has specifically ordered you both not to do so.

I can’t tell you how many accusations I’ve heard about mom’s drug or alcohol issues, but with little to no evidence to back it up. (After all, a glass of wine or two on a weekend – or even a Tuesday! – does NOT an alcoholic make.)

It’s so challenging to navigate these waters, and it’s so tempting to want to lash back out at him yourself.

I’ll remind you, though, with how we started this article, which is that you, dear reader, and I are both mothers who want the best for our children. The opposite of what’s best for children is falling into these traps.

I can tell you, these cycles don’t end. If you fall into a massive ‘gotcha’ trap with your child’s father, no one – least of all your children – will come out winning on the other end.

As unsatisfying as it is, I’ll give you the best advice I know to give.

Don’t play his game. Don’t disparage him in front of the children. Pave the way to a healthy, productive relationship – with their father and with you – at every chance. Don’t involve the children in your custody case. Don’t video visitation exchanges. Don’t record conversations.

Be there for your children. Support them. Answer their questions in an age-appropriate way, and help them get therapy if they’re struggling. Be the constant they need, no matter what their child’s father is doing.

Work with your attorney, and come up with a strategy for combating his increasingly desperate ploys for attention from the courts. Don’t just sit there and take it, but don’t fight fire with fire. Don’t set up your own ‘gotcha’ traps. Stay calm. Support his role as father.

I’m not saying he’ll stop. Maybe he will; sometimes, conflict does die down. Other times, though, that’s not the case. None of your reaction should be about him, though. Every single choice you take should be designed to help promote the well being of your children.

We – family law attorneys – often say that the kids will learn the truth about their dads sooner or later. I hate to say it, because it’s so sad to me. How world weary does a kid have to be to realize that her dad is a POS? It happens, but it shouldn’t be the end goal, or the silver lining.

They’ll learn. It’s an unhappy truth, but it’s still the truth. They don’t need to learn it from you, though. Be the dependable, constant, loving, nurturing mother you always wanted to be – not one who is so consumed with fighting this custody case that you can’t put your children’s needs first. It may not be an easy road, but it’s the best road.

Hang in there. For more information, to request a copy of our custody book, or to schedule an appointment with our office, give us a call at 757-425-5200.

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