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Right of First Refusal, Part Two: What About the Kids?

The right of first refusal can create a police state mentality. Clocking the comings and goings of an ex is anathema to healing.  It is a great way to remain angry, stuck, and convinced of moral “right-ness,” which might feel good at the moment but brings eventual misery.  Heard the expression would you rather be right or happy?  When children are involved—and in right of first refusal, children are necessary players—one question rises above all others: is this the least damaging best possible environment for children to move forward from the dissolution of their parent’s marriage? An unhealthy focus on the whereabouts of an ex runs counter to the challenging, ultimately beneficial work of growing past divorce into a new life, particularly one with children, as healthy as possible.

When kids are young, they are malleable.  They want approval.  Particularly from their parents.  Most likely they will do mom or dad’s bidding; they might even take one “side,” which can feel gratifying to the “chosen” parent. But parents should not allow themselves to go there, regardless of the egregious behavior of an ex, no matter how torn up they are, no matter how unjust the circumstance.  When kids are caught in the middle of a war zone, not of their choosing, grilled on where mom or dad went with whom and what and why for how long, how does this help them cope with the grief of their parent’s divorce?  Ideally, part of being a kid is being afforded an amount of safety.  Maybe a child doesn’t balk at reporting the actions of parents initially, perhaps even some measure of solace found in directing confusing feelings onto one parent or the other, but this will not last forever. Divorce is a marathon, not a sprint.  Because of such parental misconduct, kids often hit thirteen or fourteen years old and inform their mom or dad in no uncertain terms that they want to go live with the other parent. This kind of behavior on the part of a parent can have long-lasting implications for their children and their future relationships (not to mention the relationship between an adult child and parent).

Does that mean that there is never a situation in which the right of first refusal is appropriate and helpful for children?  Of course not.  Some parties prefer to work out the details and want their children to be with both parents whenever possible because that is what is best for their children. Working through the details of their individual situation can help a family find footing in a new living situation. In the state of Texas, parents can basically agree to whatever schedule they want regarding custody, they just have to agree and then follow through.  Even if one would rather go by agreement, some spouses dig in when it comes to the right of first refusal and will not budge.  This is not necessarily a bad thing: one party can keep the right of first refusal as a chess piece to trade for something that to them is a bigger priority.

My point: in the case of a right of first refusal and parent/child relationships, be careful.  Remember kids will not be kids forever.  Stipulate clearly and think forward to possible changes that may arise and how that might affect dynamics.  As kids age and change, hopefully, the relative situations of both parents do so as well. Initially, children who want nothing more than a movie and popcorn with mom or dad on the weekend will become teenagers who would rather hang out with friends; that’s the way it should be.

Bottom line: in my experience—whether a right of first refusal is present or not—the best co-parents are the ones who never look at the decree again once it’s signed and instead work out the details together based on what is best for their kids, not their own feelings at the moment.