Charting a road map for smoother co-parenting
The government is launching a public consultation to gather views on the implementation of a 'joint parental responsibility model' to replace existing custody and access arrangements under family law.
The new model emphasises the continuing responsibilities of both parents towards their children, rather than their parental rights. It is a realisation of the idea that parents' roles are independent of whether they remain married. The onus is on them to support their children's development, even after a divorce. Parents are on an equal footing in terms of making decisions about their children.
While this shift is perceived as a positive move, women's groups and various professionals that work to prevent family violence warn against the risk of abuse of the model. Rather than focusing on children's welfare, ex-spouses with unresolved grievances may continue their conflicts through decision-making.
Many couples want a new life and a clear break from each other after they divorce. But many find that they continue to be connected by the shared parenting of their children, even in the present system. They have to survive the challenges of post-divorce parental alliance and cope with the complexity of parental co-ordination across households. Rather than being 'single-parent families', these families remain two-parent families, but with separate households.
Post-divorce co-ordination and non-residential parenting are roads without maps in Hong Kong. Divorced parents have to develop their own wisdom in the negotiation process. I would like to share with you what I have learned from my service recipients.
Many maintain a 'business-like' relationship, in which they are self-controlled but distant. They try their best to co-operate when it comes to their children's issues, but maintain minimal contact with each other. Some have redefined their relationship with their ex-spouses from 'couple' to 'relatives'. They are relatives in their relationship with their children. With perseverance, each respects the other's involvement in parenting and decision-making as the 'father' or 'mother' of the children. On the part of the children, concrete permission or approval of their contact with the other parent is necessary to prevent conflicts of loyalty. Their biggest nightmare is not their parents' divorce but being caught in the middle.
To facilitate an amicable parental alliance, Constance Ahrons provides these suggestions in her book The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart.
It's true that divorce can make you crazy. Knowing that your emotions will be volatile and vacillating will help you manage them better. The process of divorce is predictable. Making the unknown known allows you to make reasoned choices that meet your long-term objectives.
Accept that all-out war is not inevitable and is, in fact, destructive. Please also recognise that compromise is a necessity.
Keep your family as family and minimise the negative effects on your children.
Get support from peers, your church, or a social service agency.
Intensive family support, mediation service, divorce education, child advocacy, and co-parenting co-ordination, are necessary to make the model work.
Dr Lau Yuk-king is a professional consultant with the department of social work at Chinese University