One of the hallmarks of a high conflict separation, divorce, or co-parenting arrangement is the inability to effectively communicate. This can take many forms with one of them being harassment by a co-parent. So what behaviors are considered harassment? The law states that harassment is when a person behaves in a way which is intended to cause another person distress or alarm. While it can be very overt and obvious, it can also be quite subtle and hard to recognize. It is important to be able to identify these violations of your custody agreement and to then develop strategies for how to best manage them.
Overt Harassment by a Co-Parent
Any type of overt harassment is obvious and clearly detectable. In the context of the co-parenting relationship, it can be significantly more damaging since it not only impacts the adult recipient but inevitably has a negative emotional impact on the children as well. Some examples of this type of overt harassment include:
- verbal or written threats or inappropriate comments
- sending intimidating messages via text or email
- derogatory social media posts
- spreading false rumors about your ex
- making offensive jokes
- direct attempts to undermine the other parent’s or family members’ relationship with the children
All these behaviors are in direct violation of every child custody plan and are clearly not in the children’s best interest. Their sole purpose is to intentionally hurt or intimidate the other parent, will little concern for the consequences. They will negatively impact the ability of the parents to work together on behalf of the children, will inevitably lead to higher levels of conflict, and will often result in costly and time-consuming court intervention.
Subtle Harassment by a Co-Parent
This type of harassment can be harder to identify but can also be quite harmful. Some examples of indirect harassment between co-parents include:
- showing up late for picking up the children
- not returning important items when children make transitions between homes
- making plans for the children during the other parent’s custody time
- not following through on agreed upon plans
- failing to respond to messages in a timely manner
- sending frequent and/or unnecessary phone, text, or email messages
While these more subtle behaviors may not be explicitly prohibited in your family law agreement, they will also undermine the parenting relationship and ultimately take a negative emotional toll on the children. They will damage trust, put the children in the middle of parental conflicts, and encourage equally inappropriate behavior from the other parent.
Options for Responding to Harassment by a Co-Parent
Nobody deserves to be harassed, despite your ex’s potential attempts to convince you otherwise. To the contrary, what you deserve is to be engaged with respectfully, to have your legal agreements complied with, to have your relationships with your family members supported, and to live your life in peace.
When these things do not happen, it is important to take action to prevent the harassment from continuing. There is a continuum of options, depending upon the level of harassment that you are experiencing.
If you are feeling that you or your children are not safe, the first step must be to protect yourselves at all costs. This might involve calling the police or finding a safer place to stay until the behavior stops.
When you are not experiencing that level of threat, your initial strategy is to attempt to talk directly with your ex regarding the negative impact that their behavior is having on both you and your children. In many cases this will unfortunately have no significant impact. However, there are some situations in which your ex might not fully understand the negative toll that their behavior is taking on you and, perhaps even more significant to them, on their children. Bringing this to their attention might be enough to sensitize them to this and result in them curtailing the harassing behavior.
Another initial step is to establish some clear communication boundaries with your ex, either on your own or with the help of your attorney. The goal of this strategy is to limit both the number of daily interactions as well as the types of interactions with the greatest potential to escalate. Examples of these types of boundaries include:
- using only one form of electronic communication for routine matters (parenting app or email)
- responding to routine communications on a limited basis such as only once a day
- immediately terminating any conversation that is becoming harassing
If none of these strategies are effective, and the harassment continues, you may have no choice but to block your co-parent’s communications completely. This should always be done in consultation with your attorney since this action will have significant consequences in terms of your ability to co-parent your children.
Ways to Protect Yourself and Children from More Serious Harassment
If the initial strategies are not effective in stopping the harassment, you will need to take more definitive action and escalate your response. This is another point that your family law attorney should be involved in the process of determining your next steps. They are best equipped to understand your options and counsel you regarding which strategy is most appropriate given your specific situation.
There are several legal options available to you. You can request a restraining order or protective order which is a court order prohibiting your ex from continuing their harassing behavior. While laws pertaining to this differ from state to state, they all specify who can file for an order, what protection they can get, and how it will be enforced. Again, your attorney is the best person to guide you through this process.
You also have the option of modifying your parenting agreement from a co-parenting plan to a parallel parenting arrangement. Such a plan allows both parents to remain actively involved in their children’s lives while having minimal contact with the other parent. They each have their own areas of responsibility, to minimize the need for interaction.
In summary, harassment by a co-parent can take many forms and has the potential to be extremely harmful. Being clear about what constitutes harassment and understanding your options for responding to it are essential to best protect yourself and your children from further emotional harm.