The essay first appeared in The Washington Post on March 8, 2016
As evidenced by many families I know, there are plenty of circumstances where children flourish in single-parent households and in family arrangements that involve active and engaged parents who live apart. When I worked as a child welfare attorney, however, I saw first-hand that this was not always the case.
Merle Weiner, a law professor at the University of Oregon, worries about the potential long-term harm to children in families where the parents are not supportive of, or cooperative with, one another. Weiner suggests that the best way to prevent this harm is to encourage people to develop strong co-parenting relationships from the start. She calls this relationship a “parent-partnership.”
Children thrive when their parents work harmoniously to meet their needs. While laws establish each parent’s legal obligation to the child, they do not specify obligations between co-parents in the absence of a marriage. Weiner says that legal obligations should exist between the parents, as it is “the expectations of others that shape our identities and behavior, and the same would be true for parent-partners.”
Weiner proposes concrete legal obligations that would arise automatically between parents upon the birth or adoption of a child, but her recommendations also provide all parents (and potential parents) with guidelines they can consider now, regardless of whether these proposals are enacted as law.
The duties she suggests present a clear and much needed road map to help parents navigate their role as caregivers to their joint children. Her proposals offer tangible guidance for all parents — regardless of relationship status — and can improve cooperation, cohesiveness and collaboration in parenting and family life. By agreeing to these types of terms, parents would set the tone for their relationship and acknowledge that they are supposed to have a supportive family relationship throughout their offspring’s childhood.
Weiner proposes that parents should have the following core responsibilities to one another:
Obligation to give aid. When a spouse is in danger, most states have laws that require their partner to provide assistance. Weiner proposes that the same should apply to parent-partners.
Extension of abuse laws. Weiner recommends extending traditional domestic violence laws to protect to parent-partners. For example, her proposal includes allowing psychological abuse to qualify as grounds for obtaining a protection order. Additionally, she recommends that protection orders allow victims to have non-abusive contact with the other parent if the victim wants to. These obligations would be subject to any court order that would keep the parents apart or allocate custody to one parent over the other.
Counseling at the end of romantic relationships. Recognizing that many parent-partnerships begin as romantic relationships, Weiner proposes that counseling should be required when the romantic attachment ends, if one parent wants it but the other parent doesn’t. By encouraging such programs, Weiner “hopes that more parents would try programs that would help them reconcile or at least act like good friends at the end of the romantic relationship.” Parent-partners can agree, before there are even signs that a relationship is deteriorating, that counseling is in their child’s best interest, and therefore have a plan in place that recognizes this goal before the need arises.
Fair dealing when entering into contracts. Weiner proposes that parent-partners should be required to deal fairly with each other, in terms of creating contracts such as post-marital agreements, cohabitation agreements, etc. Under this plan, the parent-partner seeking enforcement of a contract would be required to demonstrate that both partners entered into the agreement fairly, without coercion and that it is fair.
Caring and sharing within the parent-partnership. Lastly, the obligations would recognize that one parent in a partnership often provides a substantial amount of the child and home care. Weiner suggests that parent-partners share equally in physical care responsibilities, and her proposal suggests that a parent who takes on a disproportionate share of this work should be entitled to compensation, to be enforced by the courts. Parent-partners could take steps to recognize the value of such contributions from the outset, perhaps by openly discussing this principle and incorporating it into daily life.
Weiner envisions that these core obligations will set a standard not only for how the law views co-parents, but also how co-parents view themselves. By acknowledging that the adults in a child’s life are intertwined in important ways, society can send an important message about the role partnership plays in the cycle of raising children.
While Weiner’s model specifically calls for system change through legal reform, children could benefit now if their parents adopted these principles — not because of a legal obligation, but because it is in the best interest of their children.