Parental Authority in Divorced Families

When parents divorce, they must continue to make decisions together regarding how to co-parent their children. In some couples, decision-making about the children may have gone smoothly in marriage, but becomes conflict-ridden in divorce. In other couples, parenting decisions have always been conflictual and continue to be so in divorce. And finally, in some couples, marital decision-making conflicts are actually reduced by clearer decision-making boundaries negotiated in divorce. Regardless of how well decisions were negotiated in marriage, divorce presents the necessity of renegotiating many of the family routines, parental roles, and household rules. A conscious look at how decision-making is approached can help couples avoid getting into power struggles that result in the whole family suffering from painful conflict.

There are three basic ways that decision-making can be approached: by Cooperation, by Fighting, and by Default. A cooperative decision is one is in which both parents listen to each other and come to an agreement together. Each party to a cooperative agreement generally feels good about the process and can faithfully execute the agreement. Children benefit from the clarity their parents have about what the agreement is and the reasoning behind the agreement. Children do not suffer from loyalty conflicts when they know that their parents have made parenting decisions cooperatively. Knowing this, most parents try to make decisions cooperatively as much as possible.

Unfortunately, parents do not always agree. Even if they could agree, it would be very burdensome to try to negotiate every parenting decision through a cooperative process. Different couples have different tolerances for the time and energy that cooperative decision-making can require. Divorced parents often have very little patience for cooperative negotiation because of the many painful feelings brought on by the divorce. When there is not enough time or patience for a cooperative decision to be made, divorced parents often resort to arguing with each other. If the arguments are short, result in an agreement, and do not involve the children, then they may be a satisfactory route to a cooperative decision. If, however, the arguments become protracted, do not lead to resolution, and escalate to the point that the children are affected (either by the children witnessing the conflict or by the children actually being drawn into the conflict), then a damaging dynamic is present. Family research has repeatedly shown that one of the most harmful conditions for children is exposure to or involvement in their parents’ conflict.

Default Decision-Making

Fortunately, there is an alternative to fighting when a cooperative agreement is elusive. This alternative is that decisions can be made by a pre-negotiated default arrangement. Married couples have many such default decision-making arrangements that they employ when they disagree on any particular issue. One example is that the wife may defer to the husband about any conflict regarding maintenance of the home, and the husband may defer to the wife on any disagreement regarding interior decorating. Another example may be that the mother’s vote breaks any tie over how to parent the children and the father’s vote breaks any impasse over financial decisions. Some couples have an alternating system. They informally keep track of who got their way in the last conflict and they let the other prevail in the next. Each couple develops their own system of how to use default decision-making when specific disagreements fail to result in cooperative agreements. The default decision-making process helps reduce conflict, because it is an enduring system that does not need to be renegotiated each time a decision needs to be made. Thus a couple with a good default system may not agree cooperatively on each decision, but their disagreements do not lead to fights. The default system does not settle their disagreement, but it settles the question of who will make the decision if consensus cannot be reached. Couples without a good default decision-making system are prone to open conflict whenever disagreement is present.

A couple’s default decision-making process might have been consciously negotiated; it may have sprung from a mutually assumed sense of fairness; or it may be a result of many arguments that established the boundaries of who is in charge in what type of decision. Regardless of how well a married couple negotiated their default decision-making process, it is likely to need renegotiation in divorce. Perhaps the divorce is occurring because no satisfactory default decision-making process was ever negotiated in the marriage. In this case, the establishment of two households in divorce may help to define a clearer default decision-making process for the divorced parents. Or it may not. Whether divorced parents increase or reduce their levels of conflict is largely a factor of how well they renegotiate their default decision-making process in light of their new family constellation.

Default Decision-Making Options

Each couple or set of co-parents can establish their own self-created default decision-making arrangement. If divorced parents are wholly unable to do this, they resort to the court to make their default decisions for them. The process is usually very expensive, full of conflict, and ultimately unsatisfying, because the court can only offer rigid templates that divorced parents must then fit themselves into. The potential for a creatively crafted system that works for both parents is lost. Divorced parents who resort to legal action are admitting their inability to successfully create their own default decision-making boundaries. In such cases co-parenting counselors are likely to be dramatically more helpful than judges in producing lasting conflict reducing solutions.

In crafting one’s own unique system there are three basic patterns to work from: Single Authority Parenting, Activity Specific Authority, and Parallel Parenting. None of these exist in pure form, but as basic patterns they each have their respective pros and cons.

Single Authority Parenting

In Single Authority Parenting one parent is agreed upon as the default decision-maker in most or all parenting decisions. This arrangement is most commonly seen in marriages with more traditional role divisions. Often the mother is in charge of the parenting and the father is dominant in financial maters. In some traditional families the father may officially be in charge of all decisions, but unofficially he defers to the mother on most parenting issues. In more fully patriarchal families the father is the default authority on all decisions, including parenting.

The advantages of Single Authority Parenting are most evident when parenting skill is very unevenly divided between the parents. A parent who spends more time with the children or who has developed stronger parenting skills may claim a natural authority to make default parenting decisions. The children consistently get the benefit of the more skilled parent’s judgment. Likewise, the children are protected from the poor judgment of an unskilled or inexperienced parent. Additionally, if the parent with the authority is doing most of the parenting, then that parent is able to function with a valuable sense of autonomy. This parent’s authority is clear to the children and to the other parent. This parent is likely to take clear responsibility for all aspects of the children’s lives, and is likely to experience their role as important and fulfilling.

The disadvantages of Single Authority Parenting lie mostly in the effect this system has on the non-authority parent. Non-authority parents often do not consider themselves important or find much fulfillment in their role as parent. If they agree that their parenting skills are poor in relation to the authority parent, then they are likely to defer most or all of the care-giving to that parent, essentially depriving their children and themselves of the potential for them to be an important presence in their children’s lives. In divorced families, non-authority co-parents are much more likely to drop out of their children’s lives completely. Without much sense that they are important personally to their children, the non-authority parent is also less likely to want to continue to contribute financially to children who essentially belong to the authority parent.

When the non-authority parent does not agree that the difference in parenting skills warrants a Single Authority Parenting default decision-making system, more trouble is likely. In order to establish some autonomy as a parent, the non-authority may subvert the authority parent in a variety of ways. Often passive-aggressive tactics are employed. The non-authority parent will not directly oppose the authority parent on any issue, but he or she will forget to comply, or half-way comply, or misinterpret instructions. In this way the non-authority parent creates some opportunity to have autonomy without appearing to oppose the authority parent. Passive-aggressive tactics usually generate intense frustration in the authority parent and often result in abusive outbursts. These are experienced by the non-authority parent and the children as further reason to avoid openly defying the authority parent. The children and non-authority parent then become aligned in the mutual goal of gaining autonomy without directly challenging the authority of the dominant parent.

One specific passive-aggressive tactic that deserves special note is secrecy. In order to avoid the control of the authority parent, the non-authority parent is likely to share less and less information with the authority parent. While married, such secrecy is likely to be limited. But in two-household families, secrecy can become pronounced. As the children learn that one parent keeps things secret from the other to avoid being controlled, so they learn that they can keep things secret from either or both parents. Consequently, the efforts of the authority parent to stay in control of the children result in a situation wherein the authority parent ends up with very little control of the children anytime they are not in direct sight.

These passive-aggressive tactics, including secrecy, are not a result of either co-parents’ personal moral failure. They are not to be blamed on the non-authority parent, who is simply trying to get some authority to be their own parent. Nor are they to attributed to “control issues” of the authority parent (The deepest intent of the authority parent is not to control the other parent. It is to insure the best parenting for the children). Rather, these dynamics are the predictable results of a failure to negotiate a workable default decision-making system. The Single Authority Parent system only works to the extent that both parents agree to this system. When one parent tries to unilaterally impose this system, the other parent will likely either leave the family altogether, or resist the system with either open conflict or passive aggressive chaos.

Activity Specific Authority

Another basic template for default co-parent decision-making is Activity Specific Authority. In this system each parent holds the default authority to make conflicted decisions in different aspects of their children’s lives. For instance, one parent may decide what sports to involve the children in, while the other parent may be dominant in the children’s academic choices. Or one parent may be granted the authority to determine bedtime and curfew rules, while the other parent gets to choose health care practices and providers. Both parents agree to uphold the decisions of the other parent whenever the children are involved in the activity that the other parent has authority over. It does not matter whose house the children are in or which parent is currently on duty. What matters is what activity children are involved in.

In Activity Specific Authority co-parents continue to attempt to reach cooperative decisions whenever they can. When they cannot agree, however, they at least agree upon who will make the final call, based on who has authority in this realm of activity. For instance, if Mom has authority on health care decisions and Booby is sick at his Dad’s house. Dad calls Mom and checks with her about bringing Bobby in to see the doctor in his neighborhood. Mom says, “No, take him to Dr. Murray, the doctor Bobby usually sees downtown.” Dad tries to convince Mom to agree to using the closer doctor, but Mom is firm. So Dad defaults to the standing agreement that Mom is in charge of health care decisions. They end the call and Bobby asks, “What doctor are we going to?” Dad responds, “Well your Mom thinks we should go to your regular doctor downtown, and I usually let her make the decisions about doctors when we disagree, so let’s go see Dr. Murray”.

A working default decision-making system, based on activity, can resolve conflicts that would otherwise turn into fights. The main advantage of this type of system is that it flexibly maximizes the ability of each parent to shape the part of their children’s lives that they have the most interest or skill in. When one parent is more concerned than the other parent about a child’s success in learning a musical instrument, for instance, it may make most sense for that parent to have default authority over the choice of instrument, teacher, practice schedule, etc. In general, the parent awarded default authority earns this privilege not only through their concern or passion about the activity, but also through their willingness to do most of the work of actively shepherding the child in the activity. Few co-parents will feel good about carrying the burden of decisions made by an uninvolved parent. But they may be willing to play a supportive role for the sake of the child. Consequently, activity specific default decision-making authority may not be evenly split between co-parents. Rather, the number of activities a parent has default authority in is likely to mirror the amount of time that parent invests in parenting.

Activity Specific Authority parenting has some disadvantages as well. Firstly, it may require rather extensive negotiation of who has default authority over which specific activities. There may be some activities where both parents hope to claim both involvement and authority. Further, children’s lives keep changing as they grow. This requires activity specific default parenting agreements to regularly renegotiated. Fights can break out in the time before a new default agreement has been established. And during negotiation, fights can break out over what the new default agreements should be. Another problem is that newly divorcing parents must negotiate many activity specific default authority decisions all at once to accommodate new living situations and parenting schedules. This can be very stressful to divorcing couples, especially if they are simultaneously negotiating stressful financial matters.

Thus, while an Activity Specific Authority default decision-making plan can make the best use of any family’s specific parenting skill and interest resources, it is not likely to prevent all co-parent conflict. Divorced parents still face the problem of what to do when they do not agree (or do not yet agree) on who has the default authority for a particular activity.

Parallel Parenting

Parallel parenting is a default parenting authority system wherein each parent has the authority to make any contested parenting decisions when it is their time with the children. The rules and choices each parent makes may be different from the rules in the other parent’s house. Children learn that Dad does things one way and Mom does them another. Conflict is avoided by respecting the autonomy of each parent to make their own decisions on their own time and in their own homes. Frustration is minimized by each parent releasing expectations that the other parent will comply with anything not specifically agreed to by both parties.

Parallel parents will hopefully continue to make as many cooperative decisions as possible. In this way the children can have more consistency as they go between households. Parallel parents also hopefully negotiate as many activity specific authority agreements as possible. This way the strength of each parents’ interests and skills are carried over into the other parent’s household. But when cooperation or activity specific agreements cannot be reached, parallel parenting offers a final option to avoid conflict. As such, parallel parenting is the default of default decision-making plans.

Resorting to parallel parenting is not ideal. It lacks the teamwork and other advantages of activity specific authority parenting and cooperative decision-making. It does, however, have three main positive attributes. First, it is easy to understand. It does not take a lot of negotiation to define who the authority is on any given issue. All that is needed is a parenting schedule. Once that is established, co-parents can attempt agreement on any issue they face. If they are unable to resolve it, the authority automatically rests with the parent in charge at the time. Secondly, parallel parenting safeguards the autonomy of each parent. When parents are free to make their own decisions they are more likely to take responsibility for those decisions, learn from their mistakes, develop their own authentic parenting style, and find more satisfaction and fulfillment in their role as a parent. Parallel parenting offers some parents a sense of autonomy in parenting that they never had when married. Consequently, some parents become better parents in divorce than they were while married. And thirdly, parallel parenting, if both parties agree to it, is very effective in reducing parental conflict. Once the alternative are exhausted, parallel parenting offers the last chance for decisions to be made without destruction to the family. If parallel parenting is rejected as the final default, then adversarial court battles or complete estrangement are likely. Parallel parenting may not be ideal, but the alternative of unending conflict is decidedly worse.

The disadvantages of parallel parenting are several. Children may initially suffer from confusion and loyalty conflicts about the differences in the rules between households. They will not automatically know that it is okay to break some of Dad’s rules in Mom’s house. Children are aided in this confusion when both parents explain that each parent is the authority in their own home. Research on divorced children shows that they benefit from consistency (particularly during the divorce process), but it also shows that children can successfully adapt to two households and two different parenting styles. In fact, there is sometimes a benefit to children in having a variety of role modeling to choose from (presuming that both parents are have adequate parenting skill).

Another disadvantage of parallel parenting is that it can lead to less exchange of information about the children. Without the need to make decisions together, fewer conversations happen. The result is that more parenting mistakes are made because of a lack of communication. It may be that no one told Dad about the last minute dress rehearsal on his night. Or it may be that no one told Mom that Billy didn’t get much sleep last night, so a nap might be helpful. Parallel parents may get so comfortable with their default plan that they no longer push themselves to improve their co-parenting by continuing to try to make cooperative agreements. The children suffer from this complacency when their parents could be developing and modeling ever increasing conflict resolution skills.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of parallel parenting is the loss of control each parent experiences when the child is with the other parent. This loss can be particularly difficult for a parent who has been providing the bulk of the care-giving. While this parent may need relief from single parenting, she or he may also suffer anxiety over whether the children are safe in the care of the less experienced parent. In cases of child abuse or neglect, these fears need serious consideration. In cases where the other parent is an adequate care-giver, however, the burden may be on the primary care-giver to let go of their usual role in order to respect the boundaries necessary for the other parent to experience some autonomy and authority as a parent. If the role of parent is the dominant part of a primary care-giver’s identity even a temprary letting go of this role can be disorienting and/or grief producing. Often ongoing parental conflict is a factor of the primary care-giver resisting the feelings associated with this letting go.

Alternatively, parallel parenting can also thrust an inexperienced care-giver into a single parenting role without any available back-up. Children can suffer from the mistakes that a poorly skilled parent may make, especially if a parallel parenting arrangement is minimizing communication with the primary care-giver. If those mistakes are serious enough, they can damage the newly autonomous relationship between the less experienced parent and the children. Thus it is vital for co-parents without sufficient experience in care-giving to prepare themselves well for their single parenting duties. Preparations may include: setting up a child safe and child friendly home, reading about child development, attending parenting classes, building relationships with other families of same age children, building relationships with the children’s other care-givers or teachers, and identifying community resources for parents. Probably the most valuable resource for an inexperienced parent, however, is the other parent! When parents can clearly negotiate their default parenting authority agreements, they can better exchange communication about how to best take care of their children. In this way the children become safer in the care of the less experienced parent.

Fighting Over the Default Plan

Default decision-making plans can be very effective at reducing parental conflict. Until a default plan is in place, however, conflict may rage over what the default plan should be. Often a parent who wants to make decisions cooperatively will actually fight with the other parent rather than accept any default arrangement. This parent may believe that he/she is advocating for the high road of cooperation, but to the children and the other parent, it still looks like he/she wants the control of veto power over every decision. In reality, neither parent is being cooperative unless an actual agreement is being made. Thus neither parent involved in a fight can claim that the fighting is the other parent’s responsibility. When attempts to get cooperation fail, fighting about why is not preferable to accepting a default resolution.

Fighting can also occur in spite of an existing default plan when one parent uses the default plan to avoid responsible efforts to make as many cooperative agreements as possible. As discussed above, this type of complacency is not good co-parenting. Ultimately, lack of reasonable efforts to make cooperative agreements when possible will undermine the effectiveness of any default plan to settle conflict. It will also erode each co-parent’s respect for the other parent.


Since parental conflict is particularly damaging to children, divorced parents should consciously negotiate how they will make decisions and avoid conflict. Cooperative decisions are most ideal, but not always possible. When cooperative decision-making fails, conflict can still be avoided by a good default decision-making agreement. Such agreements are pre-negotiated understandings of who has the authority to make decisions when consensus cannot be reached. Default decision-making systems may need periodic renegotiation, but they are not re-evaluated with each new issue. There is no pure type of default decision-making plan. Each couple must negotiate (directly or indirectly) their own system. The basic templates include Activity Specific Authority and Parallel Parenting. Parallel parenting, because it requires the least negotiation, is usually the default of default decision-making systems. Without any default plan divorced families are likely to suffer either severe estrangement or ongoing conflict. Thus, while default plans may not be ideal, and they may be difficult to adjust to, they are necessary tools for every set of divorced co-parents.

© 2010 Tim Hartnett

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

Tim Hartnett, MFT is father to Molly at their home in Santa Cruz, CA. Tim also works part time as a writer, psychotherapist and men's group leader. If you have any feedback, or would like to receive the monthly column, "Daddyman Speaks" by Tim Hartnett regularly via email, (free and confidential) send your name and email address to E-Mail Tim Hartnett, 911 Center St. Suite "C", Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831.464.2922 voice & fax.

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