Working through visitation problems

After a long battle with my ex-girlfriend, I've been given visitation rights to see my three-year-old daughter every other weekend. Her mother has fought every step of the way to keep me from my daughter; even when we were together she never let me care for her. My little girl becomes upset when it's time to leave her mother, which is expected. But my ex says that if my daughter cries, I can't take her. What can I do to make her mother cooperate? Can I do anything without incurring more legal bills to make my ex cooperate?


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your situation is a difficult one. Although you can force the issue of visitation legally, the intense conflict between you and her mother may traumatize your daughter. This could be harmful in many ways, and may strain your relationship with your daughter. It's possible that your best intentions could end up backfiring over time, and your relationship with your daughter could suffer.

Your child is still quite young, and you and your ex-girlfriend apparently cooperated in making her the primary nurturer when you were together. Though you may have regrets about allowing this to happen, it is now history. This was the situation, for whatever reasons, that the two of you enacted.

It would be prudent to talk with your daughter's mother about cooperating with you at this point, for your child's sake, instead of forcing you to resort to legal coercion. Perhaps mediation could help resolve this conflict with some equanimity by providing a safe place where you can express yourselves. It is in the best interest of your child that the two of you strive to develop a working relationship to keep your child from being caught in the middle of your tension.

If you are so inclined, ask your ex-girlfriend how much visitation she believes would help your daughter adjust to separation from her at this age. What is in the best interest of the child depends heavily on the relationship you've had with your daughter from birth until the present and how familiar you are with her needs and personality. If your child has not been separated from her mother for any length of time, and you have not been very present in your daughter's life up to this point, it is possible that your daughter would adapt to you better on a graduated schedule. If this is the case, it may be more appropriate to start with half days twice or three times per week, eventually working up to full days and a full weekend over a much greater length of time.

Work together or with a mediator to see if you can forge some compromise that offers your daughter a less-conflicted experience. If she has never been apart from her mother for a period of 48 hours, you may find that she is emotionally unavailable for developing a relationship with you when you are with her. Your best course of action would be to try to develop a more cooperative relationship with the mother of your child to support your relationship with your daughter.

Though this approach may not feel "fair" to you, it is important to put your daughter's experience and needs ahead of your own. Attachment to a primary nurturing figure is a delicate phenomenon that should be treated with respect, whether it is fair to you or not. You have a right to have a relationship with your daughter. Appeal to your child's mother to offer cooperative suggestions instead of mere resistance. Let her know you would prefer very much to avoid the use of legal force on her for access to your child, and request that she offer a plan for beginning visitation with graduated increases as your daughter adjusts to the schedule. This will give you and your daughter time to adjust to one another in shorter periods, which are likely to be more satisfying and successful connections from the start. Building on these successes will more likely ensure continued strengthening of your relationship in the years ahead.

If you find that you have truly done your best in offering to hear her best suggestions for helping you develop a relationship with your daughter, and tried to reach her with the help of a mediator without obtaining any results, you will be left to make your decision unilaterally. Invite the mother of your child to be a part of the solution rather than an obstacle to your relationship with your daughter. It is in your daughter's best interests that she develop a safe and trusting relationship with you. Let your ex-girlfriend know that this issue will not disappear and that you need her help in setting up a cooperative parenting approach that will benefit your daughter rather than cause her further distress in separating from her.

Slow this down and see if the two of you can come to some mutually acceptable agreement that is in the best interests of your daughter. You once cared for each other and were able to conceive this child together. Is there some way to make peace with one another in order to truly offer your child the best of both of you, instead of the worst of a miscarried relationship?

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