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The Big Problem With Conflict Resolution Apps for Divorced Parents

Can software really change the ways divorced couples make each other's lives hell?

Anyone who has gone through a divorce, even a so-called “good” one, knows it’s a hellacious experience. Add children into the mix, and the stakes quadruple alongside the emotions. Now you have to transition a confused, grieving child whose life has irrevocably changed into two households, all while navigating 1) the legal and financial issues of splitting and 2) the shame, grief and stigma of a failed relationship.

That’s hard enough when you and your ex are amicable.

But consider you’re dealing with a high-conflict divorce: one where the ex not only despises you, but may intend to make you suffer for leaving them. Someone who consciously or not turns every drop-off or pickup, every doctor visit, every forgotten water bottle or lost jacket, every play date, every birthday party, every holiday, and, well, every single possible communication about the kid into an opportunity to revisit your crimes as a former partner.

Sounds miserable, right? But according to a slew of co-parenting apps, it doesn’t have to be. They promise a protection from the conflict, and a legal solution too: For a fee ranging from zero to over $100 annually per parent, you can make your divorce easier, and save yourself money in attorney’s fees, which will also keep your ass out of court.

But should you end up pleading you case before a judge, the apps cover your ass here, too — by tracking all communications, shared expenses and calendar events. With the solid backing of a permanent record, there’s no argument over who’s the bigger jerk! These apps will even, in some cases, help you monitor your tone so you don’t go throwing gas on that already raging fire.

What’s unclear, though, is whether these apps can really solve the very problems they claim to.

A High-Tech Solution for Fighting Parents

The app CoParenter is a relative newcomer on the scene. CoParenter’s star feature is called Intelligent Dispute Resolution. App co-founder Eric Weiss told Fast Company that it makes it “way harder to send that F-bomb.”

But it’s an extreme oversimplification of what really happens between warring parents, or in family courts.

Here’s an example of what CoParenter promises to do for high-conflict parents. (The text was provided to Mashable; CoParenter canceled this interview after receiving my questions for this article.)

Jack: We’re going to take the kids to meet our new dog on Saturday. Can they go to you on Sunday instead?

You: New dog?! I thought we talked about this not being a good time for them to get a pet. I don’t like this idea.

Jack: This is not acceptable. Fu**—

Before you’ve finished typing that expletive, a prompt would appear that asks you to take a beat and consider rephrasing. Hey, this message sounds hostile, the prompt reads. Do you want to send?

In this example, we have two assholes who already have it all wrong. Prompting one of them not to say “fuck” is the least of their problems. (In what world would a custody order even require the other parent’s permission to get a dog? Provided you aren’t putting the child in harm’s way, you need no other parent’s permission to get a pet. Jack is about to be an asshole, for sure, but the other parent was already an asshole first when they wrote “New dog!?”)

“Filtering language is not going to make someone hellbent on being a jerk to the other parent not be a jerk to the other parent,” Minnesota family attorney Zach Smith told MEL by phone. Smith, who’s been a practicing family attorney for 11 years now, sees these apps as good for keeping everything in one place and using a shared calendar, but he doesn’t pitch it as a fix for anything else. Plus, you can just use a shared Google calendar and text and email, too.

“You can be a jerk in hundreds of other ways,” he continues. “You schedule activities on the other parent’s time. You talk trash to the kid about the other parent. One client I had would tell the other parent, ‘Once a week, I’m keeping a journal of all the crap you pull and giving it to your son on his 18th birthday, so he can see who you really are.’ No app changes that. No court changes that. There’s no family court police.”

Profanity Is a Symptom, Not a Problem

There are plenty of ways to be disparaging without profanity, to say nothing of the way aggrieved parents mess with the drop-off and pick-up times, send excessive messages to the tune of dozens a day, or constantly make contact during one parent’s time to inquire about the child’s well-being, ask to change plans, or subtly devalue the other parent any time they can. If you’re dead-set on disrupting the other parent’s bonding time, you can do so much more subtly.

But according to CoParenter, if you go ahead and say fuck, you could be in trouble. “If a user overrides a warning and sends it anyway, the system flags the phrase and may make it available to appropriate third parties such as a judge, lawyer or mediator because people behave better in daylight,” Weiss continued.

But the key phrase here is may, and again, it’s not really the profanity that’s the problem, but rather a symptom. The communication isn’t going to be beamed up to a judge immediately. More likely is that in order to get this person “in trouble” for saying fuck you about a dog, you’d have to go to an attorney ($$), who would have to file a motion ($$$) for a day in court ($$$$) to do… what exactly? Allow you to get your kid a dog (which you can already do)? Tell the other parent to not be an asshole about you getting your kid a dog? Get you full custody? Tell the other parent not to say “fuck” again?

Smith says that’s not how it works. One errant fuck would need a bit more heft as grounds to file a motion in court. And the court date, due to the fact that the courts are clogged, could be months away. It’s pricey, too. “You’re talking $4,000 and six months later for a judge to most likely say, ‘Knock it off and don’t do this anymore,’ and maybe give parameters for communications, or maybe demand counseling. They won’t take away parenting time, because that’s punishing a kid for two parents who don’t get along.”

Judges Don’t Care About Your Petty Bickering

What’s more, the entirety of your communications anywhere, much less on an app, are not going to be printed out and turned over to a judge in full so he can read it for kicks. Attorneys are only going to submit what’s relevant to the issue at hand you’re going to court to file a motion for, and that doesn’t mean everything you think is relevant.

“Judges get so sick of reading messages, emails and Facebook crap,” Smith told me. “‘Don’t send me a pile of this crap,’ they tell us, because the last thing they want to be is a principal’s office and have to say, ‘Knock it off, quit this crap,’ to the parents. It’s not their job, and they’re right.”

What people fail to understand about family court, Smith says, is that it’s not a criminal court where there are clear consequences. “You really have to rise to the level where you’re endangering a child’s emotional or physical well-being before there are consequences,” he explains. “They’re so overbooked and overburdened, and they don’t want to go through 800 pages of Facebook messages.”

That doesn’t stop high-conflict parents from trying to turn everything into a ground-shaking offense. “When Dad says ‘You’re a jerk’ to Mom, we don’t get too excited by that,” Smith says. “We see this on a daily basis. The other week, a parent was just up in arms and freaking out because Dad said something about something, a smart-aleck-y comment about her being 20 minutes late. She said, ‘That’s it, I want a change in custody!’”

“Judges are not interested in making a decision about who the better parent is,” Smith said. “They understand that they don’t know that. It’s not their job to figure out who is the bigger asshole.

“A judge will say, ‘I get that you don’t like each other,’” Smith explains. “At the first meeting, [the judge] will point fingers at both parents and say, ‘I don’t care about you and I don’t care about you. I care about the child.’”

And Bickering Doesn’t Make You a Bad Parent

What’s more, even if you’re jerks to each other, does that mean you’re a bad parent to your child? Not necessarily. “The majority of time, the parents are good to the kids separately,” Smith says. “They’re just unable to be good co-parents, and they don’t realize the effect that this has on the kid.”

While Smith says the majority of his clients are people who are great co-parents, and often better parents apart then they were together, he has a number of extremely high-conflict parents he represents, people he considers lifetime clients. “These are the people who come to me every six months or every year with a minor issue and have to get a third party involved,” he says.

In the middle are the the second group, what you might call “divorce crazy.” These parents are temporarily afflicted by a period of shittiness that will eventually give way to acceptance and better behavior.

“Even people who start out high-conflict for a while, most of them settle down after six months or a year when the hurt feelings go away,” Smith says. “They calm down, the hurt fades, they move on, they get new significant others, and eventually they figure out that it’s so much easier to cooperate than continue an ongoing battle with the other parent.”

It’s that third group, those career clients, that can’t be swayed by reason or anything. “They just have a deep-seated inability to get over the anger toward the other person,” Smith says. “It’s almost always because there’s hurt feelings between the adults. It’s almost never about the kid or the actual issues. It’s always people who are still upset about something in the past and are — well, I don’t want to say they’re using their kids as a weapon, but they kind of do. … They just can’t not bring that baggage from the past into the co-parenting. And it’s the worst situation for the kid.”

Lack of Reliable Records Is a Real Problem

While some of the bells and whistles vary, all the co-parenting apps on the market, such as Talking Parents and Family Wizard (which has a similar offering called Tone Meter, or “emotional spellcheck”), use the same basic setup to supposedly ease the divorce stress. They keep a permanent, unalterable record of every communication, including dates and time stamps (unlike texts or emails, which parents could claim they never received). They offer shared calendars for coordinating drop-off, pick-up, doctor visits, school functions and every break, vacation and holiday. They offer tools for tracking shared expenses. And as mentioned above, some even offer dispute resolutions that prompt the user when their tone is getting a little out of hand. CoParenter also provides a live chat function with access to a professional mediator.

All this is to save you money and keep you out of the clogged family courts, where judges have little time to babysit aggrieved parents who can’t put aside their differences to focus on their child.

By most accounts, the apps are a godsend. Look around on the internet, and you’ll see parenting bloggers and divorce experts pitch them frequently as the go-to solution for easing the stress and tension of communicating after divorce. Family law attorneys have pitched them as a “lifesaver” in divorce cases when you need a reliable record of who really did or said or didn’t do what.

“In my 20 years on the bench, I witnessed countless families torn apart as they slogged through the family law system, battling over the simplest of co-parenting disagreements,” Sherrill Ellsworth, a former family law judge in Riverside, California, told Fast Company in January in a piece about CoParenter. “The reality is that most cases — up to 80 percent, in my experience — do not require legal intervention, yet that’s exactly where many families end up.”

Ellsworth lent her expertise to the creation of CoParenter, which claims it has helped resolve over 4,000 disputes and helped create 2,000 more parenting plans (a mutual agreement about what shared custody actually looks like). She told Mashable that the strength of CoParenter’s success with judges (meaning it’s the app they often instruct parents who appear before them to use) is that their platform is helping keep all those trivial issues out of the courts, because judges don’t have the time to deal with them.

“Judges have on average seven minutes to hear each motion, whether that motion is related to whether a co-parent can force their ex to feed their child organic food (typically the answer is no), or whether that motion is to decide where that child should sleep tonight due to a credible allegation of child abuse,” Ellsworth told Mashable. “We want to help courts focus on those substantive issue of health and welfare while empowering parents to make parenting decisions.”

But No App Can Fix the Relationship

There’s no disputing that a central repository of communications and calendars can make life easier when keeping track of a kid shuttling between households. But in spite of what these apps can do to ease logistics, they may help judges, but they have very little ability to prevent high-conflict parents from messing with each other in ways that apps can’t track with tone meters or dispute resolution.

And what they promise in terms of keeping that permanent record of everything said or done isn’t exactly going to be the slam dunk parents think it is. Nor does it prevent the myriad ways parents who want to cause utter mayhem can do so.

“It’s little needles,” Smith says. “One parent has a funeral and wants to take the child, but it’s during the other parent’s time and the parent is like, ‘Nope.’ If they are hell-bent on being a jerk, they won’t straight out say ‘F you,’ they will just needle in underground ways.”

There are, of course, a few scenarios Smith can think of where a paper trail is important to file motions that can result in real changes in custody. If one parent cancels their parenting time frequently, always going out of town, that paper trail can become a valid reason to request a different custody arrangement.

But generally, Smith only includes the sorts of communications that would be relevant and shocking to him. “If you get a message that because you were 10 minutes late, the other parent is keeping the kid for Christmas and New Year’s and there’s nothing you can do,” that’s a substantive threat.

“But language stuff? ‘You’re a stupid bitch and I hate you?’ I’d say, you know what, the judge doesn’t care, you’re two adults.”

In his view, counseling is really the only effective measure for high-conflict cases, but even then, the parents have to want to change. He’s seen it happen. “I’ve had some high-conflict cases where they said, ‘It made me recognize my behaviors and the impact it would have on my children,’” he says. “But those are the people who want to do it for their kids.”

I asked Smith what he thinks, given all the cases he’s seen of people behaving at their very worst. Divorce lawyers often say they see good people at their worst, but it’s clear for some high-conflict divorcing people, some of these folks are actually just bad people at their normal, and bad people at their normal don’t give a fuck about saying fuck in an app.

“I think how the hell were these people married just four months ago, living in a house together for two, five or 15 years?” Smith says. “I’ve seen mediations where people jump across the table to punch the other parent. Where they spit on each other. Where they both face the wall and won’t even look at each other. And I think, four months ago they were together. If there’s that much tension and anger now, you know the kid saw that when they were presenting themselves as a couple together.”

In spite of what any co-parenting app promises, there’s just no tone meter or dispute resolution for that.