Blog | March 17, 2014

Custody: The Empty Battle


By Paul Steckley

I’m often asked about the importance of obtaining custody of a child when parents separate.  My answer to most prospective clients always reminds me of the story of Pyrrhus.  Pyrrhus was a king in ancient Greece and acclaimed by the ancient scribes as one of history’s greatest military leaders.  He successfully defeated the Roman army at the beginning of its ascension to the eventual Roman Empire, but his armies suffered such losses that he is recorded as observing, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”  Hence the term “Pyrrhic victory” has come to apply to any situation where a positive outcome might eventually lead to a much more negative one.

A custody fight is, in my mind, the classic example of a Pyrrhic victory.  We have to remember what custody is:  the right to make decisions on a behalf of a child.  However, while this seems on the face of it to be a crucial issue, in most cases it simply isn’t worth the battle, and all of the negative energy that comes with it.  If we look at what important decisions need to be made for a child, they basically come down to a few standard questions.  What school will they go to?  What sports and activities will they be involved in?  What medical treatment will they receive?  What religion will they practice?  Many of these questions are answered early in a child’s life, and every parent hopes they never have to make a decision about a serious medical procedure.  By the time that most parents separate, usually the child’s education path has been decided.  They usually just follow the parents’ religious and spiritual upbringing.  There’s actually few, if any, really important decisions left to make.

Yet, it’s not uncommon to see parents willing to go to Court to fight over custody.  But if custody is simply the right to make decisions for a child, for whom those decisions have usually already been made, what really is the fight about?  In most cases it’s about nothing more than exacting some sort of revenge or advantage over the other parent; one last opportunity to “win” in the separation process.  However, those fights are protracted and expensive.  By the time they are concluded, the “winner” has exhausted a great deal of time, energy, and money to obtain a Court order granting them custody, with all of the negative energies and emotions that the fight elicits from the losing spouse.  It’s not uncommon to find parents after a custody battle refusing to speak with each other, sometimes refusing to even be in the presence of the other.  Ultimately, the child suffers because the relationship between the parents has been irrevocably damaged.  The “winning” parent has obtained their goal but in so doing has poisoned their relationship with the other parent.  As well, the “winning” parent often feels dissatisfied with the result because they then experience a level of distrust and uncooperative behaviour from the other parent that the simplest of parental tasks, such as arranging for one of the parents to attend a child’s hockey game, becomes a vitriolic battle of wills.  Parents have to arrange separate parent teacher interviews because they can’t stand to be in the same room with each other for even fifteen minutes.  The child feels this tension and constantly feels torn between two fronts.  Ultimately, there is no winner in a custody battle.  Truly, Pyrrus’s words ring as true today as they did thousands of years ago.

Paul Steckley, B.A. (Hons), LL.B.
102-2680 Matheson Boulevard East
Mississauga, ON, L4W 0A5
Profession: Family Law Lawyer
Tel: 905-487-5467
Fax: 905-487-5465
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