Why Do Terrible Parents Still Want Custody?

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Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

ivorces and break-ups can be messy enough on their own, but when children are involved, there arises a whole additional slew of issues around determining custody and visitation. Often during the relationship, one parent was decidedly less interested in child-rearing responsibilities. Sometimes, a parent was completely absent, or abusive, or otherwise downright terrible. But then when the time comes to settle custody, this parent is suddenly demanding equal (or even full) custody. So, what gives?

There are a lot of reasons an objectively terrible parent would still fight for and want favorable custody or visitation. Here are five potential explanations.

1. Because you do.

For many parents, the reason is as simple as this. You want primary or full custody? Well now they do, because in a worst-case scenario (they don’t get it) they’ve at least caused you a good bit of frustration and emotional distress — not to mention costing you financially in terms of court and lawyer fees — and in a best-case scenario (they get it), they’ve taken away something they know you want. This is an especially common explanation when it comes to abusive relationships, as is the second potential reason.

2. Because they see their child as a weapon, not a person.

An abuser’s primary goal is to inflict pain upon their victim. To an abuser, the child you share can be a useful tool in continuing to inflict that pain even when your formal relationship with them has ended. If an abusive parent has access to your child, they can use all sorts of means and manipulation to cause you harm, whether that’s by undermining your own relationship with the child or using shared custody and visitation as an excuse to communicate with you in an abusive manner. In the case of visitation, there are some parents who fight for it and then never show up for a single one, because it was never about actually seeing the child — it was about hurting you. Conversations around visits and custody can be torturous, and torturing you is exactly what an abuser intends to do.

3. Because they realize that one day their child will know they’re terrible.

Young children tend to love unconditionally. They don’t see the terrible traits in their parent that you do. They don’t see the court documents, the protective orders, the police reports, the emails or the texts. And even when it comes to abuse that children may have experienced first hand, according to researchers at Northwestern University, “some stressful experiences — such as chronic childhood abuse — are so traumatic, the memories hide like a shadow in the brain and can’t be consciously accessed.”

But eventually, children grow up. One reason that terrible parents may still fight for custody could be that they know full well their children will one day learn the truth about events they’re currently too young to understand. And when that point comes, the abusive parent may realize, their child is likely to limit contact or sever ties entirely. In other words, the terrible parent knows that their time to enjoy a bond with the child is limited.

4. Because they don’t have a good relationship with their own parent.

In many cases, people who make terrible parents don’t have healthy relationships with their own. Much of our parenting skills come from practice and research, but a lot of it also comes from the example our own parents provided. Without a good blueprint for care-giving, relationships between children and parents become tenuous. For an adult who has a difficult relationship with their own parent, they may think that the only way to prevent the same outcome (alienation, no contact or strained contact) is to hold tightly to custody.

In other words, if your child’s terrible father resents his own father, he may be desperate to prevent the child you share from resenting himself in a similar way. He may see custody as a means to maintain control over that relationship in a way he wasn’t able to control the relationship with his own parent, allowing him the chance to secure a different outcome for his child than the one he lives with as an adult. Relatedly, if the father in this scenario has parents who divorced when he was younger, he may struggle with feelings of abandonment related to lopsided custody that make him particularly dead-set on not inflicting such pain on his own child, oblivious to the pain he’s already inflicted upon the child and their relationship through his actions as a terrible or abusive parent. This ties into the last potential explanation for why a terrible parent might still seek custody.

5. Because they don’t think they’re terrible.

Perhaps the most obvious reason is this one. Few parents consider themselves terrible — anyone with a narcissistic parent of their own can tell you this. Depending on factors like gender and culture, your child’s terrible parent may even receive validation from others that they aren’t terrible. In fact, when it comes to men in particular, they’re often lauded as heroic for exerting the barest minimum of parental duties, providing them with a false perception of their parenting capabilities.

Even when it comes to the most objective example of terrible parenting — physical abuse — there are often layers of mental illness involved on the part of the abuser that can prevent an abusive parent from ever recognizing themselves as such. It can be more than cognitive dissonance when it comes to some of these mental illnesses, but the outcome is the same: the terrible parent doesn’t think they’re terrible, and so they want custody and visitation to reflect this false reality they live in.

Unfortunately, regardless of the reason they want it, terrible parents often will get custody and visitation rights that aren’t within the best interests of the child. We can’t always change that, but one day our children will be old enough to understand why we tried.

I write about my ongoing journey from domestic violence victim to survivor.

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