Substantial Change in Circumstances, or, Death by a Thousand Cuts

In Florida, modifications to marital settlement agreements require a “substantial change in circumstances.” If you and your ex cannot agree on a change to the agreement, the party seeking the change must show that a “substantial change in circumstances” has occurred. And believe you me, the Court does not define “substantial” the same way you do. Daddy getting a new girlfriend – not substantial. Mommy recruiting the children as her personal spies – not substantial. Parents disagreeing about the right age to get a nose ring, date, wear a bikini, or babysit – not substantial.

And so the “substantial change in circumstances” standard sentences divorced parents to death by a thousand cuts.

An example:

Tyler had a field trip last Wednesday morning. He asked me Tuesday night to bring him his favorite hat to wear on the trip (they were going to a wildlife refuge) and I told him I would drop it by the school before they left at 9:00. I arrived about ten minutes after the late bell and walked to Tyler’s classroom.

Tyler wasn’t there. The teacher said she hadn’t been called about an absence, but that she needed to get started with her lesson and Tyler shouldn’t miss it. This is the second time in two weeks that Tyler has been late to school.

I passed my ex as I was driving back to work. Tyler was in the backseat, looking glum, probably worried that he was going to miss his field trip.

And there was nothing I could do about it. I wanted to claw my steering wheel in impotent rage.

However, a counter-example:

I asked my ex if he would be open to sending Tyler to a sleep-away camp this summer. The camp is one that I went to as a child. My mother went to the same camp when SHE was a child, and knows the director personally. It’s about an hour from her house, so she could be there quickly if Tyler got sick or hurt. My ex said that Tyler was too young and that there were “too many crazies out there.” So I’m sending him during my parenting time, at my own expense. And there’s nothing he can do about it.

I’m going to guess that ninety-nine percent of your ex’s behavior that drives you up a wall is not “substantial.”

Those parents bent on self-destruction will fly just under the radar, seeing how close they can get to the Line of Litigation. They’re the kind of parent who drops the kids off 15 minutes late, every single time.

And there’s nothing you can do about it.

So, how do you cope? I can share the methods Jason and I have used:

1. Stick to your guns.

Jason and I told his oldest daughter consistently that she would not be shaving her legs until she left elementary school. Her mother let her start shaving last summer (without talking to Jason)(while telling Hollyn that “it’s the mom’s decision”), and Hollyn assumed that we would follow suit. We didn’t.

In an ideal co-parenting situation, the parents work together to create smooth transitions between households. If you both have the same parenting values, then you can probably agree on some ground rules (no TVs in bedrooms, no dessert on week nights, etc.)

However, this is just an ideal. “Working together” with your ex should NEVER entail them bullying you into accepting their vision of parenting as the correct or only option, or agreeing to something against your better judgment. Your house, your rules.

Which brings me to….

2. Don’t Be A Bully

The allowable number of times to ask your ex about a potentially contentious subject is ONE. Nagging, wheedling, or otherwise acting like a 12-year-old girl who needs a ride to the mall will get you nowhere. Their house, their rules.


3. Two Wrongs STILL Don’t Make a Right

Just because your ex drops the kids off 15 minutes late doesn’t mean you get to do the same. If you demonstrate politeness, courtesy, and fairness, you’re more likely to get it in return. Plus, you’ll sleep better at night. When parents retaliate against each other, the only ones who get hurt are the children. You have an independent obligation to do the right thing for your children, simply because it’s the right thing and not because it makes you feel superior to your ex. You must be good without regard to his/her behavior.

All that being said….

4. Pick your battles

There are cases where the above guidelines should be put aside. If you have a legitimate, reasonable fear that your children are being allowed to engage in harmful or illegal behavior, please speak up loudly. Examples include underage driving,  underage drinking, smoking, or self-harm (cutting, eating disorders, etc.).

If you don’t like something that’s going on at your ex’s house, ask yourself a question: If I called the cops about this, would they do anything? If the answer is “no,” then you should probably save your outrage for a real issue. “Officer! He’s letting my children JUMP ON A TRAMPOLINE!!! Everyone knows those things are death traps! You’d better get here quick!” “Officer! She let my daughter GO ON A DATE! Bring the really big German Shepherds!”

And finally…..

5. Be prepared

If your ex is unwilling to split a cost with you, be prepared to pay for it yourself. If your ex is unwilling to take your child to an activity, be prepared to do it yourself. And for the LOVE OF PETE, don’t drag your children into it. “Well, I know you’d like to join the soccer team, but if your dad won’t pay half, then you can’t.”

Being a single parent, operating an independent household, is both a burden and an opportunity. You can make your home a place of safety, security, and comfort for your children. You can provide a place for them to be themselves, to be happy without guilt. It takes a lot of work, but the work is just as necessary as putting gas in your car – and a lot more worthwhile.


1 Comment

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One response to “Substantial Change in Circumstances, or, Death by a Thousand Cuts

  1. cortney waid

    Boy are you right on all accounts! My divorce was final last Monday, so i am newly going through all of these fun things. It’s such a tough situation! Thank you for sharing.

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