A deeper way to think about intimate relationships

August 12th, 2018

I just listened to Alain de Botton on the podcast On Being.
His work is so deep, thought-provoking, and moving. He turns upside down our commonly understood assumptions about intimate relationships, and gets to the deeper truth, of what we are trying to find when we search for love. He also has great insight into why people might stray – when in committed relationships. Recommended listening for everyone.

https://onbeing.org/programs/alain-de-botton-the-true-hard-work-of-love-and-relationships-feb2017/

The Children’s Needs Can Guide the Parents

July 25th, 2018

I met with a couple who used mediation for their divorce, about 14 years ago, and wanted to resolve a conflict now for their restructured family. The mother emailed me to tell me that they were having trouble figuring out the credit that the father should get for the child’s room and board expenses while he is in college.

She implied that they were having a lot of conflict, and that the children spent almost no time with their father, and that the parents communicated infrequently, and only via text.

I feel nervous before the meeting, worried that the distance of the years that have passed would turn the whole thing into a screaming match. It turned out that both children have had problems, and that the parents have really pulled it together to support the children in a way that I found very moving.

The mother started out by saying that she also agreed that her receiving child support while her son is away at college, and she’s not feeding him, didn’t feel fair. This lowered the temperature in the room, because father felt understood, and he didn’t have to “fight” as hard.

They told me about how their son is having some challenges, and the mother found a boarding school program for him to attend. The parents weren’t speaking much at that point, so the mother just put together the money to pay for a year in boarding school. The father said, “she did an amazing job. She probably saved his life. I didn’t have the money to pay for my half of that school, but in the future, if I do, I will pay her back.”

Since they both acknowledged each other’s needs, the rest was simple calculation. We finished up, and they left. When I came out of my office, about 15 minutes later, I saw them standing together outside, up the block, talking to each other.

Reasons People Choose Mediation

April 3rd, 2018

• either we solve it – or a stranger will tell us what to do
• I don’t want it to be lawyer v. lawyer
• keep the friendship that we still have
• have a fair process – fair for both of us
• both of us want to do what’s best for our child.
• respect each other’s individuality
• get clarity about what is the right thing to do
• save money
• ensure our goals, such as making sure we are both ok, financially
• want to be good co-parents
• the law is a blunt instrument – discussion in mediation is more tailored to what we need and care about
• hope to be able to be friends, in the future
• want to spend time together with our child

Negotiating a prenuptial agreement

February 27th, 2018

A woman called me, distraught. She said that over the course of 4 months, she and her fiancé had paid about $10,000 in attorney’s fees, had months of stress and agony, and ended up getting married without having signed the prenup. Now, 3 months into their marriage, the unsigned prenup remained an issue, but their attorneys could not find a way to agree.

The confluence of their fears and their lack of confidence merged to produce a situation where they felt frozen and unable to move forward. When the husband’s lawyer said, “You might as well have her waive her rights to your pension and her rights of inheritance,” the husband did not know whether this was ‘standard,’ or unusual, and didn’t find a way to say “no,” to his lawyer – even though this was not his goal in entering into the prenup.

I met with them together, in a mediation session, and asked them what had been their original goals for the prenup. As we created a list of those goals, it became clear that they were quite aligned.

Robert owned some properties with his brother and mother, and wanted to keep those as separate property. Alicia was fine with that, that felt fair to her.

They asked me to use the prenup that their attorneys had drafted, and edit it. I had to do a lot of deleting, to take out all of the extraneous things that one attorney said was necessary to “protect” the client, and the other attorney refused to accept. I ended up with a postnuptial agreement that met their original goals, and was.

They came in again, we read it through, they made a couple of changes, and then they signed it that night. They were both so happy to find a way to resolve this whole matter so smoothly, after a process which left them feeling frightened and that their conflicts were intractable.

The power of mediation!

Can you come back from litigation, and mediate successfully?

October 18th, 2017

Highest conflict couple I think I have ever met with. Were they litigious, and went to attorneys who reflected where they were at? or did the attorneys make them more litigious? hard to know.

She was so angry she THREW a pad of paper across the room –with the most intense energy, as if she wanted to throw a boulder at his head.

Can they mediate?

They started their divorce process in a bad way – husband’s parents telling him “she might kidnap the kids and take them to Europe. (She’s from Europe, originally.) You should take the children’s passports, and change the life insurance while you’re at it,” which he did. Injecting fear and distrust.

And then he hired a process server to serve the summons for divorce on her – starting with an attack which makes anyone feel fear – and when you are afraid, you need protection.

The attorneys were fighting over the kids’ schedule for spending time with dad, and when the fight becomes framed as being about power – who will ‘win’ and who will ‘lose’ – it is hard to evaluate the benefit of trying out different schedules, seeing how they feel.

In mediation, I could ask “how about we try mom’s idea for November, and dad’s idea for December, and then meet in early January and see how the kids are doing, and how it felt?”

But then in mediation we start from an underlying premise that we can find what they both – at least as far as their kids are concerned – need. That there is a place which will meet the needs of all members of the family. An assumption of bounty, rather than one of limited resources. That quality time with each parent benefits the kids and all of them.

We need enough trust that if one says, ‘the baby had a lot of trouble falling asleep,’ the other parent will say, ‘oh, the poor baby, what do you think caused that? how can we help him to avoid that in the future?’ and they can work together to try to resolve the problem.

Here – not sure we had that.

Also – she was invested in proving that she has been the #1 parent in the kids’ lives – wanted to know dad’s work schedule over the past year, to prove that he wasn’t a consistent dad. Instead of the question framed as – how can he be a better dad going forward, given his work and travel obligations?

Fuel for Fights

April 20th, 2017

People get into the worst fights when what they are fighting about is not what they are really fighting about.

I am working with a couple who have an extremely (unusually) hostile and embittered post-divorce relationship. I am working with them as a parenting coordinator, not a mediator – which means that I was appointed by the court, and have the power to make decisions, if there is a time-sensitive matter pending. Usually, during mediation, I don’t have the power to make decisions (and why should I? Those are not my kids).

This couple contacts me periodically to mediate disagreements, as they arise.

Recently, they reached out to me, because their child’s pediatrician recommended that the child see a psychiatrist. (‘Hurray,’ I thought, because after witnessing the amount of venom and rage that these parents express toward each other, I could only imagine how pulled-in-two that child is constantly feeling – great to give the child the support of a therapist.)

But now they are tussling – bitterly – over which psychiatrist to choose! The father works at a premier, top-ranked teaching hospital, and received some referrals to a couple of doctors affiliated with the hospital, by someone in his department. The mother now thinks that anyone in the hospital is automatically suspect, and will be biased in favor of the father, simply because he works there.

Conflicts are:

Will Dr. be biased in favor of the parent who pays? One parent has offered to pay if services are not covered by insurance.
Will Dr. be biased if one parent is employee of the same hospital at which Dr. is working?
Will the child be pressured by one parent or the other to choose a Dr. which he/she chose first?

And the real underlying conflict is the competitive battle that these parents remain locked in – who will ultimately “win?” Because – I would think that credentials and years of experience would give the doctor a presumption of competence.

Does 50/50 reflect your feelings of self-worth?

March 15th, 2017

A couple came in to see me to mediate the terms of their separation. While still living together, the questions I would usually ask are:

• what are your thoughts about who will move out?
• what schedule do you want for the children to spend time with both of you?
• do you want to separate finances now? That will require (most likely) support payments (Child and maybe Spousal), and determining who will pay which expenses.
• or – you could just maintain joint accounts, and continue paying bills, including the new bills for an additional apartment, together, for the time being.
• is there anything else you need to discuss right now?

However, as we talked, it seemed to me that Allie wanted a more detailed and final separation, more like a comprehensive divorce settlement. She wanted to separate their money. She didn’t want Warren to look at her spending, or comment about what she spent money on.

This couple can afford to have one kid in boarding school, and one kid in private day school (and they do) – and yet, most of their conflicts revolve around money.

But did their conflicts really revolve around money? Allie had not been working outside the home, during their marriage. Their older child had special needs, and Allie had been the parent who organized and brought the child to all of the diagnostic and therapy/treatment appointments, while at the same time managing the household. Allie spoke clearly and eloquently about the ways she had contributed to Warren’s and to the children’s successes – Warren had always been able to work late, and to travel as much as his employer wanted him to. He was able to be completely dedicated to his career, because Allie was home and completely dedicated to keeping the family running (food on the table, clothes to the dry cleaner, kids to appointments, schools, tutors, advocating for services, etc.).

Warren agreed and acknowledged that Allie had done great work as a parent and homemaker; but I could see her brushing him off. Allie did not hear Warren’s compliments and recognition, while I saw that an off-hand comment to the contrary stung her deeply.

She said that during their marriage, she would occasionally want to pamper herself in some way, but that Warren would make disparaging comments about her spending, which made her feel ‘worth less,’ than Warren, because her work did not bring in money to the family.

It was these feelings of being worth less than Warren that caused Allie to end the marriage. Allie said to me, during mediation, “I want spousal support that will give me what I’m worth.”

This struck me as a very difficult goal. Is our “worth” as human beings tied to how much we earn (or don’t earn) in our jobs? I don’t think so. Would their children feel that their mother is worth less as a person, because she is not earning? Definitely not.

But – can the amount of monthly spousal support that Warren pays to Allie make her feel that she is worth more? I would posit that the answer to that question is – no.

“There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life,” as the song goes* – and nothing will fill it up.

It doesn’t help that Allie has not handled money much, during their marriage. Warren pays all the bills for the family, invests their savings and retirement assets, and Allie admittedly is ‘not good at understanding finances,’ so she may not have a realistic understanding of what are the options for the monthly support.

Warren started out by offering her 50% of the family income, and he said that they would each pay 50% of the family expenses, but Allie felt that would be too much book-keeping.

That surprised me – because 50% would meant Allie is an an equal – what could be more fair than that? And symbolize better that they are of equal worth?

—————
* For Real, by Bob Franke

HBO Show Divorce

November 5th, 2016

Just watched the first episode of the new HBO show, “Divorce.”

They got so many things right. The humanity, pain and flaws that are in us all.

The irritation that we all feel with their spouses about petty little things when you’ve been married for decades. And yet, the way we end up knowing them inside and out, including their digestive schedules.

The way that a random little aside can trigger a huge fight. (Because, of course, it’s not random, and it’s not little. It’s part of a continuing conflict, that you return to to pick and pick and pick at.)

The appeal of the affair, the glittering idea that there is somewhere you can go and get back to your former life. The life that was there before you got married and had kids, where you can focus on just yourself, you can just have pleasure and escape and freedom. And how quickly that myth was shattered, when she told her lover that she was leaving her husband. “But you have children,” he said, with obvious consternation – revealing that he had no interest in being part of a future with her children.

The way that the husband said, “Let me give you an orgasm that will make everything okay,” trying to think how to fix things, and going straight to sex.

And then how I shuddered at the end when he said “I’m going to make sure that your kids hate you.” Kids will never thank you for making them lose their connection to their other parent. And yet – parents (married, separated or divorced) say the exact wrong things to their kids every day, because we are all flawed humans, and it’s realistic. And in the pain of recent separation, with all your nerve endings glowing, you can’t always see the big picture, and find your higher self.

Very painful show but good so far. I will watch the second episode.

Negotiation in the Shadow of Threat

September 13th, 2016

I had a call yesterday from Josh, who is working with his wife in mediation, with another mediator. Josh called to ask me about being his reviewing attorney, and wanted to get my take on a couple of things.

Josh and his wife, Becka, were having conflicts over who would move out of their house. They had separated bedrooms months ago (Josh has been sleeping on the couch,) and have put a schedule in place for caring for their children, so that each took turns making dinner, being on homework duty – and having nights ‘off,’ just as they will do when they separate. But they are both still residing in the house.

Josh said that Becka is a type-A high strung person, who plays a lot of tennis and runs marathons, and that she has trouble not being in control. During mediation, she had said to him, “Either you move out, or mediation ends now, and I hire a litigation attorney.”

This is troubling on several levels. First of all, mediation is a voluntary process. The reason that the process is voluntary, is so that we end up with an agreement that works for both people and that reflects both people’s needs, interests, ideas, etc.

Becka was instead attempting to negotiate via threat and duress. “I will get the big guns out to destroy your life. I will spend our children’s entire college fund on litigation fees, just to make your life a living hell, I am THAT angry. You had better give in to me, or you will regret it.”

We can’t mediate in the shadow of threats. Just as – people can’t freely discuss their honest thoughts, ideas, feelings, if they fear later that they will be hit, for having disagreed with their (former) partners.

Becka is – intentionally or not – creating exactly what she threatens, because Josh may not be able to return to mediation.

What if Becka were instead to say, “I am really suffering, with both of us being in the house. Would you move out if I were to . . . “ and find some ways to sweeten the pot. Offer to give him some extra cash in the final settlement? Not take a piece of retirement that she would be entitled to? Offer to pay spousal support to him? Or pay his moving and set-up costs? Or offer more time with the children?

Then she would be negotiating. Mediation is about (1) coming to have a better understanding about what your ex needs, in order to move forward, and (2) reaching across the table, to offer something they want, in order to get something that you want.

Without the willingness to listen, hear, and try to understand the other person’s perspective, we cannot accomplish movement in mediation.

 

Relocation and zero-sum discussion

May 12th, 2016

I am sometimes so moved by this work.  There is so much at stake, and it means so much to my clients.

Today I met with a couple. The husband is a suited-up, successful professional, who cried, when thinking about the wife moving away to a different city, with their son.

Relocation is such a painful issue. Certainly – it’s better now that we have Facetime/Skype – at least you can see your kid. My daughter is away at college, and I do feel that I miss her less, after we Skype, than I do when we just talk on the phone. Seeing her face, her expressions – makes up for something.

But – ultimately – it’s a win/lose kind of issue, because one person will get those sleepy nights, putting your kid to bed – the hanging out – with him doing homework, and you chopping veggies for salad – the watching tv together – even the hectic mornings, rushing around getting breakfast, showered, dressed – when you hear those random questions about life, when you hear about her dream, when he tells you what happened in history class. And the other parent will miss many (though not all) of those moments.

But children really do need both parents, and children don’t stop thinking about the absent parent. They might think more about the absent parent. How many books are there about teens who are obsessed with their absent parents? A lot.

My hope is that we can find the interests they have in common – that the child really does need BOTH of his parents.  Can we focus on what the mother will be able to do to encourage the relationship of the father and the child?  Summers, school holidays, the child can spend with his father.  Maybe the mother can find a place for the father to stay in the other city when he comes to visit.