Seeing Both Sides – A Challenge

Had an irate e-mail from a former client, who is now in litigation with her husband and was feeling (retroactively) that I was not neutral, but was instead biased in favor of her husband.

They were in litigation before they came to seem me – and came in for 6 hours of mediation, to try to settle their differences – but ended up back in litigation.

People often do feel that I’m ‘on their side.’ But what they don’t always see is that I’m also on the other person’s side.

In this case, the father really wanted more time with the child, and I was certainly sympathetic to that. The latest research shows, very clearly, that children who have good relationships with their fathers do fantastically better, in school and in life, than do children who have been cut out of their father’s lives (or abandoned by fathers).

In fact – even for children whose fathers just walked them to school on Mondays after week-ends – or fathers who attended parent-teacher conferences but otherwise never set foot in the school – get a much clearer message that their parents both feel that school is important. A little bit of dad goes a long way.

But – on the other hand – this guy was a kind of a loose cannon. He’d had his driver’s license suspended for speeding, and had in addition had several accidents, and he did not want to agree not to have the child in the car while he drove. He wasn’t even supposed to drive at all – no license! I tried to make him see that that wouldn’t go over too well with a judge, and he really didn’t get it.

(Was this narcissism – nothing I do can be wrong? Or stupidity. I don’t know – but came to the same thing – that dad might not have been a safe person for that kid to be with.)

Anyway – I reminded the wife of these things, and assured her that I had seen them – and she felt reassured that I was also “on her side.”

Sensitivity & Pain

One of the most painful issues that I see, among divorcing couples, is the tendency to self-blame, to a fault. Meaning – that 1 person says something that might be innocent – or might even be a fact – and the other person hears it as SEARING criticism.

For example – “I am a teacher, so I can be with our child at 3pm. On your nights he is not with you until 6pm.”

This is a factual statement. The 6pm parent practically burst into tears, hearing it as an accusation of not being a dedicated, caring parent.

I guess we are all hypersensitive when it comes to comments of our spouses – and even more so, when the relationship has deteriorated to the point of breaking up.

I always feel – speechless – at these moments. My goal, during mediation, is to bring that dynamic to their attention.

“Wow, so it sounded to me as if you felt like M—was saying that you are a less-involved parent.”

“yes, he/she was saying that,” will reply the upset parent.

“M—were you trying to say that?”

Usually M—will respond with – ‘absolutely not, I know that you are a completely committed and involved parent, in fact a great parent to our child.’

How painful to be in a relationship where you are so often wounded by the other – whether or not the other has not been intending to wound you. Probably leading to the breakdown of the relationship.

We are all happiest in relationships where we like ourselves, we like the person we feel that we are, when with the other person – and who wants to be a person who constantly hurts our lover?

Why Mediate?

I usually begin mediation sessions by asking a couple why they are coming to mediation. This helps people to remember what kind of process and outcome they are hoping for – as well as lets me know how much they know about the process.

I met with a new couple last week, and when I asked them this question – I was blown away by their answers! In 5 minutes, they described the most idealistic mediation process, and highlighted (what I see as) the benefits of mediation. They said:

  • they want to stay amicable
  • mediation is less costly
  • mediation would allow them to maintain good communication
  • makes sense because they have a son
  • not a lot of contentious issues between them – why enter a process which might create conflict?
  • avoid a war-like session
  • get guidance and counsel from neutral, objective persons
  • won’t waste money
  • more antiseptic – won’t create big wounds
  • more transparent – by starting discussions in the room together, they would explore information together, and decide together

So beautiful!

More on anger & mediation

Anger is a normal feeling to have during a divorce. In fact, if you didn’t feel angry there would probably be something very wrong. Usually, one person has been unhappy for a period of time preceding the divorce, and was angry during this time. When that person tells the other that he or she has decided to leave the marriage, the other is in shock and has to deal with lots of emotions – sorrow, fear and certainly anger.

Whether you are the angry one or are dealing with an angry (ex) spouse, it’s never easy. Anger often builds up without your knowing it – and if you are not aware of feeling angry, the anger will cause you (or your spouse) to lash out.

Anger can be expressed in mediation and in fact, it is a valuable tool for a mediator to use to not only resolve the divorce, but also to help shape a better divorce agreement. In mediation anger is a clue that there is an important piece of information which has not yet been expressed, and which must be explored and understood. Anger tells me that someone has important needs which are not being met. When someone is angry I want to hear how they are feeling and I want to understand why they are angry. In mediation, anger gives us a key to use to shape a divorce agreement.

If you could resolve all of these problems yourselves, you probably wouldn’t be getting divorced. All couples have issues which feel overwhelming to one or both of you – which feel, as if they cannot be resolved – but that is not a fact, it is how you feel. Hopefully, you are coming to mediation to help this resolution come sooner, rather than later.

I have seen people really transformed by the mediation process from the time when they first separate, when they are full of fear and don’t know what their future will look like – and a year or so later, when all of the issues have been worked out and they have learned that they can survive and develop a new, full and satisfying life independent of their former spouse.

If the feelings are too painful, I will offer people the choice not to speak to each other directly. If someone is very angry, they may prefer to speak to me rather than to their spouse. We may need to take a break from mediation – sometimes for a few weeks – until the person starts to work through the anger and feel better. I may have some separate meetings with the angry person to help them explore their options and understand what is at the core of the anger – usually as part of a joint session in which I would also meet with the spouse to get his or her input on how to meet the needs of the angry person so that we can move through and work with the anger.

But when we use anger as a tool, it can fuel movement in mediation. I recently mediated a divorce where the husband, Bill* expressed a lot of anger during our first mediation session. He did not want to pay alimony (which in NY state is called maintenance), and he was furious that his wife, Cathy was requesting it. As we began to explore this issue, Cathy spoke about why she felt she was entitled to alimony – she said that she’d given up her career to take care of their children, and this was a joint decision they made when they had their first child. But this information did not ease his anger.

I asked Bill to tell us more about what he was feeling, and why he felt so strongly that he shouldn’t have to pay maintenance. When I assured him that Cathy would listen and not interrupt, began to talk eloquently about how difficult this period of time had been for him – how he was living in a small apartment while his wife and children were in their spacious house – how he felt he didn’t have money to go out to dinner or go to a movie, and how he was cooped up and alone in this small apartment while she was in their beautiful home with the children.

Bill’s anger helped him to express some important needs – and needs that he had not before expressed. He felt that financially, things were very tight. He felt under a lot of pressure to be the breadwinner. He felt that Cathy didn’t understand what he was going through. He felt that he didn’t see his children enough.

Cathy was able to hear all of this during our mediation session. She responded by talking about the financial pressures she felt, too. She couldn’t buy new shoes for the children or for herself, nor could she get her hair colored. Cathy was sympathetic to her husband and was even having a similar experience.

Cathy had planned to go back to work, but after listening to Bill, she said that she realized she needed to try to find a job immediately. She said it was not at all trying to keep the children from their father, and offered to alter the schedule anytime he could get off work early so that he could spend more time with the children.

When I helped Cathy to listen to Bill, and Bill felt heard by her, his anger began to dissipate. He acknowledged what a wonderful mother she had been to their children, and how glad he was that she’d been able to be home with the children until now, and was even able to realize that he felt sad that she wasn’t going to continue to be home with the children.

This family was able to resolve their conflict over alimony and the anger was a useful tool that helped us to accomplish this resolution. Once Cathy began to plan to go back to work, Bill relaxed about the issue of alimony. Because they were both having the same experience about money, the discussion shifted. Instead of the problem being whether Cathy would take money from Bill, we instead confronted a shared problem – how to have more money in the family?

I told the couple about tax implications – money paid for child support is not deductible, but money paid for maintenance IS deductible. Suddenly, Bill’s eyes lit up. He realized that if he paid alimony to Cathy, and she used it to run the household, they would both end up in lower tax brackets, thereby resulting in a net tax savings.

We ended the session talking about how much and how long he should pay Cathy maintenance, instead of whether he would give it to her.

Sometimes anger cannot be so easily resolved. Many fights are caused by disappointed expectations. But no one gets married expecting to divorce – disappointed expectations are painful to swallow – but are to be expected during a divorce.

If you feel overwhelmed by the feelings of your divorce, do not be afraid to seek help. Get some additional support in your life – consider seeing a therapist for a period of time. The more support you get, the faster you will get through this and come out the other side. You WILL find your way through all of these difficult changes. Someday you will look back on this and find that there are ways that it made you stronger.

After sleeping on it…

After sleeping on it – i’m thinking that a lot of whether people can start out from a ‘fair’ position, or whether they start negotiations with an ‘extreme’ position, has to do with trust. If you really feel that the person on the other side of the table is vengeful, or out to hurt you – of course you have to take the most extreme position possible, to protect yourself.

The funny/puzzling thing about this couple, is that she was the one who had the affair, and yet she is behaving as if he is out to hurt her.

Of course that is puzzling to me, undoubtedly, because i don’t know all the circumstances. They know their own lives; if she feels he’s out to screw her (not in a good way) – then he probably is. Or at least that’s her reality with/of him.

Do you enjoy fighting?

I saw my cousin over the week-end. Her brother is a drug addict. Total drug addict, the kind who steals things from his parents, never holds jobs, is in & out of jail. She said her parents told her that they are planning to leave their house, when they die, jointly to her and her brother. She said, “Figure this out now, because he will fight me to get the whole thing, and I will just walk away. I am not going to fight.”

So funny to contrast that attitude with that of the couple who I saw this morning, who fought for an hour over child support; who – despite paying me a good bit of money to sit with them – would not let me get in a word edgewise.

The law in NY on child support is not completely clear when there is joint custody, and here, the children are spending 50-50 time with each of their parents. But the things that make this parent so sure that she is entitled to child support – despite the 50-50 schedule and the fact that their incomes are just about equal (48%, 52%, of total parental income), is that the nanny is always at her house during the day.

She has a point. Just about all the kids’ laundry is done there, they have playdates there, she lives in the school district of the kids’ school and dad does not, she has to keep groceries there for most of their meals (as well as feeding the nanny).

The father agrees that she has some extra expenses (which he did not agree with at first – but he has come around) and so should get some child support – but she was asking for the same amount she would have if she had the old-fashioned kind of schedule where the dad sees the kids every other week-end and once per week for dinner.

It seems to clear to me that that isn’t reasonable – why do they want to keep fighting? Why does each initially adopt the most extreme position? His – she needs zero child support – hers – she needs 100% of child support.

And she had an affair, which was the triggering event of their separation, and that always intensifies the situation. But she is nonetheless so engaged still with him, so intensely focused on him, so much wants him to understand her and her thoughts/needs/views of the whole thing.

And yet – I thought about my cousin. Because where does all this fighting get them?

I hope I can help them to resolve this.

Seeing People Change

Probably the most important piece – in order to mediate – is to have two people who want to come through the big picture OK. Neither is out to destroy the other.

I had a couple come into my office last week who I could tell HATED each other. He works really long hours, and she is furious and has felt completely abandoned by him for years.

She has (to some extent in response) been over-spending, especially in these last couple of years, since they separated. He makes a lot of money – but they have a lot of credit card debt, which they really shouldn’t have to have at their income level. He is furious with her about that.

But at the same time, they both love their kids, and so they found the motivation to come to mediation, in order to get their divorce settled – and when the negotiations are over, some of the tension may dissipate – and in order to try to make things go as smoothly for the kids as possible.

So – the wife (I’ll call her Elise) said, “I am thinking of selling our apartment & buying a house with a tenant, in a cheaper neighborhood. Then we would have more room, and lower costs. But I can’t afford to buy a house unless I have all of the equity in the apartment, to work with.”

At first the husband (I’ll call him Dan) said, “No way I am giving you all the equity in the apartment. There is a lot there, and it’s mine, I want it.”

But within 5 minutes he said, “You know my children will never need a home. Since they live with you – if you want to move to a house, and you need the money, fine, we can continue to have joint ownership of the house, or I’ll give you the money.”

It was amazing to see the switch – to see him go from “no way,” to “sure.” and it was because he could remember his bigger goal – to make sure the kids are OK. And in this case – the hours he works – 7 days/week, for weeks at a time – he knows that the mom is the #1 person for the kids, they live with her. So – though he hates her as his ex-wife – he loves her as the mother of his children.

Opportunity for Future Conflicts?

(Now me as the lawyer-mediator-deal-maker is beginning to wonder if there is a way that the settlement could be structured so that he would give her 100% of the equity and not have to remain a joint owner. That might be possible, given all the facts of their situation, but we will have to see.)

Should they continue as joint-owners of a home? What I would worry about is the possibility for ongoing active conflict after the divorce, which is the one thing that the experts agree is the worst thing for the children. If they continue to own the house, will he be secretly mad at her, resentful, because he didn’t get his equity out, and he can’t buy a house? What about if they need a new roof or boiler? We would either have to work out all the details, so that these things are not opportunity for future conflicts, because the children, who always feel guilty when their parents fight (whether divorced or not!) may feel that they parents still own the house – a source of contention – because of them.

Marriage?

What’s it all about, anyway?

I’ve always been a person whom people like to talk to. I guess I’m a good listener – and also I don’t pass judgment. I myself have done things I’m not proud of – had a relationship wither, and cheat rather than tell my boyfriend that I wanted to end it, for example – so if someone cheats on their spouse, well – yeah it’s not the most mature way to handle the end of your marriage but – hey – we’re all doing the best we can.

So after I went to law school, and tried a few different things, mediation felt like a perfect fit.

Plus – I get to see into people’s marriages, people’s lives. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a juicy film, as they fight in my office.

But lately, I’m feeling very sad. I wish they weren’t breaking up.

A woman last week said, “He’s still my best friend, he GETS me, and I get him, and I love him. But I feel like what we want from our lives is too different for us to stay together.”

And I was thinking – lady, you’ve got it a lot better than most, having someone you love who “gets” you.

I don’t know. Why do some people stay together and others break apart? Myriad variations as there are couples. Myriad answers to that question.

Marriage is often not fun – at least in my experience. I go through weeks where I am feeling like, “Oh well, my life is really a big disappointment, but there we go – that’s how it turned out.” but then, I stick with it, and it changes – and to me that is the real magic of the whole thing – that I can be so irritated with him, for weeks even, and then it changes. And all of a sudden he’s the hunky, cutey that I fell in love with, again.

The older and more middle-aged I get, the more I think it is about an economic partnership. If I hadn’t gotten married, we wouldn’t have bought a house, we wouldn’t have pooled our incomes and began to amass savings. We wouldn’t have had these wonderful children who have become the center of our lives (at least till they become teenagers).

But – then I probably have a “good” marriage (whatever that is). And maybe my clients don’t.

Or maybe – they have lower tolerance for conflict.

Can I Mediate if I’m Angry?

Anger is a normal feeling to have during a divorce. In fact, if you didn’t feel angry there would probably be something very wrong. Usually, one person has been unhappy for a period of time preceding the divorce, and was angry during this time. When that person tells the other that he or she has decided to leave the marriage, the other is in shock and has to deal with lots of emotions – sorrow, fear and certainly anger.

Whether you are the angry one or are dealing with an angry (ex) spouse, it’s never easy. Anger often builds up without your knowing it – and if you are not aware of feeling angry, the anger will cause you (or your spouse) to lash out.

Anger can be expressed in mediation and in fact, it is a valuable tool for a mediator to use to not only resolve the divorce, but also to help shape a better divorce agreement. In mediation anger is a clue that there is an important piece of information which has not yet been expressed, and which must be explored and understood. Anger tells me that someone has important needs which are not being met. When someone is angry I want to hear how they are feeling and I want to understand why they are angry. In mediation, anger gives us a key to use to shape a divorce agreement.

If you could resolve all of these problems yourselves, you probably wouldn’t be getting divorced. All couples have issues which feel overwhelming to one or both of you – which feel, as if they cannot be resolved – but that is not a fact, it is how you feel. Hopefully, you are coming to mediation to help this resolution come sooner, rather than later.

I have seen people really transformed by the mediation process from the time when they first separate, when they are full of fear and don’t know what their future will look like – and a year or so later, when all of the issues have been worked out and they have learned that they can survive and develop a new, full and satisfying life independent of their former spouse.

If the feelings are too painful, I will offer people the choice not to speak to each other directly. If someone is very angry, they may prefer to speak to me rather than to their spouse. We may need to take a break from mediation – sometimes for a few weeks – until the person starts to work through the anger and feel better. I may have some separate meetings with the angry person to help them explore their options and understand what is at the core of the anger – usually as part of a joint session in which I would also meet with the spouse to get his or her input on how to meet the needs of the angry person so that we can move through and work with the anger.

But when we use anger as a tool, it can fuel movement in mediation. I recently mediated a divorce where the husband, Bill* expressed a lot of anger during our first mediation session. He did not want to pay alimony (which in NY state is called maintenance), and he was furious that his wife, Cathy was requesting it. As we began to explore this issue, Cathy spoke about why she felt she was entitled to alimony – she said that she’d given up her career to take care of their children, and this was a joint decision they made when they had their first child. But this information did not ease his anger.

I asked Bill to tell us more about what he was feeling, and why he felt so strongly that he shouldn’t have to pay maintenance. When I assured him that Cathy would listen and not interrupt, he began to talk eloquently about how difficult this period of time had been for him – how he was living in a small apartment while his wife and children were in their spacious house – how he felt he didn’t have money to go out to dinner or go to a movie, and how he was cooped up and alone in this small apartment while she was in their beautiful home with the children.

Bill’s anger helped him to express some important needs that he had not before expressed. He felt that financially, things were very tight. He felt under a lot of pressure to be the breadwinner. He felt that Cathy didn’t understand what he was going through. He felt that he didn’t see his children enough.

Cathy was able to hear all of this during our mediation session. She responded by talking about the financial pressures she felt, too. She couldn’t buy new shoes for the children or for herself, nor could she get her hair colored. Cathy was sympathetic to her husband and was even having a similar experience.

Cathy had planned to go back to work, but after listening to Bill, she said that she realized she needed to try to find a job immediately. She said she was not at all trying to keep the children from their father, and offered to alter the schedule anytime he could get off work early to spend more time with the children.

When I helped Cathy to listen to Bill, and Bill felt heard by her, his anger began to dissipate. He acknowledged what a wonderful mother she had been to their children, and how glad he was that she’d been able to be home with the children until now, and was even able to realize that he felt sad that she wasn’t going to continue to be home with the children.

This family was able to resolve their conflict over alimony and the anger was a useful tool that helped us to accomplish this resolution. Once Cathy began to plan to go back to work, Bill relaxed about the issue of alimony. Because they were both having the same experience about money, the discussion shifted. Instead of the problem being whether Cathy would take money from Bill, we instead confronted a shared problem – how to have more money in the family?

 (I told the couple about tax implications – money paid for child support is not deductible, but money paid for maintenance IS deductible. Suddenly, Bill’s eyes lit up. He realized that if he paid alimony to Cathy, and she used it to run the household, they would both end up in lower tax brackets, thereby resulting in a net tax savings.) Note:  This law changed Jan. 2019 – alimony is no longer deductible to payor under federal law, though it’s still deductible under NY state law.

We ended the session talking about how much and how long he should pay Cathy maintenance, instead of whether he would give it to her.

Sometimes anger cannot be so easily resolved. Many fights are caused by disappointed expectations. But no one gets married expecting to divorce – disappointed expectations are painful to swallow – but are to be expected during a divorce.

If you feel overwhelmed by the feelings of your divorce, do not be afraid to seek help. Get some additional support in your life – consider seeing a therapist for a period of time. The more support you get, the faster you will get through this and come out the other side. You WILL find your way through all of these difficult changes. Someday you will look back on this and find that there are ways that it made you stronger.