Fuel for Conflict

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 (and unusually) hostile and embittered post-divorce relationship. I am working with them as a parenting coordinator, not a mediator. This 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.

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 psychiatrists affiliated with the hospital. 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.

What is in conflict?

  • 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?

It seems 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. I hope through our work, we can find a way to refocus the conversation back to what is best for their child.

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

Often times in mediation, we discover how conflicts bring forward other issues, including those of worth. 

A couple came in to see me to mediate the terms of their separation.

While still living together, the questions I usually ask a separating couple include:

  • 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 was the conflict really about 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 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.

Warren agreed and acknowledged that Allie had done great work as a parent and homemaker; but I could see Allie did not hear Warren’s compliments and recognition. But, 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, personally, 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.

How mediation can get to the heart of the issue:

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? This process is what mediation is about though. Working toward understanding.

Often times what we are fighting about is not what we are actually fighting about. Read more here. And learn more how focusing on our children’s needs can guide us to resolution.

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* For Real, by Bob Franke

Negotiation in the Shadow of Threat

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.

 

On the Same Side?

It is a challenge, in many relationships, to communicate your needs in a way that doesn’t come across as slamming your partner. I see men who feel decimated by the woman’s criticism – when I think the woman is trying to say, “I need this, and I would like to tell you about my needs, so that we can figure out a way for you to meet them, and I will be happy, and you will be happy.”

Callie and Brandon – unmarried parents –were so united talking about their child, that it seemed like it would be the easiest mediation, why did they even need me? and then we started to talk about money, and I could see Callie feeling that Brandon is ungenerous, and Brandon feeling that he is stretched as thin as he could be and can’t pay anything towrd support, food, diapers, child-care. In discussion, they were not able to create an environment to work together, contribute to their home and child, and as soon as she spoke, he just shut down – practically rolled his eyes – saying, “here we go, whatever I do do is unnoticed, unacknowledged, and she is only focused on – what she wants.”  He didn’t hear what she was saying.

Being engrossed with one’s own actions & point of view – normal, human – but how, in a couple, to bring in the acknowledgement of the other’s actions? In mediation, we really are in this together, because we won’t have a solution unless it works for both people.

are there winners & losers?

I had a depressing mediation session today.  A session like today’s makes me realize that mediation is an opportunity.  But everyone is not able to take that opportunity.

The center of this couple’s conflicts revolve around their children.

Most couples I see fight.  But when I mention their kids, I get smiles, and proud stories of how well the children are doing – or stories about concerns for the children, and how to shield them from parental conflict – or discussion about what each child needs – but usually agreement about these things. The child is having problems, or doing really well, or needs a writing or math tutor, or could benefit from meeting with a therapist – the tale is the same, from both parents.

The families where that is not what’s going on – stand out.

This dad, Albert wants their son, Billy, to play on the travel softball team. Travel teams require a huge amount of time commitment. They usually have 2-3 games per week – and in the NYC area, with traffic, it can easily take more than an hour to get to each one of those games. In addition, the team has a couple of weekly practice sessions, and Billy is also doing private coaching. All of this, on top of school and homework, is a pretty heavy load for a 9 year old.

The mother, Andrea, has asked Billy if he wants to play on the travel soccer team, instead! Replacing the devil you know with the devil you don’t?

I have to be careful here, because I don’t want to be biased in either parent’s favor. Yes, the travel softball thing is a crazy schedule.   But – the kids who play travel sports tend to excel at sports through high school (and it can help with high school admissions (which is high-pressure in NYC, school-choice with applications, like applying to college only 4 years early), and college admissions (a girl I know recently got into Stanford because she was recruited by a sports coach.) In addition, kids on teams make friends more quickly, when entering a new school – because they have this close-knit group of other kids sharing an experience.

(Part of me feels like it’s insane and part of me wishes I had been able to manage the scheduling and put my kids on travel teams. Why I am a mediator – I can see both sides. But I digress.)

Billy is clearly aware of his parents’ conflicts. Billy told mom: “I feel like daddy won’t love me if I stop playing softball.” Andrea thinks Billy should play soccer, and applied to put him on a soccer travel team.

So – is it the travel team that is the problem? The softball playing? Or is it a power-grab – neither parent wants the kids participating in an activity picked by the other parent?

I worked with a very high-conflict couple, several years ago, as a parenting coordinator (a post-divorce process for couples who keep going back to court about their children,) and the parents actually had their 7-year-old going to 2 different dance studios and having classes and recitals at both studios, at the same time. Each of them wanted the chance to take the kid to dance class – so by golly, they each signed her up for dance classes. (They couldn’t alternate taking her? Because the need to avoid feeling like he/she LOST.)

Very dangerous, to frame things in that win/lose dichotomy. For many couples – thinking of it from the kid’s perspective can help guide the way to find the structure for the desired results.

 

The Draw of Conflict

To my mind, the costs of litigation and of fighting are so high – that I really can’t imagine deciding that I would rather fight than settle.  But I guess it mainly depends on how the conflict is framed – whether you feel that there is an important principle at stake.

If you’re going to fight about something having to do with the children, they will know that you are fighting in court, and they will know that one parent thinks the other is screwing them over (or both parents think the other is screwing them over) and they will feel pulled-apart and tormented and guilty, over being the subject of the parents’ conflict.

If a couple has true joint custody – 50/50 time division with the children – NY State still requires some payment of child support.

There are several options:

  • put in payments back and forth to each other – i.e., dad pays mom $100 on the 1st of the month, and mom pays dad $100 on the 15th of the month
  • net out child support payments, based on incomes – if dad would have to pay $1,000 per month child support to mom, under the statute, and mom would have to pay $800 per month to dad, then dad pays $200 per month to mom
  • analyze incomes and expenses, and allocate the shortfall equally
  • put in child support to agreement and divorce papers, and enter into a “side agreement,” signed 1 day after, where the recipient parent agrees not to enforce the order for child support.  This one is risky – because it’s really an end-run around the courts, and it’s hard to know whether it would be enforceable.

For someone who is very economically comfortable, but feels that there is a principle at stake – “if we both have the children 50% of the time, why should I pay child support?” –  is it really worth fighting about in court?  You will end up, very quickly, spending amounts on attorney fees that are similar to what you would spend by just paying child support.  And – in general – the courts are not too sympathetic to parents who don’t want to pay child support.

Even in a 50/50 time sharing case.

But – there is, I think, an unconscious fantasy that you will teach the other person a lesson.  That he/she will finally understand how hurt you were, or how wrong he/she is – when you show that you are willing to stake more money than is in controversy, to prove him/her wrong, and you right.

I don’t think anyone comes out of court feeling, “Wow, now I really get it, I was so wrong.”  In fact – I don’t think anyone comes out of court feeling, “Wow that was so satisfying, that judge totally understood me.”

In the divorce context, that is.

And then there is this article (from the website of Geneen Roth, Vol. 6, Issue 6):

I recalled something [my ex] said during a fight we had in a spectacular restaurant. “Why not think of all the times we’ve celebrated and all the times we have yet to celebrate as a bank account from which we can draw funds?” he asked. “Let’s put aside this fight, take some celebration savings out now, and replenish the fund when we get home.”

I remember looking from him to the mushroom tart on my plate, thinking, I could let this horrible fight go. I could enjoy this tart, and we could have a wonderful time.  Then I thought, ‘but if I let it go, I will be a wimp.  He doesn’t deserve to have a good time after what he’s done.  If I let go, he will win.’   I didn’t bother to ask myself what I would lose by holding on to my anger — I only figured that if he didn’t love me, the least he could do was suffer. So I said, “Forget it. It’s a terrible idea,” and ruined the evening for us both

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 maybe they shouldn’t have to have at their income level,) and 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?

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 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 the ongoing contention is because of them.

Protecting Children From Conflict & Self-Blame

I was watching a movie the other night, (Future Weather) in which a 13-year-old girl came home from school and found a note from her mother saying, “I went to California. I left $50 in the drawer for you, for groceries.”

The girl lived in the house for a few days by herself, until her grandmother discovered her living alone, so she moved to her grandmother’s home.

Later in the film, she and her grandmother were bickering, and the grandmother said, “You know your mother wanted to get an abortion. Yup, she wanted to get rid of you, and I said to her, ‘over my dead body.’ Serves me right, now I’m stuck with you. What goes around comes around.”

This is one of the most horrible things I have ever heard someone say to a child! This child will never forget that statement, and never be rid of the feeling that she is the cause of all of the troubles of the adults in her life, she is the reason that her mother left to go to California.

I thought about my clients, who work so hard to protect their children from the conflicts between them, and who want their children to come through the divorce with as few scars as possible. I thought about the Child’s Bill of Rights, which I put into every agreement:

a. The right not to be asked to “choose sides” between the Parents.
b. The right not to be told the details of fights between the Parents.
c. The right not to be told “bad things” about the other Parent’s personality or character.
d. The right to privacy when communicating with either Parent.
e. The right not to be cross-examined by one Parent after spending time with the other Parent.
f. The right not to be a messenger from one Parent to the other.
g. The right not to be asked by one Parent to tell the other Parent untruths.
h. The right not to be used as a confidant regarding the difficult issues between the Parents.
i. The right to express feelings, whatever those feelings may be, or to choose not to express certain feelings.
j. The right not to be made to feel guilty for loving both Parents, or for developing a loving relationship with a new partner of either Parent.
Many of the parents I see are distraught over the pain their children will suffer, as a result of the divorce but – boy, it could always be worse.

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?

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.