Following up on two previous articles, Conflict Resolution Tips for Divorcing Couples (2005) and More Conflict Resolution Tips (2013) this article taps into 24 years of mediation experience and provides divorcing couples with tips that will help them navigate their divorce and mediation process in a sane and healthy manner and will help them stay in control of the process.
One thing I have learned from my more than 24 years of mediating is that there is always more to learn.
My 2005 article on conflict resolution tips included the following tips:
1. Conduct a conflict self-assessment (i.e.- take your temperature as it relates to conflict).
2. Normalize conflict (i.e.: conflict happens every day).
3. Conflict is an opportunity.
4. Listen, and
5. Think about what you would like the process to look like when you look back on it years from now.
In “More Conflict Resolution Tips”, written in 2013, I added the following to the list:
6. Change your expectations (i.e.: expect bumps in the road).
7. Adverse positions are normal and should not be the death knell of the process.
8. Attorneys are not the enemy (i.e.- the right attorneys can help the process tremendously), and
9. Even though it may take work, make the decisions today (i.e.: if possible- don’t kick the can down the road).
In this article, I would like to add some more tips and modify and expand on several previous ones. Here are a few more tips to add to the ever-expanding list:
1. Give yourself the time you need.
2. Take care of yourself/listen to what your inner voice is telling you.
3. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish (you have spent a lot of time and money and now are stuck- don’t throw it away).
4. Imagine yourself looking at the mediation through a one-way mirror- or imagine your children seeing the mediation – how does it look and how would you like it to look?
5. Just as an exercise, try and put emotions aside for a moment and do a cost benefit analysis.
6. Find someone you can talk to about the emotional part as well as the financial.
Let me expand briefly on each of the above.
1. Give yourself the time you need.
Rushed decisions are often bad decisions. There are many pressures on people when they divorce. Maybe you’re contemplating selling a house, buying a house, which school will your children attend and on and on. These are lifelong decisions the impact of which will be felt for a long time. Like any other major decision in your life, take the time necessary to consider the decision and the consequences. Do your research. Consult with your lawyer, friends, accountants or anyone else who you trust to give you a rational perspective. If your spouse is rushing things, then in mediation talk about the pace and why it is important to you to take the time. The pace of mediation is often an issue of contention. It is therefore important to make sure your spouse knows that you are not dragging your feet to slow the process down but rather you need the time to consider the issues. If you are already in court and you feel rushed by the court process, almost any judge I know will gladly give you more time and continue a pre- trial conference or status conference if the judge knows that you are actively engaged in mediation and the additional time will help reach an agreement.
2. Take care of yourself.
Divorce is an anxiety producing process. In addition to life’s normal complexities, you are adding on just about every major life decision to the mix- kids, the house, your retirement, health insurance, taxes, life insurance and the list goes on. It is particularly important during this process that you take care of yourself. By that I mean, take care of the basics: get sleep, eat, try and have some fun and exercise. All those things that are important when life is “normal” are doubly important when you are going through the stress of divorce.
3. Don’t be penny wise and pound-foolish.
Imagine the following not so unusual scenario. You have spent $2,500.00 on your mediation, you have settled 95% of the issues and you reach a stumbling block. You cannot agree on who to name as the life insurance beneficiary. You want to name your sister and your husband insists that he should be the beneficiary. You have resolved all the tough issues and for some reason this one remains. Maybe you have left the most difficult issue for last or maybe resolving this means you are done and taking that leap is too scary. In any event, I can pretty confidently say that it makes no sense financially and otherwise to terminate mediation and turn it over to lawyers because you cannot resolve that issue. The financial and emotional costs are likely to be very high. Despite this, I see people doing this repeatedly (or at least contemplating it).
This same situation manifests itself in other common ways. For instance, a divorcing couple argues over a few dollars or something financially insignificant because it is “a matter of principle.” This can manifest itself in many ways- “I will agree to nothing less than 50/50 custody!” or, “I was the custodial parent during the marriage and I insist that I have to be the custodial parent post marriage.” If you are at the point where this might be happening, I suggest reviewing some of the other tips here and in previous articles as a way to help you move forward and finish the process effectively. Arguing over “principle” can be a very dangerous and expensive proposition.
4. Imagine yourself looking at the mediation through a one-way mirror.
Sometimes I wonder if it would make a difference if the couple I am working with could just watch themselves through a one-way mirror. On the one hand I appreciate that they feel safe enough to not hesitate to express how they feel. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, I think if people were able to see themselves as an outsider they might be horrified. Maybe more effective than imagining a one-way mirror is for clients to think about how would this look to their children if they were watching. Of course I am not suggesting that this be done. However, I might ask clients who are fighting to think about how it would feel to their children if they saw them fighting. Even if they are not actively fighting in from of their children (hopefully) it trickles down. Kids feel it and if affects them. Is this enough incentive to look for a way to resolve the conflict?
5. Do a cost benefit analysis.
At the end of the day, most of the divorce agreement (with the exception of parenting issues) revolves around financial decisions. The problem and challenge is that this isn’t just a business deal. There are multiple layers of emotions involved. The ultimate agreement however should be based on a rational financial analysis. If it is emotionally based- i.e. revenge, guilt, anger, fear- there will inevitably be problems down the road. At some point in the process, when final decisions need to be made, a simple cost benefit analysis is extremely useful. What are the costs of not settling? What are the benefits of settling? Write them out and sit with it for a while.
6. Find someone to talk with.
Not much elaboration needed here. Having someone you trust that you can talk about this with is critical. It may be that you talk with one person about the financial and one person about the emotional. The only caveat I would make here is to be careful about not confusing support and a good sounding board with someone who gives you legal advice who has no business giving you legal advice. It is not uncommon that clients come in and tell me they have reached an agreement about something and when I ask how they arrived at the agreement, I find out that it was based on some incorrect legal information/advice they received from a relative or friend That aside, having someone with whom you can discuss the process is invaluable.
If I was to summarize the above or find a thread that runs through these suggestions, it is that while going through the mediation process, take a step back, take a breath, literally and figuratively and give yourself the time and space needed to make some very important decisions. Finally, stay in control. Don’t let other people, such lawyers, friends, family or the court, hijack the process. This is your life and your decisions. Make sure you are ultimately in control of making those decisions.