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

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.

Mediation v. Litigation

I was called in for a court-ordered mediation for a post-divorce couple, about to have a trial. Mother requested a custody change.

This couple are very wealthy – a walking advertisement for the idea that having a lot of money is a disadvantage when you’re getting divorced. (Because you can get sucked into litigation.)

They have been embroiled in litigation for 7 years, and have spent more than $500,000 in legal fees.

How could this happen? Here’s what I see:

1. Each has a feeling of entitlement – maybe a bit spoiled. “This offer is not perfect, so I won’t take it.”
2. Unrealistic experience of life? Is anything perfect? Do they feel – ‘my life isn’t perfect, but it’s supposed to be?’
3. Attorneys who see role as to fight – rather than to counsel. “If there is an argument to be made then it’s my job to make it.”
4. Parents who have little self-reflection or insight –
5. Always looking outside themselves for the solution – “I have this problem, and you need to solve it.” Passivity.
6. Part of the passivity is – not answering any questions themselves – constantly looking to attorneys to tell them what to do. They have delegated authority for their lives to their attorneys.

The mediation was actually immensely successful. During the weeks that we were working together, for the first time in 7 years, the couple celebrated a holiday with the children, peacefully and joyfully – they were able to sit in the room together.

Sitting down together, asking them what they are thinking and feeling, and brainstorming about goals are really different ways to approach the family situation (apparently) as contrasted what the attorneys have done with them for the last 7 years. We were able to resolve almost all of the outstanding issues between them.

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.”

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.