Finding Your Inner Mandela

A friend called recently in a state of concern.  Steve’s ex-wife was moving across country and taking their 13 year old son with her.  She was unbending on this point. 

Understandably shaken, Steve headed down the expected line of questioning: what are my legal rights to prevent this from happening?  He reviewed the consent order from their divorce for language about relocation.  He tossed the conundrum around with a lawyer-friend to get a sense of how it would likely play out in court.

At the same time, he had a heart-to-heart with his son, asking what he wanted in this transition.  Steve kept the conversation light and easy and assured his son that he could say whatever he wanted without worrying about his dad’s feelings or creating “a situation” with mom. 

The result: his son, though not thrilled about going, accepted the idea and didn’t have any major reservations about living with Mom and Stepdad on the west coast.  Obviously, his son was going to miss Dad and his step-sisters, but Steve reluctantly acknowledged that there were no red flags that alerted him to disaster. 

He maintained his ability to hear his son’s words without overlaying his own story about his ex-wife or his desires to be with his son onto him.  I love this guy.

When he told me all of this, I saw an opportunity for Steve to take a high road that would fertilize both relationships in the long run.  Having just watched the impressive 2009 movie Invictus, about Nelson Mandela, I was still high from the genius of this leader who understood that the only way to reconcile the deeply divided South Africa after apartheid was by including Afrikaners in his administration.

I’ve always loved the saying “keep your friends close but your enemies closer”.   The words “friend” and “enemy” are so child-like in their simplicity.  The simplicity captures that choice between following our impulses to push against those we deplore and joining hands with them in order to craft an alliance. 

It recognizes that there is no resolution with a competing battle, only a winner and a loser who take turns at their roles.  True resolution comes when both sides feel they have voice.

I suggested that Steve view this as an opportunity to a) build confidence with his ex-wife, b) build trust with his son by listening carefully to his needs and supporting him.  As an added bonus, he would be able to enjoy vacation time with his son and get to be the fun parent during the challenging teen years. 

I also reminded him that the game isn’t over.  In six months or two years, his son may decide he wants to move back.  Steve demonstrated to his ex-wife that he’s putting pride and personal need aside to listen to their son about his desires.  She will be far more likely to continue down that path. 

Consider the alternative: he fights her in court.  Most likely, he would lose and his son would still head off across country but now he has angered his ex-wife and caused confusion and maybe even resentment from his son.  If his son gets tired of living with Mom and Step-dad in a year, he isn’t certain he wants to go live with Dad anymore and even if he did, Mom is sure to put up a nasty fight.  The toll on their relationships is tremendous, to say nothing of their bank accounts.  Even if he wins the suit, the result is a likely a volatile, mistrusting relationship with little co-parenting.

I would HATE it if my kids moved away from me (before the tumultuous teens made it easier, when they were still cute and relatively innocent.)  I empathize with Steve’s reluctance to let go and with his potentially injured pride at not being the parent that “wins.”  I applaud his openness to stepping above the fray of the fight and deciding what really matters.