This week, I had the pleasure of talking with Celeste Collins, the Executive Director of On Track Financial Education & Counseling about Relationships, Communication & Money for her Valentines Day radio show on WWNC 570 AM.
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.
There comes a point in our children’s life when they choose.
When we first separate from our child’s other parent, we torment ourselves trying to figure out what is right for our children. We agonize over the pain that we’re causing our innocent babies. We read books about how to minimize that impact and profess our guilt to friends. Over time, our children adjust and so do we. Life becomes normal as our kids pack belongings and adjust plans to live in two separate homes. Relief.
Then, one day, our children reach a certain age (10? 12? 15?) when they want all the back-and-forth, 50/50, bag-packing to stop. They will tell us that they love both of their parents but they don’t want to live a divided existence any longer. Who can blame them? Have you ever had to stay in a hotel while your home was being worked on? It makes you crazy trying to keep organized and continually readjust to the different environments. Why would this be different for our children? They adjust to different foods, habits, schedules, priorities, rules, and tones.
So we can recognize the discomfort we put our children in when we ask them to share time with both parents but why did they choose to live at his/her/my house? What does this say about me/him/her as a parent? This is a great time to pull out all of our baggage about our former partner. But the truth is that inevitably, one home is easier to live in than the other. It doesn’t mean the other parent is inadequate in any way. It only means that one home makes it easier for our children to stay organized, comfortable, social, entertained, or well fed.
What keeps us from handling this moment of realization well is that we’ve spent 10 or 12 or 15 years defining ourselves as parents. Having our children live primarily with the other parent feels like we’ve been fired from our best job. Additionally, when our kids our little, we need lots of time with them because parenting happens during all that daily care. We’re rewarded for the endless efforts of feeding and bathing and urging them to brush their teeth when they run around naked with towels on their heads pretending to be munch-monsters. As they reach adolescence we get fewer of those zany moments, but we hopefully get a decent conversation now and then. (By the way, those moments can still happen at a weekly dinner or a Saturday hike.) But more importantly, remember how we wanted to not make their lives miserable when we first considered separation?
Our job is to raise them to be independent and this intensely difficult decision that they’re trying to voice is one big step in that process. Help them through it with grace.
Every person going through a transition experiences their own timeline. The challenge with divorce, of course, is that the timelines of the two parties may not be aligned. Here in North Carolina, law dictates that we take at least one year between the date of separation and the final divorce. This imposed timeline has little meaning to a broken or an impatient heart. We move on when we’re ready to move on.
A lovely couple I saw this spring was splitting after about 5 years of marriage. They had a young daughter whom they both cherished. The wife originally contacted me. She had initiated the break up and was energized by the idea of settling their affairs and moving on. The husband agreed to meet in mediation and so we began. We met about 5 times over the course of several months. At each session, the wife came prepared, with a notebook of ideas. In between sessions, she made the calls or developed the plans they agreed upon previously. The man showed up often unprepared or reluctant. As I got to know these two, I watched the woman move the man forward gently, asking something of him and then waiting until he was ready to make that move. I saw him let go of some of his “demands” (such as no new romantic partners for the first year) as he came to accept his new reality. Eventually, they developed an elegant parenting plan. They divided their assets and their debts with a fine chisel. Having the opportunity to follow up with them, I’ve learned that they are co-parenting their daughter beautifully.
Consider what might have happened if they had taken a more traditional path. The woman might have opted to find a lawyer who could get her out of the situation as quickly as possible. She might have withdrawn money from their shared account to demonstrate their separation. The ma might have felt betrayed and lost in this and lashed out by suing her for full custody or accusing her of some type of foul play.
This early phase of separation is a sensitive time. Plans need to be made and matters need to be settled, but often one person is grieving heavily and is not ready to make those types of decisions. I encourage anyone going through this to practice patience and seek constructive advice. Find a mediator or collaborative attorney who can answer your questions and allow for these dual paces. Refuse to be pushed into an adversarial position because of someone else’s timeline. Expect that you will hit bumps along the road and you will need to pick yourself up and keep moving. Avoid comparing your pace to anyone else you know who took a different path. Remember, it took a while to get yourself into this relationship; it will probably take a while to get yourself out.
When we’re in conflict, we create a story in our mind of what happened to us. The details vary, but the basics are fairly consistent: we were minding our own business or doing our best when someone came along and messed everything up. We have tried to make it work with this other person, but he or she is completely unreasonable and unbending. We are the victim of someone else’s craziness. When we’re being completely honest, we might admit that we had a tiny part in all this, but ultimately, the other person bears the bulk of the blame.
We tell this story to our friends, family, and pretty much anyone who lends a sympathetic ear. Each time we tell it, we’re met with a look of amazement, a “poor you” and a pat on the shoulder. This gratifies us because it confirms our belief that a) our story is real and unbelievably terrible and b) we were wronged. Telling our story and getting this response becomes addictive. We try to be careful but the story becomes central to our lives and sometimes we even tell it when our kids can overhear it.
As this story solidifies in our mind, it confirms our fear that we’re powerless, it increases our sense the offending person is a monster and it builds a wall between us and them. None of this helps to create a strong or healthy co-parenting relationship.
Recently on a run with my friend Beth who is going through a challenging divorce, she unloaded her frustration and anger about her ex’s requests as we picked our way through the roots and rocks of the trail. Years of difficulty in their marriage had given her a hair -trigger for indignation, powerlessness, and injustice and his recent requests ignited all of those emotions. But when she shared with me the details of his “demands” I heard something completely different. I heard great opportunity. For example, he wants to only communicate through his attorney. She heard him disrespecting her. I heard she gets a break from the conflict that riddled their communication for the past 5 years. He wants to have their son stay with him twice a week. She heard a loss of her parenting time. I heard that she gets to have some time to herself again.
I reflected this back to her. Initially she refused to hear it, but later, when we were done running and had gone on in our days, she texted me her gratitude for my perspective and said it had helped her reshape the situation in her mind.
Now, imagine she tells another friend of her ex’s demands and that friend takes her side. She corroborates with Beth’s indignation, shares her perspective and they spend their run developing a plan for how Beth can fight back. Beth feels righteous and emboldened. She fires off an email to her ex, challenging him to defend himself and explain the reasons for his demands. Now, imagine what happens next.
Framing a situation is one of a mediator’s most used skills. How a person perceives of their conflict impacts all actions and reactions that follow. It is why it is important to begin the process of divorce with a mediator.