In a recent first meeting with new clients, I was obtaining family history to help ground me in both parents’ perspectives on issues related to their divorce. A comment by the dad struck a chord for me. He said, “I believe the way I can become the best parent to my child is by getting a divorce.” At first glance this comment seems counter-intuitive. Most children would prefer their parents remain married or partnered and under one roof. Divorce is usually a life crisis for children and their parents. Divorce is necessarily about grief and loss. How does it follow that a divorce can result in better parenting? The answer is that many parents whose marriages don’t work are able to enter into a co-parenting relationship that does work. In these families, children remain at the center of their parents’ concern and out of the middle of their parents’ conflicts. Especially if the decision to get unmarried is mutual, and a reservoir of trust and good will about parenting has been preserved, it can relieve a great deal of stress in the home to decide (though often with great sadness) to let go of the marriage while embracing a new lifelong role as co-parents. Children can continue to feel safe and loved in the context of a healthy co-parenting relationship. Effective co-parents are mindful and committed to being present for and attuned to the needs of their children, and this is the foundation of their children’s resilience and hope. Collaborative Team Practice offers specialized mental health resources to support and reinforce healthy and effective co-parenting during and after a divorce. Neutral child specialists and neutral coaches help parents create Parenting Plans and Relationship Plans as detailed and unique guides for positive co-parenting. It is indeed possible to divorce with the goal of becoming the best parent one can be.
I sat in on a seminar recently with a room full of moms. Moms of babies, moms of toddlers, moms with children just starting elementary school. The topic was about learning to fall in love with your husband again, and the speaker was a woman in her 70’s. The dialog was mainly, “Do this to keep your husband happy, do that to keep your husband happy…” I think many were wondering why they got up early on a Tuesday morning to listen to old-fashion marriage advice. However, in between the eye rolls of many overtired moms, I caught the true message of the speech – don’t forget about your marriage, the kids are wonderful, but if you make them your whole world, they leave the nest, and the marriage is over. I had not really thought about empty nest syndrome in this sense. I had mainly thought about the kids going off to college and the parents are alone in a big empty house, they are a little lonely, maybe start a new hobby, and life goes on. Only life doesn’t go on, at least not in that sense. Divorce after decades, the graying divorce, divorce after 50, whatever you may call it, is becoming more and more common. Decades of putting the kids first, likely putting the career second, and well, the marriage must have fallen down on the priority list. When children are babies and toddlers they require about every last bit of energy you have; once they start school it’s homework, sports, and juggling schedules. Making it all too easy for the better part of 20+ years for your marriage to be entirely kid-centric. The graying divorce gives new meaning to staying together for the kids. The couple in many of these marriages might not have even seen it coming. Years of enjoying the children together – family vacations, neighborhood outings, cheering the kids on together from the sidelines, only to wake up one day and realize they no longer have anything in common, the kids were all they had in common. A half-century ago, only 2.8 percent of Americans older than 50 were divorced. In 2011, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 15.4 percent were divorced and another 2.1 percent were separated. Was it that divorce was more taboo 50 years ago, or maybe because people are living longer these days? A healthy 60 year old might look at it in terms of having 20+ years left; 20+ years that they are choosing to be happy, and ditching the unhappy marriage. Baby boomers are setting record high divorce numbers. If you found yourself amongst this new era of divorce, the good news is you are in good company! There are support groups nationwide that are catering specifically to the increase in baby boomers and their graying divorces. Seek out divorcees going through a similar situation and create a support system. Most importantly, keep on living – enjoying yourself, pursue your interests, take on a new hobby, travel, and make the most of your new-found free time!
There are few things that distinguish a new phase in life more than changing one’s name. However, one has to do a thorough job of informing the “world” of this change – such as identity providers, business relationships, friends and family. Identity providers – they make it official. An obvious place to start, they include the following:
- Driver’s license: go to your local Department of Motor Vehicles office, fill out the appropriate form and submit it with the required documents
- Passport: go to travel.state.gov, fill out Form DS-5504 if your passport is less than one year old or DS-82 if older than one year, and submit it with the required documents
- Social Security Card: go to socialsecurity.gov, fill out form SS-5 and submit it with the required documents
- Voters Registration: re-register at www.sos.state.mn.us
- Veteran’s Affairs: call the DMDC Support Office at 800-538-9552 to update your DEERS information
- Names listed in the decree
- File number
- Courthouse location
- County of the court
- Fee per Copy (typically about $16)
Collaborative law requires experienced professionals and clients willing to work together to find resolutions for their family law matters. It is a unique, non-adversarial process that provides an alternative to a traditional, litigation. It is a respectful process that depends upon four main tenants.
- Full Disclosure. In a collaborative law both parties provide all information relevant to the case. There are no formal discovery processes – no time or money spent on depositions or document requests. Both parties provide everything needed – if someone needs more, they ask and agree to disclose it. Both parties must have all the information they need to generate options and make decisions.
- Confidential Process. The information discussed an the options generated are confidential and shall not be disclosed until final resolutions are reached. Divorce is not a confidential process by default. Indeed, the court process is quite transparent. In collaborative, however, the information discussed and shared is not disclosed until the very end. This provides for a more thorough process overall.
- Neutral Experts. All experts shall be neutral. They will be chosen by both parties together (often recommended by other professionals) and operate in an on-adversarial manner. Their expertise benefits both parties.
- Professionals Limited in Representation. The collaborative professionals on a case can only work in one role – settlement. The professionals cannot represent you in any other matter and in any other capacity. Your collaborative attorney cannot represent you in a court process. A mental health professional (child specialist or coach) cannot provide therapy. And the financial neutrals cannot also solicit your financial planning business. Everyone has one purpose and one role – to help you find collaborative resolutions.
Can you get what is fair in your divorce? Many people start by telling their attorneys that they want what is “fair” in the divorce only to be told that this is not realistic. “Fair is what happens in St. Paul for 11 days before Labor Day” is the common expression aimed at averting divorcing people from striving for a fair settlement. I understand those concerns about “fair”. Divorce can be so emotional that nothing presented as a settlement offer will be regarded as “fair” and settlement discussions can therefore drag on forever. Indeed, if you are faced with a divorce that you do not want, the notion that any proposal is “fair” can seem offensive or even inflammatory. Also, in settlement negations, “fair” is often used as an accusation. “I have offered something fair. Why won’t you accept this?” Of course, in a divorce a husband and wife are likely to have different understandings of fair. Describing your offer as “fair” as compared to your spouse’s offer, (which by implication must be unfair), is likely to feel insulting to your spouse and will not be productive. Despite all of this, I think it may be a mistake to discard notions of fairness altogether. Indeed, while we all have different ideas about what truly is fair, it is important, sometimes even crucial, that certain things seem fair, at least to a degree. A divorce settlement that one or both parties strongly believe is unfair is likely to unravel or create problems if it is not addressed. Indeed, the success and durability of a divorce agreement may depend a great deal on whether the agreement is viewed as fair by the parties. To get an agreement that is durable in the future, it may be important to pay some attention to what you and your spouse perceive as fair. At the same time, in order to get past the gridlock that arguing about fairness can create, it is equally important to be flexible in our ideas of fairness and to work toward getting a better understanding of what lies underneath the feeling of unfairness. If the sense of unfairness has more to do with an unmet emotional need, (which is common in divorce), it may be helpful to seek the assistance of counselors or coaches to help you think of how those needs can be addressed. Similarly, if there is a tangible part of the divorce agreement that feels fundamentally unfair to both spouses for legal or financial reasons, it may be necessary to go deeper into their understanding of the finances or the law to help address some of these fundamental concerns. The great challenge in the divorce world is that, generally, you are dealing with areas of scarcity and loss and narrow definitions of fair can almost never be met. However, for people who are willing to practice some measure of empathy and to work to try to view the fairness through the lens of the other spouse, notions of fairness can be a powerful tool toward finding resolution. For more information on how this can be done, and for professionals with skill in addressing these issues go to www.collaborativelaw.org or www.divorcechoice.com.
As a confirmed New Yorker subscriber, I enjoy the cartoons as much as the writing. Indeed, the cartoons alone would justify my subscription. Earlier this year, there was a drawing of a customer addressing a florist. “I want some flowers that say, ‘Here! Have some frickin’ flowers!'” For a lot of couples about to enter into a dissolution of their marriage, the holidays are a time of high anxiety. Often, both spouses know it’s coming–soon–but call a truce in order not to wreck the children’s Christmas. According to some of my former clients who have done that, the whole holiday season felt like, “Here! Have a frickin’ truce!” Tense, hollow, sarcastic. Anxiety-ridden, courtesy of the Unknown. A close friend who knows about my practice once asked me, “What’s the most important thing you can tell someone who comes in to see you about a divorce?” “Well, it will depend on what’s most important to that person at that moment, but, generally speaking, I’d want them to know it’s going to be all right,” I said. “Isn’t that a little misleading? I mean, you don’t know anything about who they’re married to, or who that person’s lawyer is, or anything.” “Well, I know this: when they talk to me, they’re living in a situation that’s become unbearable, a situation they know very well. And it’s bad enough that they’re talking to me about an Unknown–the divorce–that they’d rather deal with. I actually did once ask a client who was complaining about how long it was taking and how much it was costing whether he’d like to dismiss the action and stay married. He looked at me like I had two heads. ‘Not on the longest day you live,’ he said.” So the goal was not an issue. By the way, that was before I began doing Collaborative cases. But my point is that the divorce itself will end some day, and probably in less than a year. And after it’s over, that person will go on with their life. Most of the time, the people who come to me know that I do mostly Collaborative cases, where the couples have to agree on what happens before anything can happen, and where the goal is to agree on all the terms of the divorce. So they each have to give their spouse a reason to agree to what they’re seeking. More importantly, they have many opportunities over the weeks of that case to refine the conversation, discover what’s at the heart of their goals, and explore different ways of satisfying their spouse’s interests. The upshot is that by the time they do reach all their agreements, they have talked everything through–usually multiple times–and they have a set of agreements they can live with. And things going forward are going to be all right! They can take some reassurance in that because their discussions were all based on their actual situation, not what they wish their situation was. They’ve spoken with their lawyers and they understand what the courts can do and what they won’t do. In the Decree, under “real estate,” the court simply can’t award to the spouse who had an affair “the hottest corner of Hell.” For one thing, there’s no legal description. But if their husband or wife insists that this is the only appropriate residence for them, post-decree, I know that person will never succeed in a Collaborative case. I also know that person won’t “succeed” in court, either. And, finally, I know that person could care less if things turn out “all right,” because their highest priority is to give back the pain they feel to the person who, they believe, caused it. They almost certainly will get more help from a therapist than a lawyer. But for the potential client who is most interested in ending their marriage, attending to their affairs, and starting a new life, history teaches us, time and again, that, really, it will be all right. At least, that’s what my clients tell me.
During my childhood, a common folk saying was, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Clearly this adage predated the internet age. Children can be hurt by words, and need our protection. Probably most people you know send texts and are connected to a social media network. Texting and social media are easily accessible and help people feel connected. The average American adult user of social media is plugged in 3.2 hours per day, sharing and receiving information online. Parents and their children often belong to the same social media networks. The impression that text exchanges and social networks are private and personal is problematic. Although there are privacy settings that can restrict sharing to specific online friends, people don’t always use them, nor are online posters always careful to self-filter and think twice about what they share. Even when messages are taken down, what goes up on the internet really never goes away. What does this have to do with protecting children during a divorce? Here are a few cautionary tales:
- A woman who was very hurt and feeling betrayed by her husband posted on Facebook in very colorful language about what a jerk he was, including vivid, angry descriptions of his undesirable qualities. Even though privacy settings were used to limit the posts to her close friends, the Facebook page was up on her opened laptop and read by her son when he arrived home from school, causing him considerable distress.
- A daughter asked to use her dad’s phone and discovered romantic texts he had exchanged with a girlfriend. The shocked daughter shared this information with her mother, and then felt responsible for their subsequent divorce.
- A few months after her parents’ divorce, a child discovered that her mother’s status on her Facebook homepage had been changed to “In a relationship.” This was upsetting to the child, who was still adjusting to the reality if the divorce.