My daughter Sarah with her grandmothers
My daughter Sarah with her grandmothers
Perhaps the most important advice I can give someone going through a divorce is to keep the long view in mind. Although it is easy to be swamped by the immediate emotions, the years after the divorce are where you see the impact of your decisions on your entire family. And nothing brings it to the forefront like a milestone event for your child, which I am currently experiencing. My daughter Sarah graduated from high school and will soon be heading off to Wellesley College. This summer has been marked by a graduation weekend with extended family, and soon I will join my fiancé and Sarah’s dad to move Sarah into her dorm. Bringing together the extended family for graduation post-divorce could have been painful and awkward. But it was a wonderful, celebratory weekend filled with love for Sarah and our love and respect for all members of the family. Sarah was in grade school when her dad, John, and I divorced. Divorce is always painful, but we were blessed with a team of collaborative professionals to assist us in the process. I have known for years that a collaborative divorce launched our excellent co-parenting relationship. What really resonated on graduation weekend was the impact on the extended family. My mom flew in from Arizona and John’s mom flew in from New York. These grandmothers had not seen each other since Sarah’s baptism. John’s brother came from Pennsylvania, and he had not seen my mom since our wedding 24 years ago. Also in the mix was my fiancé, Josh, his daughter Lily and his parents. I admit I was a bit nervous about seeing my former mother-in-law and brother-in-law, but it was incredible. We all worked together setting up for Sarah’s graduation party, had multiple meals together, carpooled to the ceremony and sat together cheering for Sarah as she collected her diploma. The love was abundant in all these events, which was priceless. Here’s what collaborative practice allowed for our family: we began to forgive each other and start healing. If we had litigated, the resentments would have become entrenched. By forgiving each other for our failures in the marriage, we could open up to respect and even love towards each other as parents of our amazing daughter. Our tone set the tone for our families – no one needs to choose sides or hold resentments. We can celebrate with full hearts. When we wave goodbye to Sarah at Wellesley this month, she can feel secure knowing her crazy, blended family is behind her, laughing, hugging and linking arms. I am looking forward to the next milestone, when we can all gather again. I know that wouldn’t be possible if we had litigated our divorce. I hope every parent going through a divorce strives for more than just being civil to each other. My hope is that you can celebrate the gifts each parent and family member brings to the life of your child. It starts with your divorce process – collaborative practice allows you to transform your relationship.
173298779When you are ready to start a divorce, nothing creates more frustration than the reluctant spouse.  How are you supposed to move forward with your life when your husband or wife doesn’t want a divorce?  Here is my advice for dealing with the spouse who is dragging their feet. 1.  Keep your long-term goals in the forefront, rather than taking short-term aggressive action. A friend of mine from another state called me recently to tell me about her meeting with a divorce lawyer. My friend wants a divorce; her husband doesn’t. The lawyer said she ought to serve and file divorce papers on her husband and tell her three children about the divorce by herself so she controlled the story to the kids. This kind of advice is what gives lawyers a bad name. Like most people with kids, my friend wants to protect them from conflict and have a good co-parenting relationship after the divorce. That means she has to work with her husband, not set up a firestorm of conflict by launching an aggressive attack.  2. Get the right support to help your spouse. A spouse who is not emotionally ready to handle a divorce can make the process difficult. It’s much more effective to connect with resources to help your spouse accept the divorce. If you have been in marriage counseling, you could enlist the counselor to facilitate conversations about your desire for a divorce and options for proceeding. Discernment counseling, which is a limited scope form of therapy, is another approach. Or you could work with a collaborative divorce coach, who is skilled at working with couples who are have a gap in their respective readiness to proceed with divorce.  3.  Use the time to gather necessary financial documents.  While you are letting your spouse play “catch up” emotionally, it helps to feel like you are taking steps to move forward. One task that has to happen is gathering financial information. You can contact a collaborative financial neutral to find out about their services and the information that will be needed. You can gather records, such as tax returns, mortgage documents, bank statements, and credit card statements. You can look into insurance costs as an individual and look into housing options. Gathering all the financial information usually takes some time, and there is no reason why you can’t get a start on that important step. It will make things go more quickly once you are ready to start the process. It is rare for both spouses to be in the same place emotionally when deciding to end a marriage. If you can give your spouse some time and support to accept that the marriage is over, you gain a less frustrating divorce process and a foundation for a good working relationship as co-parents.
Dog, Jack
It turns out that dogs are great teachers about relationships. My dog recently taught me that I cannot get him (or anyone else) to do something simply by being right. Being right will not get you what you want in a relationship, and may even drive a deeper wedge between you and what you want. Our family recently adopted Jack from the Humane Society in St. Paul. Jack is a sweet, somewhat shy, dog who started his journey in Alabama. I think about Jack spending time in a shelter in Alabama and then riding in a kennel for the long drive to Minnesota–multiple kennels, surrounded by unknown dogs, poked and examined by well-meaning vets and volunteers and then coming to a new house with new people. So Jack was living a high stress life for at least the two weeks before he came into our lives. One night during his first week with us, I took him outside to pee before bed. Jack had been outside several times that day, but he hadn’t peed. I needed him to pee so we could sleep through the night. Jack was skittish, and easily distracted. Just as I thought he was going to go, a dog in a neighboring house started barking and Jack moved out of position.  He pulled on the leash and wanted to go back inside. I knew the right thing for Jack. He would feel much more comfortable all night if he just peed. I bet 10 out of 10 people on the street would agree with me. After 12+ hours, peeing is a good idea. I was tired, and I was worried about him. I became impatient. My voice took on an edge as I got more and more frustrated that he would not do what I was asking. I was right, after all. But it didn’t matter to Jack. My frustration, impatience and insistence only made him more stressed. And less likely to pee. What Jack needed was a way to reduce his stress. Staking out the factually correct position and insisting did not help Jack reduce his stress. This is true for anyone in a relationship. Couples going through a divorce sometimes get hung up on being “right,” but that’s not going to lead to an agreement if the other person is stressed out.  Sometimes you have to back off and let the other person relax and reach their own conclusion. We work very hard to minimize stress for everyone in the collaborative divorce process.  It helps people reach durable agreements. Jack never peed that night. The next morning, we were both refreshed, the sun was shining and I sat back and let Jack take his time. He peed, and we were both happy.
Besides being a family law attorney, I am a divorced mother of a teenager. My daughter was 9 when her dad and I separated. Parenting is not for the faint of heart, even with a great kid. I cherish the fact that I have a strong co-parenting relationship with my daughter’s father as we celebrate the successes and face the challenges of launching a young woman into independence. So it bothers me when I see divorced women torpedoing the co-parenting relationship. I don’t seem to attract these kind of women as my clients, but I meet them socially or hear the stories from others (None of the moms below were my clients). The following is my advice to those women, because I have lived it.
1.  Stop calling yourself a “single mother.”   Unless your child’s father died or has no involvement in your child’s life, your child still has a dad. Calling yourself a single mom marginalizes dad. I know of a mom who sent dad a copy of the registration form for summer camp, since dad was paying half the cost of extra-curricular activities.  Mom put her name and contact information on the form and drew a line through the section for the other parent. Even if you have sole custody, respect the fact that your child has two parents. 2.  Communicate, communicate, communicate. Dads need to know what is going on with kids when they are at mom’s home, and vice versa. I know of a dad who reached out to mom to discuss how to handle a power struggle.  Mom responded by saying, “That’s between you and [daughter]. You have to figure it out on your own.” I wonder if mom would have said the same thing to a teacher asking for input. This isn’t a test where comparing answers is cheating. This is your kid’s life. And don’t forget there will likely be a time in the future where you are struggling to find the answer to a parenting dilemma. It is a relief and a blessing to have a co-parent when that happens. 3.  Communicate doesn’t mean micro-manage. The flip side is the mom who is hyper-vigilant and second-guesses every decision, monitoring every meal and activity. I know a mom who was critical because dad ate out at restaurants too much. Give yourself permission to let go of the small stuff.
When my daughter was younger, she was on a soccer team but was tired of going to practices. She was at my house and was supposed to be picked up in the carpool.  What I didn’t realize is that she texted her friend and said she wasn’t going to practice, and then she left the house and re-entered through the egress window in the basement. I found her hiding out in the basement. It was a relief to be able to call her dad and have a unified approach to dealing with honesty, and to also re-assess soccer as an activity for her. Unless there are domestic violence issues, do whatever you can to nurture a parent partnership. Let go of competition with dad.  Let go of anger towards dad. Let go of perfection. Trust me, life is so much better, for your kids and for you, when you have a co-parent.
CompassionCompassion overruled a machine gun this week. The actions of one courageous school clerk at a Georgia elementary school saved countless lives. The skills she demonstrated in convincing a desperate man to put down his weapons can teach all of us how to resolve conflicts. Most of us will (thankfully) never face a conflict as intense as Antoinette Tuff. Tuff is the school office worker at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy whose actions on Tuesday stopped a shooter armed with a machine gun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. On the 911 recording that was released, we can hear the remarkable way Tuff worked with the gunman. Three things stood out to me as valuable skills for peacefully resolving conflict. Connection. Tuff talked with the shooter, and connected with him. She stayed calm, and worked to understand what was happening for him and what he needed. When the shooter steps outside at the beginning and fires at police, she could have run or hidden. But she stayed and kept working with him. She relays messages to the 911 dispatcher and asks the shooter respectfully, “Now what did you want me to tell her, sir?” I imagine he felt understood and respected by Tuff, which calmed him down. Vulnerability. Tuff was willing to open up and share her own stories of struggling in life. She told him how she had gone through a difficult divorce and had even been suicidal before. She offered him hope by letting him know that she made it through her difficult times. Her willingness to be vulnerable deepened the trust she created with the gunman. Compassion. As the time goes on and she learns more about the gunman’s struggles, she shifts into a more nurturing mode and even uses terms of affection with him.  She reassures him that he hasn’t hurt anyone and he is doing the right thing by putting down his gun and surrendering.  Her compassion is breathtaking: “We’re not going to hate you baby. Its a good thing that you’re giving up so we’re not going to hate you. . . . It’s gonna be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing. You’ve just given up. Don’t worry about it.” If Tuff can do those things when faced with a gun, then the rest of us can do the same in much more mundane situations.  These are the skills we work to develop with our clients in Collaborative divorce practice.  Divorce can bring out high conflict, but it doesn’t have to lead to emotional destruction.  Following Tuff’s lead can bring peace.
Image courtesy of arztsamui/
Image courtesy of arztsamui/
While much of the focus of the new law legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota is focused on the upcoming weddings, the new law also paves the way for same-sex couples to legally divorce once the law goes into effect on August 1, 2013. This has a significant impact on Minnesota same-sex couples who were legally married in other states or countries and have since split up. Minnesota’s current law declared that same-sex marriages from other states were void and no rights were enforceable in Minnesota. For example, suppose you have Bill and Bob, a gay couple who legally married in Vermont in 2001, and then moved to Minnesota. Bill and Bob adopted a son, and Bob decided to stay at home to care for their son while Bill worked.  After 12 years of marriage, they decide to end the marriage. Minnesota law treated this couple as if they had never been married, and they would not have been able to bring a proceeding for divorce. They could have brought custody and child support issues in a legal proceeding, but the law would have treated them like unmarried parents and would not have been able to handle property division or spousal maintenance. But now, the new law signed by Governor Dayton allows Minnesota family courts to recognize marriages performed in other states or countries.  So same-sex couples will now have the ability to pursue a legal divorce just like an opposite-sex couple.  Depending on the facts, Bob might have a claim for spousal maintenance, and the couple’s marital property accumulated during the 11 years of marriage would be subject to an equitable division by the family court. One thing the new Minnesota law cannot fix is the tax implications on property divisions in same-sex divorce. Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage for tax purposes. And that means same-sex couples who are dividing assets in a divorce, such as retirement accounts, are treated differently by the IRS than opposite-sex couples.  All of that could change in the next couple months when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of DOMA. With the new law and the impending decision by the Supreme Court,  family lawyers are facing new territory.  This makes the collaborative divorce process an attractive option for same-sex couples. The collaborative divorce process allows for a couple to honor their relationship and craft customized solutions to handle the changes to the law. Bill and Bob can have a respectful divorce, work together as effective co-parents, and remarry when they find new love in the future.
IMG_0282 - Version 2At the beginning of a divorce, you have to choose which path to take.  I think of this choice every time I see this sign in Arizona, where Bloody Basin Road is one direction, and Tranquil Trail goes the opposite way. It’s much like the choice at the beginning of a divorce. I once met a woman who had gone through a highly-contested divorce, followed by 3 years of court battles after the divorce was final. Her story is a cautionary tale of what happens when decisions at the beginning are made out of fear. Her divorce began when her husband came home on a Friday and announced that he had fallen in love with someone else and wanted a divorce. He packed a bag and moved out of the house. She was shocked, hurt, angry and scared. She was a stay-at-home mom, and she didn’t know how she would be able to take care of herself financially. When she called her family, they reacted out of fear: “You better move money out of your joint bank account before he cleans it out, and you’re left with nothing.” Panic kicked in, so she went to a bank first thing Saturday morning to open a new individual account with their joint funds.  And she decided her best move was to hire an aggressive litigator who would fight to protect her. Her husband found out on Monday that she moved their money out of the joint account.  He was shocked, hurt, angry – and also scared.  “How could she do this?  I have always provided for this family, and she made a unilateral decision to take our savings.  She is going to take me for everything I have in this divorce. “ And he decided his best move was to hire an aggressive litigator who would fight to protect him. Once they lawyered up, they were off to the races, tearing down Bloody Basin Road. They each spent several hundred thousand dollars in legal fees. I wonder:  How protected did they feel? How protected did their children feel? I also wonder how this might have been different. What if they didn’t stake out their fear-based positions at the outset? Imagine if they had attorneys trained in collaborative practice who could say, “Slow down.  Let’s keep the status quo with your finances and give you both a chance to understand your options before anyone starts taking action.” Imagine if they had a divorce coach who could help them focus on their long-term goals for the family. Imagine if they had a child specialist who could keep them focused on how to support their children, rather than tearing each other apart. I believe they would have had a better chance of actually protecting themselves if they had used a collaborative process to manage the fear and conflict. They might have been able to drive down Tranquil Trail.
Image courtesy of photostock / When it comes to co-parenting after divorce, the best parenting plan is the one you never have to use. Creating the parenting plan is perhaps the most important part of your collaborative divorce process. But if you put the time and energy into creating a complete plan, you will lay the foundation for good communication and have the flexibility to work with your former spouse as your children’s needs change in the future. The habits of good co-parenting will be ingrained and will be second nature. Minnesota law permits parents to avoid the labels of legal and physical custody if they have a parenting plan that spells out the important aspects of parenting. In collaborative divorce, parents frequently choose to use a child specialist who can help them develop a thoughtful parenting plan that is tailored to their family. Parenting plans typically include:
  • the schedule of how the children will divide their time between the parents;
  • how the parents will communicate about their children;
  • how the parents will make important decisions related to their children, such as schools, activities, and religion;
  • how the parents will handle child care and medical care;
  • how the parents will handle contact with the extended family;
  • how the parents will introduce the children to new partners.
When you invest in having the discussions necessary to reach agreement on these topics, you create a comprehensive written plan.  But what’s even more valuable, you have experienced communicating as co-parents —  working through disagreements, reaching an understanding about how to approach the ever-changing future landscape of parenting.  The more you practice these skills, the better you become. As your children grow up, you will have the solid foundation of communication and the flexibility to adapt to your children’s changing needs.  You won’t need to pull out the document to look up how you are going to handle co-parenting.