Here I go, with a riff on that age-old middle-school essay.
As a divorced mom and parent coach, one of the things I feel passionate about is helping divorced couples co-parent to the ultimate benefit of their children. So among the many things I did this summer was to take a week to focus on my own education before I hustled to launch my three young-adult children on their individual academic adventures.
In short, I took the Divorce Mediation Skills Training Certificate Program at Northwestern University.
It having been quite a few years since I was a student, I was a tad trepidatious. I remember joking with my kids about my anxiety and attention span, but I’m happy to report I found the experience to be enlivening and enlightening. I am particularly grateful to our two outstanding teachers, the terrific coaches they brought in to work with us and my talented cohort group.
So, what did I learn? Quite a lot! Here are a few things that people going through a divorce – and the many people who know them – might find helpful.
1. Divorce is complicated. Of course you know that. What you may not know is that divorce isn’t just a family issue. There are actually three (count ‘em, 3) systems involved in every divorce: the Family system; the Legal system; and the IRS. Divorce is the process of navigating those three systems and negotiating the boundaries between them. Make sure your mediator helps you end up with a parenting agreement that doesn’t raise red flags in any of those areas.
2. Fighting makes everything worse. Speaking of flags, keep a white one handy. I don’t mean surrender your rights or your wishes, but surrender fighting about them. Fighting not only kills any vestiges of family spirit, it can lead to depression, withdrawal from parenting, drug and alcohol abuse, and at its worse, even spousal or child abuse.
3. Make sure your mediator is neutral. A mediator’s job is to ensure that both parties have their voices heard and understood. The mediator’s role is to help co-parents collaborate so they can come to agreement – not to be vested in any particular outcome.
4. Informed decision-making is key. Divorcing couples are making extremely critical decisions at a super-fraught and emotional time in their lives. Co-parents need to be fully informed, which is why many people opt to engage lawyers and or financial experts to vet issues even as they participate in mediation.
5. Mediators are trained to reflect your “interests”, not your rights. Mediators are not attorneys. The legal system stipulates legal rights for both parents and children in a divorce. Don’t confuse your mediator’s role and expertise with your lawyer’s.
6. Something can be inequitable, but still be legal. There’s the rub, right? The axiom that life isn’t fair typically plays out at some point during every divorce. As best as they can, divorcing parents need to focus on the big picture – the wellbeing of their children, themselves, and their former spouse. Do make sure your mediator understands that equity is relevant and important to you.
7. Lawyers get a bad rap. Lawyers see the world through a very precise prism. From their point of view, equity isn’t relevant under the law (see #6). Sometimes they have the tough role of sharing those facts with their clients. That said, select your divorce attorney wisely and well. Most important, if you plan to engage in mediation, make sure your attorney is a willing partner to the process.
8. Mediation is a delicate balance. Mediators are called on to make things better for one co-parent without making it worse for the other. But sometimes the best decision for the children may also happen to be easier or better for one parent versus the other. If you’re the “other,” try to keep your children’s well-being top-of-mind.
9. Enough with the venting. I get it. Divorce sucks. Maybe even your spouse sucks. But unregulated venting in mediation is counter-productive. Mediators aren’t therapists, so they can’t cure your sense of hurt or injustice or whatever. Vent to your friends; get a therapist; join a gym. But in mediation, stay focused on the goal – an agreement that’s in the best interest of your entire family.
10. One partner is always further along than the other. It stands to reason that the partner who initiated the divorce is more at peace with the process. Or one partner is simply better at regulating his or her emotions. One’s position relative to the other will likely shift during the process. When you’re the “further along” one, let your mediator do the work of bringing your partner along.
11. Emotional uncoupling is a process. An extremely difficult one at that. Everyone needs to acknowledge and validate the reality that emotionally uncoupling a marriage and a family is a roller-coaster for everyone. Compassion for yourself and your family as everyone meanders through it is essential.
12. Mediators are people, too. While many mediators have been through conflict or divorce, those who have not may come across as insensitive or surprised at a co-parent’s difficulty with the process. If that happens, acknowledge the infraction and move on.
13. It’s not the mediator’s job to solve your problems. You and your spouse created them, so the two of you are responsible for resolving them. A mediator is there to help guide you through the process. Period.
14. Mediators are bound by ethics of confidentiality. But be aware that confidentiality laws can vary state to state and contract to contract. Be sure you understand the confidentiality of the mediation process. Be thoughtful that the more transparent you are in the process, the more likely you are to achieve a successful outcome that protects your interests
15. Co-parenting is not the same as parallel parenting. Obviously, co-parenting – when parents put their children’s needs first – is optimal for kids. But as it relies on regular and at least decent communication between divorced people, for some parents it’s just not realistic. Sometimes, “parallel parenting” is the only option. If that’s the case for you, make sure that is reflected in your parenting agreement by establishing clear boundaries and putting systems in place for how issues get resolved without direct contact.
16. “Be brief; be informative; be friendly; be firm.” That’s the essence of collaborative law, and it’s part of the training for mediators. Don’t expect to become chummy with your mediator. They have an objective job to do, and that’s what you want them to focus on. It’s not a personality contest between you and your co-parent.
17. Be as positive as possible. When going through divorce, it’s easy to focus on what you don’t want or what you won’t tolerate. But that’s not very informative to the mediator. Focus on what you do want for your kids. You’ll end up with a much better parenting agreement that way.
18. Listen to understand, not to react. That’s the mediator’s primary job. But divorcing spouses would be wise to take such counsel. Really listen to what your spouse wants for your children; don’t be planning your response as he or she is speaking. You just may be surprised at what you hear.
19. Focus forward. Divorce is (generally) permanent. You and your co-parent are going to continue parenting for decades. Keeping a forward focus is a constructive approach that can inhibit you from getting mired in inane arguments about issues that will only matter for a short time.
20. No parenting agreement is ideal. But can you live with it? Does it offer the best support, consistency and safety for your children? Are you getting most of what you need? If the answer to these questions is Yes, do your kids a huge favor and sign it.