Yes, there are bright spots in the dismal terrain of broken families in which I work. As I work to help clients manage the dissolution of their families, normally I am in an acutely adversarial role. This is required because the parties are so polarized from hurt that they are unable to be collaborative. I understand that. Been there, done that myself.
Often where children are involved I see parents so blinded by their pain and their own rejection issues that seeing the best interests of the kids is impossible. Many is the time I have had clients tell me, “I want him to have every other weekend, PERIOD. It’s best for the kids…” Yeah, right. It’s best for the kids to see Dad four days a month? No, it’s a great way for you to jab back at him for his hurt to you and to have some control in this life of yours that has spun out of control.
But, they are sincere most of the time, I have come to understand. Pain colors perception in such odd ways.
But recently I was involved in a settlement meeting that was almost a pleasure to attend. I say “almost” because divorce is never a pleasure, especially where there are children involved.
The participants, Mark and Colleen, are both well-educated professionals. Mark makes an astronomical amount of money; Colleen has a respected profession without so much monetary return. They are parents to two sons, ages 4 and 6. They had been separated over a year before either sought legal counsel.
Incredibly, they had worked out caring for these kids without any visible hitch. Colleen had taken a spacious apartment, suitable for the kids and just minutes away from the marital home where Mark remained. When she moved out, her children (then three and five) rolled into the new digs without nary a wrinkle. For over a year they had been splitting the time with the children, fifty-fifty, and had continued to make decisions about the kids, throw birthday parties together, attend the five-year-old’s kindergarten meetings together and so forth.
When Colleen came to see me some months ago, she insisted that she have joint custody with Mark (something I rarely recommend because it rarely works). When she told me how the last year has gone, I agreed to give it a shot.
We met the other day, Mark and his attorney coming to sit across the settlement table from Colleen and me. A few minutes into the meeting, I could see why the joint custody would work.
We never discussed the whys of their break up, but I could see that there was still hurt on both sides. Both of them agreed that the move out of the house was so that there would never be any arguing in front of the kids. They say they stuck to that, determined that the children not see hostility between them. I believe they did that. It is a breath of fresh air.
Mark, was testy because I was asking for support from him for Colleen so that her standard of living for these kids would not be so glaringly disparate from his. He felt that she had moved out, she should not share in “his” money.
Not wanting to rock the boat that had sailed so steadily before attorneys entered the picture, I was easy in my approach. Still, I could not let Colleen walk away with a financial agreement that would impoverish her, despite her willingness to give in. I had to assert on her behalf.
My answer, to which his legal counsel nodded agreement, was: “We go to court. Without an agreement on this, it all has to be on the table. The Court will not order joint custody unless both parties come asking for it in evidence of your ability to cooperatively parent. We can’t request it without a fair settlement of the issues which affect your little boys—like their mother’s ability to provide a home for them.”
This sobering thought brought his attention back to his children. He retreated. Each time voices were raised (always over money) and it seemed we were stuck, someone would mention the kids, and both parties would immediately calm and move back in their chairs. The kids kept them centered and focused on their ultimate goal—good parenting.
As the process continued we lawyers learned the trick. Each time we broached the possibility that the kids might be pulled into the fray in some way or that the Court would rule that one have custody, both parties would retreat—not necessarily to give in on the issue, but at least to regroup, to rethink, to find a solution. It was clear to me that these parents were hyperfocused on their children and how this split could be managed to impact the boys the least. It was as if anything which touched the boys’ welfare was sacred ground. These parents will, I believe—I hope-- be forever united in their goal of dong the very best for their children.
We reached a settlement that I believe is fair and will work to the kids’ best interests.
I’ve tried to analyze what makes this couple so unique, why we were able to work things out as well as we did, and why they were so amazingly attuned to their children’s interests. I’ve come up with a few factors that distinguish them from the average case:
- These two seem secure within themselves. They are both accomplished and confident in their chosen profession fields. We did not have to battle some of the problems that insecurities cause. It didn’t hurt that they were both extremely intelligent.
- There had been over a year for them to get some of the emotional venting out of their systems. Neither had felt the need for an immediate divorce, and this gave time for them to get into a successful separation routine and for emotions to calm down.
- They both had willing lawyers. I can’t emphasize the importance of this factor enough. If the other side had brought a lawyer who was combative or wanting to be sure he and his client “wins,” then we would have been sunk. A lawyer can whip those old emotions back up in a client in an instant. Thankfully, both attorneys were able to see our clients’ ultimate goal and help them achieve it. We lawyers can be real stinkers sometimes.
I am not deceived. In fact, those of you who have read this blog much know that I am quite the cynic. I believe this couple will have rockiness ahead, because that is the nature of dealing with an ex.
However, they are a head start ahead of most others in keeping those children central and as the most important part of this process. Regardless of their marital status, these parents will together face events with these kids from now on. There will be school and sporting events, graduations, weddings, grandkids….they are forever tied to one another to some extent. Best to recognize that those children who were so important to them while they were together should still be the most important things to them both.
I commend them and just wanted you out there to know: It can be done. C.