Divorce Mediation

Post image for Has New York’s No-Fault Provision Increased the Divorce Rate?

The NY Post recently reported that since the new no-fault divorce provision took effect, divorce filings in New York State have increased 12%. Some people are pointing to this as an indication that no-fault laws make people more inclined to divorce. This isn’t necessarily true.

An important factor in the fluctuations in divorce filings may be the economy. Many divorces were put on hold when the recession hit. As confidence in the economy began to improve, those who waited to get divorced for financial reasons finally felt they were ready to file. A University of Oklahoma study conducted back in 1998 also found that a state’s no-fault laws impacted the rate of divorce filings.  However, the study went on to show that in those no-fault states where the rates of divorce had increased, the increases were significantly linked to gains in family income, showing that as a family has more money to spend, separation and divorce becomes more possible.

Where To Point the Finger?

I believe, as the Oklahoma study points out, a variety of factors come into play when a couple decides to postpone or give the green light to filing for divorce.  I’ve spoken to numerous couples who stated, for example, that given the New York City real estate market, they couldn’t afford to divorce and sell their property so had to wait until the market turned around.  Others say that they simply can’t afford the cost of childcare and two New York City apartments, so they’ll tough it out until rental rates drop or their incomes increase so as to permit one of them to move out. And many couples chose to stay married, although separated, simply so that one spouse can maintain healthcare coverage under the other’s company family health plan.

Just prior to the very recent economic shakeup in Washington, Americans were sensing a mild improvement in the economy and confidence in the market was improving.  Some suspect that couples were beginning to feel financially safe enough to make the move towards separation or divorce.  Coincidentally, the recent changes to the New York Domestic Relations Law passed in October 2010 law providing for no-fault divorce also make divorce more accessible and more affordable for many couples. By allowing couples to choose no-fault or ‘irreconcilable differences’ as the grounds for their divorce, there’s no longer any need to debate or prove grounds such as adultery, abuse or abandonment, which used to consume a significant portion of a lawyers’ time. Any divorce attorney will tell you that he or she spent hours prior to this change in the law wading through the various options for grounds for divorce, passing the tissues as they extracted the information from the clients, trying to construct a well-organized complaint that would be legally sufficient. If the issue went to trial to prove the grounds for divorce, it was extremely costly. Couples who found divorce too expensive in the past now have an option that is a little more streamlined and budget-friendly.

The recent change to the New York statute providing for legal fees has also made it more possible for spouses of lesser means to take the initiative to file a petition.  Under the new law, the spouse making substantially more money may be required to shoulder the cost, or a portion of the cost, of the divorce.  The intention is to make sure that the lesser earning spouse does not stay trapped in a bad marriage just because he or she can’t afford to file for divorce, and to ensure that both parties have access to competent legal counsel or mediation.

There are always a multitude of reasons why a couple decides to divorce and it’s unlikely a change in the law actually encourages people to go out and get a divorce if it wasn’t something they were already considering.

What’s your take on the recent increases in the divorce rate?

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Post image for Standoff on the Debt Ceiling:  Is There a Mediator in the House, Please?

 

As Congress misses its deadline once again for an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, shattering the confidence of even the most cynical of economic analysts, we have to wonder why the White House has not considered using a different strategy to settle this impasse: Mediation.  The recent debate in Washington about the debt ceiling and the budget have offered a window into the importance of mediation, says a recent article in the Pittsbugh BusinessTimes. The article makes some good points about how mediation could help move the process along quickly toward resolution.  As anyone who’s been involved in an intense family, business or neighborhood conflict knows, mediators can be highly successful in getting the parties to focus on the heart of the problem, and helping them brainstorm creatively about solutions in order to achieve a ‘win-win’ agreement.  Let’s take a quick look at how a mediator could be helpful in the White House as the clock is ticking ever closer to the August 2nd budget deadline.

Mediation Resolves Disputes Quickly

There’s no argument that, when it comes to the current budget crisis and the bill under consideration to raise the debt ceiling, time is of the essence.  And mediation is always the speediest way to help parties cut through the posturing, the politics and saber-rattling, to reach an agreement that will stick. Waiting to go to court often takes months. Mediation, on the other hand is an immediate solution that allows the parties to sit down quickly and start to find solutions before the problem becomes larger. The debt ceiling is a pressing problem, and one that needs to be resolved quickly, something mediation could handily do.

Mediation Helps Parties Problem-Solve More Creatively

The debt ceiling has proven to be a persistent point of contention and the parties continue to circle around the same topics and offer up the same solutions. In disputes like this, a mediator can often step in and help the parties think about the problems in new ways. Mediators don’t offer solutions, but they do guide the parties to look at the problem in a new way, thereby helping them develop alternative solutions. Having a non-invested, neutral third party in the room can change the tone of the conversation and make it more productive, thoughtful, and creative.

Mediation Keeps the Debate Focused

It is also important to remember that a mediator does, in fact, mediate.  That is, a mediator’s job is to keep the conversation on point and on target. In family mediation, elder care mediation, and business mediation, parties have a tendency to wander and to pull in topics, situations, and associated problems that are not helpful in resolving the issue on the table. A mediator guides the talks in a focused way, moving the parties from point to point, helping them move towards solutions and also helping them see the interrelation between the problems at hand so they can be solved in a cohesive manner.

Mediation is Private and Positive

The mediation room is a positive space, where parties are not allowed to speak harshly and posturing is discouraged. Mediators work to keep parties focused on constructive conflict resolution rather than rehashing the past. In addition, mediation is a more private process, where parties are urged to keep the issues in the room – unlike the talks in Washington, which take place very much in the public eye (or at least are reported to the public after the fact). The privacy of the process can be helpful in resolving sensitive and complex conflicts where multiple agendas are at stake.  By allowing parties to lay their cards on the table honestly and openly, they can ‘cut to the chase’ more quickly if they are not having to worry about the  public perception of each position and argument presented.

Mediation offers a multitude of benefits for settling conflicts – from marital squabbles, inter-family conflicts, business problems, to cross-border disputes.  Maybe it’s time that the lawmakers in Washington try a new approach to ending the deadlock on the debt ceiling debate and bring a neutral into the room to help them move swiftly toward resolution.

 

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Divorce Mediation and the Gen X Family

by Petra Maxwell on July 20, 2011

 

A  recent Wall Street Journal piece focused on Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) and divorce.  As the author points out, this is the generation defined by divorce: nearly half of Gen Xers grew up in split households, and roughly 40% were latch-key kids. It’s no wonder, then, that  Gen Xers, now married with their own families, are more determined than ever to get it right.

Learning From the Past, in Marriage and Divorce

Contrary to popular belief, children of divorced households aren’t necessarily headed for a failed marriage themselves.  The article points out that, for the first time in over two decades, the divorce rate has dipped.  Recent census data shows that the early wave of Gen Xers married in the early 1990’s have stayed married past the 10-year mark.  Gen Xers are loathe to put their kids through what they themselves have endured as neglected children, shuttled from household to household. But divorce still happens.  Gen Xers, like their parents, lead complicated, dual career lives that present multiple challenges when trying to navigate around the competing demands of jobs and kids. When the marriage breaks down, the Gen X couple, who themselves suffered the pain and emptiness of divorce, is again determined to “get it right”.

For Gen Xers, Mediation Makes for Better Co-Parenting

This generation that has a laser focus on its own children is very attuned to the effect of divorce on kids because they themselves lived through it.  More and more, Gen Xers are turning to mediation to negotiate their separation and divorce to help reduce the negative impact of the transition on their kids. That’s good news for the children since a University of Virginia study has shown that divorce mediation does what mediators have long been saying it does – it fosters better communication between the parents, allowing them to stay actively engaged in their kids’ lives as parents co-parents.  (Also read our previous article, Divorce Mediation Makes Better Parents).

Create A Parenting Plan!

If you’re a Gen Xer (and even if you’re not), you want mediation to help you lay the groundwork for cooperative co-parenting, so that you can continue to give your kids a grounded and balanced childhood, even if they have two homes. We are experienced at working with parents who lead complex lives – professional moms and dads with multiple kids and complicated parenting arrangements – and we understand your interest in making sure that your children go on to lead healthy, secure and balanced lives with continued access and support from both parents, despite your break-up.  Contact us for information on how we can help you create (or revise) a co-parenting plan that will help you ‘get it right’ so you can remain actively involved parents for your kids.

 

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Mediation and the LGBT “Divorce” in New York

by Petra Maxwell on June 18, 2011

Post image for Mediation and the LGBT “Divorce” in New York

New York State is getting encouragingly close to the passage of a bill recognizing same-sex marriages. But until we actually see a signature on the page, New York (like many other states) does not recognize GLBTQ marriages and unions. This means that if you were married in another state, you can’t get a divorce in New York (or in other states that do not recognize gay marriages). And if you’re partnered in New York and break up, you have no access to the legal system to resolve the issues of your break up.

Mediation is the solution. In mediation you’re not constrained by what your state recognizes or doesn’t and you’re free to discuss and reach agreements about any conflicts that may arise in your relationship. You and your partner can work with a trained, neutral mediator who understands the issues involved in GLBTQ families and marriages. Your mediator will help you work through all of the issues involved in separating and will create a written agreement you both can follow.

LGBT Financial Issues: Joint Assets and Debt Without Divorce Court

When you end your relationship you may have some or all of the following joint assets and debts:

  • Home
  • Cars
  • Investments, stocks, and bonds
  • Credit card bills
  • Mortgages, car loans, home equity loans, and personal loans
  • Household items
  • Unpaid utility bills
  • Degrees or professional licenses earned during the marriage
  • Unpaid taxes
  • Bank accounts and CDs
  • Retirement accounts
  • Collectibles
  • Season’s tickets, frequent flyer miles, family memberships, and credit card points

Because you are not legally married in New York, these items cannot be divided by a divorce court. This leaves your family on its own, unless you turn to mediation. A mediator can help you negotiate a fair and equitable division of your assets, and then can create a binding contract that addresses how all of these items will be divided. He or she helps you work through the negotiations and discussions involved in the very emotional process of ending a close personal relationship.

Custody: Mediation for Gay Families with Children in New York

Mediation is very important for gay families with children, particularly if you are not both legal parents of the children. In this situation, there are no State regulations protecting the non-legal parent. However, in mediation, you are free to enter into your own contract describing your arrangements regarding custody, visitation and child support. The current state law doesn’t really matter as long as your agreement is reasonable and takes your children’s best interests to heart.

On the other hand, if you are both the legal parents of your children, you can get a New York court to enter an order enforcing your custody and child support issues. However, the best way to handle these sensitive family matters is to go to a mediator first to negotiate your parenting, child support and other asset arrangements yourselves, rather than to leave these decisions up to a judge. Then, have the mediator draft the settlement documents, and have him or her file them with the court on your behalf. Your agreement reached in mediation will be approved by the court and entered into an enforceable court order. Only in mediation are you able to work together to come up with a custody and child support plan that fits your family and includes as much detail as you need.

Alimony

Alimony is ordered in divorces to help one spouse get back on his or her feet, and sometimes as compensation for behavior that happened in the marriage. In New York, you must be in a hetero marriage to qualify for alimony through the courts. However, as before, mediation gives you the room to negotiate any financial terms you feel are appropriate under the circumstances and for the sake of fairness. So, if one of you needs some financial assistance in the wake of the separation, your mediator can help you draft an agreement that lays out the terms of the financial arrangement including a payment schedule. Your mediator can also assist you in structuring this so it does not have income tax consequences.

Dissolving a Marriage from Another State

In order to dissolve a marriage that may have occurred in another state or country, you have to follow the divorce procedures set up by that state or country. Most states have residency requirements that you must meet to be able to file. Your mediator can discuss with you how you can meet those requirements and get the marriage dissolved.

Clearly, under New York’s current system, those in GLBTQ relationships face numerous challenges when contemplating a break-up. Until New York State legislation catches up with real life, mediation offers the only compassionate and flexible way for couples to resolve the unique circumstances of their relationship outside of the courtroom.

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Post image for The “New” NY Divorce Law:  What it is and how it impacts your decision to mediate

Late last fall, New York became the last state in the nation to offer something akin to ‘no-fault’ divorce. After years and years of debate, a few new provisions were added to the NY State Domestic Relations Statute that impacts the grounds by which you can get a divorce, the payment of fees to get a divorce, and the provision of maintenance (or alimony) for the lesser earning spouse while the divorce is being negotiated.   I am asked all the time about what the new law entails, whether it’ll make getting a divorce in New York easier or more complicated for couples, and what it means for a NY mediated divorce.

First, let me give you a quick and dirty summary of how the law has changed since the new provisions went into effect last October:

1.  Grounds for Divorce – Before October 2010, a spouse who wanted to divorce was required to prove that the other spouse had committed a serious marital transgression such as adultery, cruel and inhuman treatment, imprisonment or abandonment.  At best, couples could agree to legally separate for a minimum of a year and, thereafter convert their separation agreement to a petition for divorce after the full year was up.  But as of last October 2010, couples were given another option.  Under the new law a spouse need only show that “the relationship between husband and wife has broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months.”  When the divorce petition is filed in court the couple will be asked to file an affidavit stating that the marriage has broken down irretrievably for a least 6 months and that there is no possibility of reconciliation.  However, in order for the court to approve the petition, all other outstanding matters such as child custody, child support and distribution of property and maintenance, must first be resolved by the parties before the court will approve the petition and the marriage can be dissolved.

2.  Fees for Divorce – Last fall, Gov. Patterson also signed another bill favored by no-fault divorce advocates which may require the payment of counsel and experts’ fees to the “non-monied” party in a divorce action.  NY State law has always attempted to balance the playing field by forcing a higher earning spouse to pick up the tab or pay a portion of the divorce costs for the under earning spouse.  However, these costs could not be recovered until the divorce was finally settled in court.  Now, under the new law, those who earn less are permitted to recover their costs, or a portion of their costs, while they incur them, throughout the course of the divorce process.

3. Temporary Maintenance While Divorce is Pending – Finally, the Statute includes a provision for a more formulaic approach to the award of temporary maintenance payments to non-monied spouses as their divorce proceedings are pending and move toward finality.  As in all cases of maintenance, however, several factors are still taken into consideration by the courts when determining whether maintenance is appropriate.  For example, the length of the marriage, the education and earning capacity of the parties, professional sacrifices made by the non-earning spouse, what each was doing prior to the marriage, whether the couple has children and their ages and abilities, are all factors that the court will still consider when determining whether maintenance is appropriate.  There is never a hard and fast rule when granting an award of maintenance and a request can be denied altogether by the court despite the adoption of the formula.

So, let’s say you’re thinking about mediation.  How do the new NY Divorce rules stack up when you’re thinking about a mediated divorce?  Actually, I think you always do better in mediation – whether you have a complex case or not – for several reasons.  First, as you noticed, NY courts will not consider your petition for divorce unless they find that all other relevant matters such as child custody and support, property division and maintenance (if applicable), have been resolved.  In mediation, you will be asked to work together with your mediator on each of these issues, one by one.  Mediators are trained to help you brainstorm and resolve complex and challenging disputes around custody and parenting arrangements, property splits, pension plan and banking account assessments, real estate moves, and maintenance.  When all is said and done, your Lawyer/Mediator can draft a legally acceptable Stipulation of Settlement for you that will outline for the court all of the terms you’ve agreed to.  This will show the court that everything has been resolved; that you’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s and are ready for divorce.

What if you’re earning less and need financial help while the divorce is underway? Again, my bias is for mediation.  First, mediation is a much faster process – and more cost effective too.  Both parties save time and money while participating in mediation then when hiring separate attorneys to litigate their divorce.  I have found that because of the significant cost savings, higher earning spouses are sometimes more willing to help in ways that they might not have considered because they no longer feel that they’re being “taken to the cleaners” by a “vindictive” spouse.  Further, a good mediator will draw out their clients’ top concerns very early on.  If temporary maintenance or help with mediation fees is foremost on your mind and is causing you stress, then your mediator should help you both review your finances, your household budgets and help you create an Interim Agreement that outlines how one can help the other manage until a more permanent solution is worked out.

If you have more questions about the new rules for divorce in New York, or how mediation can work for you – please give us call.  We’ll be happy to help point you in the right direction or match you with a screened and qualified mediator that fits your needs.

 

 

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Although, more and more, mediation is becoming the preferred way for people to settle their disputes, there are still a lot of misperceptions about it.  Here are the top 10 fears and common concerns that I hear regularly from people that prevent them from taking the wise approach to conflict resolution.

1. Mediation only works if you already agree about most things. The whole point of mediation is to solve problems you don’t agree about. The process helps you find compromises and common ground when before you didn’t believe you had any. Just think of mediation as an alternative to going to court, except that the process is private, less expensive, faster, and you maintain more control over the outcome.  You don’t need to agree on the issues.  You just need to agree to mediate.  From there, each of you will work with your mediator to negotiate and problem-solve in order to develop solutions to your unique set of problems.

2. The mediator makes all the decisions. The mediator is actually there as a neutral third party to move the process along. He or she doesn’t decide anything at all and has no power to do so. Only the people sitting in mediation can make decisions about their situation.  The mediator may help by guiding you in your thinking, offering suggestions, and may point out options to assist you in brain-storming solutions.  But, ultimately, you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to developing solutions that work best for each of you.

3. Mediation is too time-consuming. Mediation almost always takes far less time than a contested court proceeding, when you consider all the hours your attorney must put in to prepare for court. Also, because mediators charge less than trial attorneys, you save money.

4. Mediation is touchy-feely. Mediation is not therapy. To resolve certain difficult issues it can be helpful to talk about the emotions or reasons behind them, but the goal in mediation is not to talk through your problems as you might in therapy. Instead, the goal is to tackle problems until you find a solution that works for everyone.  From there, your mediator will help you draft an agreement that will be enforceable in court.

5. Mediation is not for people with a lot of assets or complicated businesses. Mediation works in almost every situation. As long as parties are willing to sit down together to meet and discuss their conflict, mediation is possible.  Mediators have been used to resolve conflicts in business partnership cases, employment and contract disputes, separation and divorce cases, family conflicts, eldercare matters, landlord-tenant and real estate cases, and a host of other types of cases.  The value or type of assets is unimportant. The same process is used to resolve them. Mediators are trained to work with any type of asset.

6. People who mediate don’t use lawyers. Most mediators strongly suggest that both parties hire an attorney for consultation during the process. The mediator’s role is not to provide legal advice (although legal information is given). Each person may wish to consult with an attorney to discuss strategy, rights, and what the potential outcome would be in court.

7. If there’s a power imbalance in the relationship to begin with, the weaker party won’t be protected in mediation. This concern comes up frequently and is expressed most commonly by women going through a divorce, or employees in conflict with their employers.  The belief is that, without an aggressive attorney by their sides, they won’t feel they can have a voice in mediation.  In fact, mediators are trained to insure that everyone is given an equal opportunity to speak freely and openly during mediation and that everyone is heard.  Mediators often act as ‘interpreters’ for parties to be sure that their messages are being conveyed clearly to the other side. In this way, the process can move forward and everyone’s interests are represented in the final agreement.

8. A mediated agreement is not legally enforceable. The mediation process is not only accepted by the courts, it is now highly favored and encouraged by the court system and any agreement reached by the parties is considered binding and enforceable.  When the parties create an agreement with the help of their mediator, it will be drafted in a legally acceptable form, signed and notarized.  In the case of a divorce, for example, the divorce Stipulation of Settlement Agreement, will be submitted to the court with the divorce petition and attached to the court order.  Once this happens, the agreement reached by the parties will be binding and enforceable.

9. Women are always at a disadvantage in mediation, particularly if the mediator is male. Mediation is blind to gender. The process is not skewed in any way to give either spouse better chances. A good mediator will ensure that both parties have a voice and an opportunity to speak and negotiate. The mediator’s gender is irrelevant because the mediator acts completely neutrally.

10. Mediation doesn’t work unless you have good communication with the other person. Most people are in conflict with one another because they don’t have good communication, so this is definitely not a requirement for mediation. It’s even possible to mediate without ever sitting in the same room or speaking directly to each other.  At Mediationline, for example, we have successfully mediated cases where the parties have not been in the same location and have chosen to conduct their mediation over email and through separate exchanges with a mediator. No matter what the style of communication, mediators are skilled at drawing out shy and withdrawn parties, diffusing tense situations, and bringing balance and equity between the parties so that everyone has a voice in the process.


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Post image for Getting the Most Out of Your Mediation: Do the Homework!

When you sign up for mediation, you might not expect to be given homework.  But homework is an essential part of most effective divorce, custody, or senior care mediations.

What Kind of Homework Should You Expect

Mediators often ask clients to take the time between sessions to think about the issues still to be decided and to generate possible solutions. Your mediator will usually prompt you to try to think about the topic in a way you never have before. For example, if you’re mediating a custody dispute your mediator might suggest you pretend to be your child and come up with solutions he or she might think of. Your mediator may also ask you to gather information from different sources, such as appraisals from real estate brokers or account information from investment advisors. In a senior care mediation, your mediator might suggest you make some phone calls and talk with some visiting nurses, elder care managers, or assisted living facilities. You may also be asked to do some organizational work—gathering records and documents and organizing them or creating a summary that can then be used in the next mediation session.

Why You Should Do Your Homework

If your mediator asks you to think about some issues, generate possible solutions, or gather records between mediation sessions it’s usually so that when you meet again everyone will have made some progress. Homework saves you time (and money) in mediation. Going home and spending some time thinking about the issues and possible solutions lets your mind slowly work through things in a way you cannot in a one-hour session. In the days or weeks between your sessions, you have time to let your active and subconscious mind process everything that was discussed in session and internalize it. This moves you closer to a solution. Gathering information or documents allows you to bring something new to the next session so there are more items to discuss.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Homework

If you approach your homework as something you just need to check off your list, you aren’t getting the complete benefit of it. This isn’t like math homework in high school where you just needed to scribble some answers down on paper to show the teacher you did something. Homework is intended to benefit you. You aren’t doing it for your mediator. You’re doing it for yourself. You committed to mediation and you want it to help you reach an equitable resolution. The only way to do that is to devote time and energy to the process—which means taking the homework seriously.  As you gather your information, think about how it can benefit the settlement process.  Begin to think about creative ways for how you might be able to give and take as a way to reach a fair agreement.

Mediation homework is an integral part of the process and giving it the time and attention it needs will help move your mediation case along more quickly and get you to a mutually agreeable solution as fast as possible.

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Mediation needn’t be thought of as a last resort when your marriage is about to end. In fact, learning to self-mediate the problems and challenges in your marriage can help you build a stronger relationship along the way.

We’re excited about a new project that we have in the works here at Mediationline.  We’re going to be launching Marriage Matters:  Communication Bootcamp for Committed Couples, a special program designed to teach couples how to self-mediate their way through certain danger zones and make their marriages happier and healthier. 

To celebrate our anticipated launch this spring, we’ve interviewed Alisa Bowman, author of the new book, Project Happily Ever After: Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters and blogger at ProjectHappilyEverAfter.  Bowman was ready to end her marriage (and was daydreaming about her husband’s funeral) when a friend encouraged her to try harder. As a result, she turned her marriage around and now offers encouragement and advice to those who face the same problems she did. The lessons she learned while pursuing Project Happily Ever After (PHEA) can benefit any marriage.

What were the signs and symptoms that there was something wrong with your marriage?

I had many. I fantasized about divorce. I planned in my mind who would get what and how we would share custody. I had it planned down to the couches, china and rocking chair. I also fantasized about him conveniently dropping dead (so I wouldn’t have to bother going through the divorce). We weren’t having sex. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d done it—and I truly would not have cared if I never had sex with him again. We had nothing to talk about. We’d go out to dinner and stare in silence. We would fight about stupid stuff like what was allowed to go on the bathroom countertop. I also had an ongoing sense of resentment that never seemed to get solved.

 Why didn’t you get a divorce?

I was ready to go that route. Then I had dinner with a divorced friend. I asked her, “How did you know it was time to give up? How can I tell if my marriage is truly broken?” I thought she would give me permission and encourage me to end it. She didn’t. Instead, she asked, “What have you done to try to save your marriage?” I’d tried nothing until that point. She made me promise to try something. Then if that something didn’t work, I could walk away knowing that I’d given it my all.

Can you briefly describe the steps you took to get your marriage back on track?

I read. I bought 12 marital improvement books. I went online and read some, too. And I even interviewed a few friends who seemed to be happily married. I wanted to learn as much as I could about marriage.

I broke the project down into smaller steps, too. They included:

  • Forgiveness
  • Sex
  • Romance
  • Communication
  • Intimacy

I worked through one area at a time, trying everything I could to improve it. Then I moved onto the next.

Why didn’t you seek professional help, i.e. a marriage therapist?

Some of this was logistical. Money was tight, and I didn’t have reliable baby-sitting support. Some of it was fear. And I just didn’t think it would work for us. I imagined my husband rolling his eyes and sighing through the sessions. I figured the counselor would ask why he was there and he would say, “Ask my wife.”

I also wrote self-help books for a living and I’d used them to solve other problems in my life. It seemed comfortable for me to use them to save my marriage, too.

Were you terrified this wouldn’t work? Were you afraid that working through your problems might be hurtful and painful? How did you get past that?

Honestly, I never expected it to work. I know that sounds shallow. But I entered the project with one goal: to find proof that my marriage was doomed. I also wasn’t too worried about the process being hurtful because I was at rock bottom. I didn’t think I could hurt any more than I already did.

As it turned out, I was wrong. As I grew to love my husband again, our disagreements became more painful. I allowed myself to feel again, and that was excruciating.

Do you think that others can do what you did?

I know some couples can. Countless couples have told me their success stories of going from bad marriage to good.

That said, I will not promise that everyone can. Some marriages cannot be fixed. These marriages usually suffer from a terminal issue: serial cheating, mental or physical abuse, addiction, Peter Pan syndrome (one spouse becomes a parasite and refuses to grow up), or intractable mental illness. Some marriages can’t be fixed because one spouse isn’t willing to try.

And some, even with all of the therapy and books in the world, just don’t improve. I don’t have any magical insights as to why this is. I only know that it’s the case. And you can’t know if you are in one of these marriages until you try to save your marriage and nothing works.

How do you think a person knows if the marriage is really over? How much should you put into it before giving up?

I recommend couples start a project that spans four months. Rate your marital happiness on a 1 to 10 scale at the start and again after 4 months. After 4 months, you might not be completely cured, but you should see some improvement. If your marriage is just as bad or it has become even worse – and you’ve been diligently trying to improve it the whole time—you have to question whether your marriage can be saved. I would argue that it probably can’t.

What are the keys to a happy marriage in your opinion?

Most of us struggle in marriage because no one teaches us how to be married. We expect marriage to be instinctual. We assume it’s some sort of magical mystical process of picking the right person.

But it’s really just about skills, skills that no one teaches us in home, etc. It’s about communication skills, listening skills, forgiveness skills, and affection skills. It’s also about patience and it’s about positive thinking. It’s about seeing the potential in your spouse, and the potential in yourself. In its essence, it’s about humility.

What do you do if you want to turn your marriage around but your spouse is not on board 100%?

This is a tough one. I think if your spouse is on board some, then be the leader. Work on changing yourself for the better and see if your spouse follows. Some spouses do. For instance, if you take steps to warm up your marriage and be more affectionate, you might find that your spouse returns that favor.

How would you recommend people customize their own PHEA?

Think about what’s wrong with your marriage. It might be everything (like mine). It might only be one or two areas. Focus on the areas that need the most work, and learn all you can about those areas. Think of this as a problem that you can solve, and use the scientific method to solve it. Try different solutions and see what works and what does not. Not all of them will work, and that’s okay. But if you embrace possible solutions with an open mind, you just might find that some do work.

You essentially self-mediated your own marriage. What do you think about the experience of self-mediation after having been through it?

I think this worked for us because neither one of us is hot and spicy. We didn’t necessarily need a referee. But some couples do. If you tend to really lose your temper, you probably need someone there with a whistle to call a time out for you every so often. It doesn’t matter if you do it alone, with a friend, with a clergy person, with a mediator, or with a counselor. All that matters is that you try something.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this on your own without professional help?

The advantages: it’s cheaper and easier logistically. It’s also easier to talk a strong and silent man into the self-help approach than it is to talk him into seeing a counselor.

The disadvantages: You need to be a good self-starter. Counseling appointments are nice because they give you a weekly deadline. If you tend to be a procrastinator or tend to need a boss checking up on you, then the self help method probably won’t work so well.

What do you think your life would be like now if you had gotten a divorce?

This is hard to answer because I’m looking at it from a place of current marital happiness. That said, I think I would feel guilty about shuttling my daughter back and forth between Mommy and Daddy. I think money might be even tighter than it is for me now. I think I would feel more alone and less supported. And I think I would have an emotional scar that may or may not heal.

Would you describe the self-mediation process you went through as something that changed the dynamics of your marriage, of you and your spouse as people, or both?

Yes, it changed everything. Most notably it changed me, though. Now I don’t fear problems. I embrace them. Solving the problem of a bad marriage is a huge accomplishment. It makes me believe that I can solve any problem.

The skills I learned during marital improvement have also helped me every where in life. They’ve improved my friendships, my career and even my relationship with my mother.

How do you know if your own PHEA project is working? What signposts should you look for along the way?

You should see your marriage incrementally improving. Your sense of happiness should be getting stronger. You should notice that some of those symptoms are ebbing. You might be having sex more often. You might be bickering less often. You might be feeling more attached and connected.

How did the PHEA project affect your daughter?

My husband and I are both happier now. As a result, there’s less tension in the house. That benefits her greatly. She also sees that we love each other. And we can now have fun as a family—something we couldn’t do when the marriage was bad.

What kinds of things have you learned in writing your blog?

I’ve learned that I have nothing to hide, that I’m not alone, and that we’re all flawed humans who are struggling to get through life and are doing the best we can as we struggle along. No one sets out to be a bad person—not even your spouse. It can be hard to believe when you are mired in misery. Yet I’ve heard from both sides of so many marital arguments that I can clearly see just how desperate both spouses are. In the end, most people want the same thing: to be adored. In the end, most fights are about the same thing: not feeling adored.

Is PHEA an ongoing project that lasts the rest of your life or at some point do you say “we fixed it”?

I don’t think a marriage is ever cured. You don’t cross the finish line, get a metal and say, “That’s it.” I will always be noticing symptoms of potential problems. I’ll always be reading about marriage and taking steps to improve ours.

That said, I think we’re past the worst of it, and things are amazingly great right now. I don’t work on my marriage as regularly as I did during the project. It’s more of an awareness—the same sort of awareness I have about our daughter, my career and other pieces of my life. I make sure to notice if something seems to be slipping, and I do something about it.

You’ve been talking a lot about your marriage – on TV, on your blog, on the radio, and in your book. Does talking about it help you understand it more or are you finding that you’re enjoying just helping other people?

Both. Talking about it helps reinforce the skills for me. I’ve become a better wife because I talk about and write about marriage. But I also love connecting with and helping others. That’s priceless.

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5 Tips for Self-Mediating Your Holiday Parenting Disputes

by Petra Maxwell on December 14, 2010

The holidays are a busy time—not just for those in retail and catering, but for attorneys. Specifically, family law attorneys. You might not have guessed this is the busy season for this profession, but it’s true.  This is an emotional time of year for divorced parents when parenting plans often become hotly disputed. Parents who previously agreed to a holiday schedule suddenly rethink it as the holidays become a reality. The thought of spending year-end holidays alone, once something that was just part of a big visitation plan, becomes an unbearable reality. High-conflict parents go into hyperdrive, finding every possible way to sabotage each other’s holiday plans with the kids.  And even parents who generally get along find themselves disagreeing about the tiny details, such as actual times for drop-offs, how many phone calls will be allowed and at what time, how to interpret the wording in their court order, and where the child may keep her new gifts. 

Because of this, the phones ring off the hooks in family law offices, with clients begging their attorneys to intervene and straighten things out. People who call at 4 pm on December 23 are usually distressed to learn that there is no time to do anything in court and that the other parent’s attorney has already left for vacation. The system is overloaded.

Don’t fall into the holiday dispute trap. If you and your ex are having trouble working out your holiday plans, a little self-mediation can help you solve the problem. Use these 5 self-mediation tips to get through the holidays with your ex:

1.  Use your roadmap!  Pull out your written parenting plan. What does it say? This is your roadmap to the holidays. You need to follow what it says, unless you both agree otherwise. One of you wanting a change is not enough to actually make one. It’s by the book or by mutual agreement to alter it, and nothing else. If you have no written plan, you need to work out an agreement now.  If you don’t feel as though you’re capable of having a fair discussion on your own – call a Mediator to help.  It’s usually much faster (and cheaper), and you’ll be able to craft an agreement quickly that you both can live with.

2.  Be calm, and be clear! If you want to make a change but your ex won’t agree, completely lay out what you are proposing and why. List dates and times so it is clear what you want. Explain why you want to make the change. To be very persuasive, total up the amount of hours you each will have and compare it to the pre-existing written parenting plan to show your ex that everyone will have the same amount of time (or that your ex will actually get added time). Be business-like, calm, and collected. You may feel very emotional about what you want, but displaying your emotions is not going to help resolve things. If you have no written parenting plan, lay out what kind of schedule you are proposing for holidays (don’t try to negotiate beyond this – stick to the immediate problem).

3.  Ask your ex for input! This is a negotiation. You both need the opportunity to talk. Be prepared to do a little give and take. Is there something you might be willing to give up in order to get the holiday schedule you want? Are you willing to alter holiday plans for other major holidays in the coming year? Maybe you are willing to trade one of the upcoming regularly scheduled weekends for the holiday plan you want. You both need to walk away feeling the compromises you’ve made are fair.

4.  Write it down! Write down whatever you’ve agreed to and put both your signatures on it. It’s not enforceable in court, but it does clear up any possible confusion and makes it very clear what your plan is.

5.  Don’t forget –  it’s really all about the kids! Don’t let your disagreements affect your child’s holiday. Do not burden your child with your sadness that you will be alone on an important holiday. Don’t expect your child to be able to focus on anything other than what is happening at the home he is at on a holidays. Children are understandably self-centered and when there’s major excitement in front of them they aren’t going to be interested in talking to a parent who is not present.

 Best Wishes for a Peaceful, Healthy and Happy Holiday Season!

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Heading Into the Holidays With Your Ex? A Mediator Can Help

by Petra Maxwell on November 23, 2010

Post image for Heading Into the Holidays With Your Ex? A Mediator Can Help

 

It’s late November and already I’m beginning to feel my jaw tightening and teeth grinding when I start to think about how my ex and I are divvying up the holiday time this year.  Not just Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years – but right on through to President’s Day, Winter Break and Spring Break, rolling right on through to Memorial Day.  It always involves fraught conversations like, “Well, remember that you got him for 4.5 days in a row over Christmas break  last year, so that means that….”  I know I’m not alone in this.  Holidays are hard for every family.  Negotiating visits with extended family members is difficult, but when divorce is part of the equation, the challenge can seem monumental.

Today, as a Divorce and Family Mediator, I help couples work out the logistics of their parenting plans as they struggle to transition from married life to life as single parents.  It’s pretty typical that, when we get to the part about vacations and holidays, couples will say to me something like, “Oh, that’s not a problem, we’ll just alternate.”  Or, “We’ll just work out the time as we go along.”  I look at them and say, “Umm. Let’s talk about that. Why don’t you describe exactly how that will work.  Take Thanksgiving, for starters.  Little Sarah gets out of school at 2:45 pm on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and she goes…..where??”  The couple stares at me, then they stare at each other, there’s a long silence…then the inevitable argument ensues.  It happens every time.

There’s nothing that says “wet blanket” like a rigid parenting schedule, right?  Especially when it means dissecting holidays and vacations right down to the micro level.  But, trust me, and I know this from personal experience, better to have every moment plotted out on paper so as to leave nothing open for interpretation, then to think you’re just going “wing it” or rely on your ex’s good nature.   I don’t want to go so far as to say that you can kiss your visions of sugar plums and all of that goodbye….but, why invite needless argument and tension?

Get creative when thinking through your holiday and vacation schedules.  For example, one couple I know alternate the years at whose home the kids wake up on Christmas morning.  It works something like this.  In even years, the kids will go over to their mom’s home at 2:00 pm on Christmas Eve, then will wake up on Christmas morning at her house.  They will stay with her until 1:00 pm, and then will go over to their dad’s home to open presents and will remain at his home until the following afternoon.  The remaining Christmas break is thereafter split between the couple.  It’s always a bit of a sacrifice for the parents, especially the one who doesn’t get to see their kids’ faces on Christmas morning, but the kids love it!  Two Christmas celebrations!  What could be better??!!  And both parents, one way or another, get to spend time with the kids on Christmas Day.

It’s never easy negotiating holidays when you’re divorcing, or even after you’re divorced.  Someone always has to give up something, it seems.  If you have a good solid parenting plan in place, then I applaud you!  But if you don’t, then contact a mediator.  Whether you’re contemplating a separation or divorce now, or are already divorced and find that holiday and vacation time brings on more stress than you’d like, a mediator can help you work out a solid parenting plan that can help alleviate most of the ambiguity and, therefore, ensuing argument between you and your spouse or ex.

As a extra special holiday bonus for those of you who may be dealing with seasonal stress or wrestling with parenting plans – MediationLine is running a special promotion.  Give us a call and sign up for Online Mediation any time between now and the end of the year, and you’ll pay less than half our regular rate!  Check here for more details.

The bottom line is, as counter-intuitive as it may seem to have a detailed holiday and vacation plan in place, it’s usually best for everyone involved, especially the children, when there’s a schedule that everyone can count on.  Kids love stability and parenting plans are really there for them.

Have a safe and Happy Holiday Season from the folks at MediationLine!

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