How mediation can help you craft an agreement tailored to your needs
Part I – Baby Steps
At the end of June, I received a call from John*. He sounded totally desperate. He explained that he and his wife Mary* had been trying to work out a divorce agreement though their lawyers for the last 9 months. Instead of making progress, he felt his relationship with his wife had worsened and he did not know what to do.
John further explained that they wanted a shared parenting agreement so that each of them could have time with their 6 year old son Antoine* on the weekends and during the week. They each also wanted to spend time with Antoine during the summer. They felt stuck and no schedule seemed to satisfy either of them. They were also concerned that their breakdown in communication would adversely affect working on the financials, which had yet to be begin. A friend recommended mediation.
Mary and John were in my office the next day. Mary was very scared and John very angry. They did not know if they could sit together with me for any length of time because of their emotional state. I listened to each of them, asking them questions about their present living situation and how they shared their time with little Antoine.
“I wanted to thank you for being such a help in this situation. It might not seem like you’ve done much but just having you there “in the room” changed everything – really. I do understand that it’s not your job to take sides and that it’s important for you to remain impartial. I do wish it were possible to show you, though, how radically different that conversation was just because you were there listening.”
They owned a house. John had moved into the basement but came upstairs to use the kitchen and the bathroom. The living situation and their ongoing disagreements about their time with Antoine had made things very tense. They were also concerned about the impact the household tension was having on Antoine.
The big stumbling block in their parenting plan negotiations was that John was going to be travelling for business. If they agreed on alternate weekends, he would miss some of his time with Antoine and he wanted to be assured that he would get “make up” time. Mary, on the other hand, wanted to have a weekly schedule with no open alternate plans because she said she could not trust her husband. She would never agree to modify any plans written in the agreement because it would cause ongoing disputes and that John would take advantage of her, either leaving Antoine in her care for many consecutive weekends thus depriving her of free time for herself; or he would keep Antoine on consecutive weekends, depriving her of fun time with her son. As for the holidays, neither of them wanted to share; both wanted every Thanksgiving and every Christmas but were willing to give up New Year’s.
Clearly long term planning was too overwhelming, causing them to hit brick walls every time they tried to sort it out. I suggested they take baby steps, making plans for the summer, seeing how it worked out, and then come back in September and work on the next few months and Thanksgiving. They each wanted to take Antoine away on vacation for a couple of weeks during the summer; the rest of the time Antoine would be in a day camp. They also wanted to alternate weekend time.
John had his business schedule with him. We proceeded slowly, taking into account when he would be away and outlined a plan. Each parent would take the child for 2 weeks, one at the beginning of the summer and the other one at the end of the summer. They worked out:
- Separate times with Antoine on the weekends.
- How to make up for missed weekends.
- Created a limit to the number of make up days for John.
- Arranged for John to have some evenings during the week when he could have dinner with his son.
Within two sessions of two hours each, they had a plan. I drafted this three-month agreement which they chose to sign between themselves in my office, and off they went.
At the end of August, John called and told me that they were getting along much better and wanted to come back to talk about the months to come. They worked out a schedule from September until the end of December. Thanksgiving and Xmas were discussed and planned just for that year.
In January they came back to discuss January through June and the loop was closed. They had a plan for the whole year which they had crafted in 3 separate agreements and which would serve as a basis for the long term plan. They were elated.
In February, after discussing the plan for January thru June, they began to look at long term planning for weekdays, weekends and alternate holidays. They were also ready to discuss the financial aspects of their divorce and because tensions between them had eased so much, the new conversation was not as difficult as they anticipated. John moved out within a few months; Mary stayed in the house with Antoine. They discussed when they would sell the house, how they would divide the proceeds, and how much each of them would dispose of for their future lives.
John and Mary clearly had been overwhelmed by the scope of all the issues that needed to be worked out and were too emotionally distraught and angry to make any progress. They were not able to communicate directly and messages sent through the lawyers were not productive because it took time between the questions and the answers which made them even more nervous and angry. By working together in small steps, trying out the first plan and returning every few months, they eased into this new relationship and were better able to cope with the rest.
Mediation allowed them to work at their speed, try things out and see how they went.
They both were amazed that they could actually now talk to each other without fighting about everything. They were also very pleased to eventually give their lawyers, with whom they had had no success, a completed agreement to be filed for their upcoming divorce.
In Part 2, we will read about another couple who chose to work out their agreement within 1 month.
* names have been changed
jennifer safian. divorce and family mediator divorce and family mediation upper east side of manhattan (nyc) new york, ny (212) 472-8626 firstname.lastname@example.org connect on