Monday, February 25, 2013

Disputing parents divide the pie

When parents locked in litigation complain to me about legal fees draining their financial resources, I tell them a story related by Francisco Ingouville in his book, Onthe Same Side

Two boys who had received a pie in payment for a job couldn’t agree how to share it.  When their argument turned violent, an older neighbor stepped in and asked what was going on. After learning what the argument was about, the neighbor said that what they needed was an impartial arbitrator, a role he immediately took on. After bringing out a knife and cutting the pie in two, he inspected the two halves.  Concluding that one piece was larger than the other, he picked up the larger piece and bit off a large portion.  He compared the two halves again but now it was the other half that seemed larger. Without hesitating, he applied the same strategy to the now larger piece, taking a sizeable bite. But once again, the half that was too small was now the larger of the two. The two boys, who were still at odds, stood and watched as their halves grew smaller in turn until there was nothing left. Yet no one could deny that the neighbor had imparted justice, since the boys received exactly the same.
Disputing parents who rely upon third parties to resolve their disputes risk more than financial resources—their pieces of the pie.  They also lose the opportunity to build a positive working relationship for co-parenting in the future,  to create novel solutions, to feel pride in a job well done, and to make decisions based upon their interests rather accept an authority’s decisions based upon their legal rights.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Parent-child alienation: Sibling perspective

In some parent-child alienation cases, siblings are alienated to different degrees or, more rarely, align with different parents, such that the family is cleaved—one set of siblings aligning with one parent and the other set aligning with the other parent. It is important in such instances for parents and divorce professionals to consider child-related factors, not just parent behaviors, to explain why a particular family falls out this way.

For example, one child might have a special affinity for one parent’s interests and temperament while their sibling is similarly attracted to the other parent.  In the case of an adult brother and sister who were alienated from their mother as children, for instance, the brother turned back towards the mother as he moved into a professional career similar to hers. His sister, in contrast, pursued a sales career like her father’s and remained estranged from the mother: “We don’t have anything in common.”

In other cases, older siblings may have established enough autonomy to resist the pressure to “choose sides” while their younger siblings succumb to such pressure and become alienated.  The opposite is also true—an adolescent sibling who blames one parent for the divorce may become alienated while their younger siblings, na├»ve to the circumstances of the divorce, remain positively connected to both parents.  The introduction of a step-parent and step-siblings can also impact one sibling differently than another. In one family, for example, a mother with two sons and a daughter married a man with three sons.  Her sons were delighted but the daughter felt outnumbered and picked upon by the five boys. She turned away from her mother, whom she blamed for this turn of events, and allied with her father.  

Yet another factor operates when a sibling is determined to establish a unique place within the family—perhaps to establish a separate identity, perhaps to reduce competitive tensions. One divorced family had two adolescent boys, the older of whom was a nationally ranked athlete and honor roll student being recruited by several Ivy League colleges.  His younger brother, perceiving that he could not match his brother’s academic and athletic accomplishments, struggled until his father arranged for him to take flying lessons. He discovered there a talent and an interest that allowed him to achieve success without being compared to his brother—but he felt frustrated by his mother’s disapproval for an activity she deemed dangerous.  Determined not to be dissuaded, he subsequently refused to spend time with her until she accepted his newly found passion.

It is critical for parents and divorce professionals confronting the problem of parent-child alienation not to become so over-focused on the parents'  behavior that they overlook or minimize such child-related factors.  In the instance of the boy who loved flying, for example, the mother alleged the father intentionally undermined her relationship to their son by signing him up for the lessons. She softened her position, however, as she came to understand her younger son’s view of himself in relation to his older brother and how important it was for him to feel he had something unique, something special about which he and the family could feel proud.  

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What do we do if we can't reach an agreement?

When divorcing parents plan to make joint decisions as part of their parenting plan, they often wonder: "What will we do if we can't reach an agreement?"  It is a good question. In fact, all divorced parents can anticipate that there will be times that they won't see eye-to-eye on how to solve a problem. Parents still have options, however, even when it seems an agreement is out of reach. Listed below are steps that can be taken, listed from least to most intrusive, to break an impasse. Except in the cases of emergency or when the children's safety is at stake, it usually helps to start with the least intrusive option and work from there up the list until the problem is solved.

1. Walk away if the problem is not a high priority. Save the hard negotiating for the important issues.
2. Get third party advice. If the issue is about schooling, consult a teacher or educational professional. If it is about a medical or psychological concern, ask the pediatrian's advice. If it is about the parenting-time schedule, ask other divorced parents how they solved similar problems.
3. Use a parent facilitator or parent coordinator to meet with you and the other parent regularly to work out parenting issues.
4. Agree for a third party to make the decision for you. If you can't agree whether the childen need counseling, for example, you might agree to follow  the pediatrician's recommendation.
5. Attend mediation.
6. Hire an arbitrator to listen to your perspectives and to make the decision for you.
7. File a motion with the court to modify your parenting plan.

Remember, starting with less intrusive options before resorting to more aggressive strategies, such as arbitration or filing a motion with the court, avoids escalating tensions. And don't be afraid to ask your ex which of these problem-solving strategies he or she thinks might work: "We're stuck, how about if we ask the pediatrician what she thinks?"