Monday, June 30, 2014

Be water on that fire, not gasoline.

In  a recent Op-Ed article, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times used the metaphor of arsonists and firefighters to characterize different leaders in the Middle East.  He suggested that arsonists deliberately inflame sectarian and religious differences to further their interests in power. Firefighters, in contrast, attempt to quell regional tensions and find peaceful resolutions.    Friedman worries that the firefighters are increasingly at a disadvantage as the region and the world conclude that the conflicts and the passions that have been ignited there can’t be quenched.  

One doesn’t have to read the New York Times, however, to meet people with a similar perspective.  When energy prices were rising rapidly in the mid-2000s, Mike, the big friendly man who delivers propane throughout our mountain community, told me his office staff received worried calls every day from seniors on fixed income, fretting whether they could afford that month’s delivery after listening to hyper-excited television commentators (arsonists) predicting inadequate supplies and unheated homes.   Mike, a volunteer firefighter as it turns out, said he counseled his staff “to be water on that fire, not gasoline,”  by reassuring his customers that he had adequate supplies to meet everyone’s needs and  that no one, under any circumstances, would go without heat that winter.

In family law matters, unfortunately, media portrayals and informal reports make it seem like the arsonists outnumber the firefighters.  One young lawyer is an arsonist. She deliberately “forgot” a hearing after an adverse ruling against her client, yelled over the phone when contacted by the Court that her clients’ constitutional rights were being violated, and demanded the opportunity to appeal the decision—despite  having missed the filing deadline.  She hoped that her tirade would intimidate the Court and fuel further animosity between the parties. And it worked, allowing her to portray herself  as a defender of her client’s constitutional and parental rights in the face of a bullying ex-spouse and a misguided legal system.

A stepfather is an arsonist.  He coached his stepchildren to lie about their father’s behavior, to portray him as physically abusive.  It, too, worked. The girls did as he directed, leading to protracted investigations and legal battles in which he and the girls’ mother portrayed themselves as the children’s protectors and the father’s parenting time was suspended.

Despite stories like these, however, the majority of family law matters settle outside of court, often pro se, but frequently with the help of lawyers in settlement conferences, collaborative law arrangements, and mediations.  In other words, divorce conflicts are not inevitable. In fact, peaceful resolutions are the norm, not the exception. 

The keys to settling matters and co-existing peacefully in the midst of divorce are not respect for or trust in one another. Those can help, of course, but they are not necessary and often as not are missing entirely. What is required is respect for and trust in the traditions of common courtesy and the rule of law, accepting the importance of reliably fulfilling commitments made in the course of negotiations, and relying upon the professionals and institutions designed to help families settle their differences efficiently and effectively. 


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