Divorce and Separation in the USA

A global perspective of the human effects of separation and divorce

Was this my Husband’s Child?

I am not sure how it happened but I know exactly how I felt. Numb, sick, my world shattered. How did this face of a little girl on my phone take my breath away? How did it get there? What were these words underneath? I stood in the park, still holding the handle of my buggy but not aware of my own children. Only aware of this face, these words and this new knowledge “Hello, I am Jane. I am your children’s half sister”.

The funny thing is that I believed her. Why did I believe her. This was out the blue. My husband didn’t have time to have another child. I would have known….she only looked 3 years old. We were married for 8 years with two children, 6 and 4. Both older that this one, Jane. That meant the unthinkable. I wasn’t thinking. I couldn’t think. Should I think? What did I do now?

Was this Divorce? My husband had this other child and there was a mother. A woman my husband was in a relationship with. She had my number. This photo was in my phone for a reason. A text sent by a woman I didn’t know who knew me and wanted me to know. Wanted my children not to be the only ones. My husband had three children. Not two. Two families not one.

I turned the buggy towards home. No feeding the ducks today. I had questions to ask and I hoped to god that there were answers other than the ones now swirling around my mind.

My Parents Moved On, but I Didn’t.

I was 15 when my mum and dad split up. They told me that they had not been happy for years. They said that life had been difficult for them and now they knew the best thing was to live their own lives. They wanted me to be happy for them. It was not my fault, after all, but just one of those things.

The only thing was that I had been happy. Life had been fine. Mum, Dad, my two sisters and the dog. We were a family. A normal, every day sort of family. But, none of it was real for my parents. They were unhappy and wanted it to change…….but I didn’t! My family was my family. I remember. It was good and I hated my parents for taking everything away.

I looked at mum with her new partner. I was supposed to like him. At what point in all of this was I meant to care for a stranger who now was supposed to care for me, simply because he goes out with my mum? I love mum but I wish she wouldn’t keep pushing her new “happy home” on me. Was this now my happy family…no way. The more mum asks me to like this man the angrier I get. Please leave me alone. Don’t ask me to want this future. Don’t tell me that its better now. I am a cuckoo in the next.

I need time. I need my dad to talk to me about why this happened. Why I am the only one to miss how things were. I don’t know what to think. I will be off to College soon. Maybe I will concentrate on that. Who knows.

Fairness Part IV: Inner (psychological) Satisfaction

When we are involved in a problem-solving process, our sense of satisfaction (fairness) is affected by whether we are able to participate fully, whether we are treated with dignity, whether our contributions are given respect. Satisfaction requires that we mattered.

Ask yourself these questions to judge whether the process was fair.

• In terms of the pace of the discussion and the rules about participation, did you feel welcome, included and comfortable?
• Were you satisfied with the format and the tempo of the discussions?
• Were you treated as a responsible, attentive and thoughtful person—not as someone who is wounded, unqualified or discouraged?
• Did you understand the goals and what would happen?
• Were you able to ask questions and get answers?
• Were you an active and full participant in all elements of the decision-making?
• Did you have the information you needed in order to participate fully and effectively? If not, were you able to obtain that information? Did you feel reassured as a result of receiving accurate and complete information?
• When you presented your ideas or questions, were you listened to?
• Did you sense that your questions deserved answers, that your concerns were genuine and that your ideas were worth considering?
• As a result of participating in this process, did you experience a relative decrease in stress and anxiety?
• Were you listened to by the professionals (not looked down on or treated like a victim). Did you sense that you counted?
• Overall, did you feel calm, composed, confident and hopeful?
• Did participation in the process reinforce your sense of self-worth—that your ideas, questions and concerns really mattered?

Hopefully you have a better idea of what it means when we say, “I just want what’s fair?”

Fairness includes the outcome—the solutions. But fairness also involves being in a process where the rules are clear and are evenly applied by an impartial person. And, fairness involves being able to participate fully and to be treated respectfully.

When you have all three, then you can truly feel it was “fair.”

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Fairness Part III: The Methods and Process

Something feels fair to us when the method we used to make important decisions is sensible, we feel respected, and we have a chance to participate actively in all parts of the decision-making.

Sometimes we want someone else to decide things for us—like a judge. In front of a judge, the process is formal. There are rules and procedures about who can say what and when. We can accept the outcome and feel satisfied if the trial is conducted in accordance with the stated procedures, if the judge acts in an impartial manner, if our point of view has been fully presented, and if the laws (the rules) are applied properly. Then, we can say, the process was fair.

At other times, however, we want to be more involved in how our views are presented. We want to be directly involved in speaking for ourselves and making decisions that we decide are best for us. Mediation provides that opportunity–where an impartial and unbiased mediator helps the parties in dispute to: talk about the conflict, identify and clarify the reasons for the conflict, listen to one another, create possible solutions, and find answers and solutions that are practical, reasonable and that completely resolve the dispute.

No matter what approach you choose, there are some questions you can ask to be sure the process was fair.

• Were you treated fairly by the judge or mediator?
• Was the process conducted in even-handed manner?
• If there were rules to govern the process, were they applied consistently and equally?
• Was the process managed in a dignified and professionally way?
• When you consider the costs (money, time, effort) and the benefits received (process and outcome), were you satisfied with your choice?
• Were you treated as adult and with respect? Did your ideas and concerns matter?
• Did you have a full and unimpeded opportunity to speak and be heard, to present and respond to ideas, information and proposals?
• Were all parties encouraged to listen attentively? Did the judge or mediator listen carefully?
• Was everyone given an opportunity to participate? Did everyone have a voice?
• Did the process encourage and support every one’s ability to engage honestly; to express ideas, proposals and emotions? Was there a chance to react and respond to other people’s ideas?
• Did you feel the process was inclusive; that those essential to the discussion were involved?
• Did the timing—the scheduling and pace of the process help you with thoughtful decision-making?
• Was the process organized and handled in an open and transparent manner? Did you understand what was happening at every moment? Were there unspoken rules or opaque procedures?

This is the third section of a four-part post. The next section deals with the importance of being able to participate fully in the choices that affect your future. This includes the opportunity to speak, to ask questions, and to be treated with dignity and respect.

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Fairness–Part II: The Results

When you think about fairness and satisfaction with the outcome of any decision-making, here are some guide posts:

• Are the terms of the settlement comprehensive and inclusive? This means that every detail, no matter how minor or large, was discussed, and then a clear agreement was reached.
• As you think about the next 6 months, or longer, does it seem likely that you can make the terms of the agreement work? Can you live with this?
• Are these plans and arrangements realistic and practical?
• Have you talked about what it will take to make this work? Can you do what’s necessary? Can the other person? Have you considered the trouble spots–the ways things could go wrong?
• Do the arrangements address everyone’s needs— including those who are not directly involved in the discussions such as your children, relatives, friends?
• Does the language make sense to you? Do you understand everything in the proposed agreement? Have all your questions been answered?
• Is the agreement complete and accurate? Are there any unresolved or unaddressed matters?
• Have your needs–and the needs of others involved–been fully addressed?
• When you look at the settlement terms, do they make sense? Can you see how they will work?
• Are your decisions based on complete and accurate information? If didn’t understand something were you able to ask questions and get helpful answers?
• Did you understand the standards or guidelines that were used to make decisions? Were these standards clearly identified and spelled out, did everyone agree to them?

This is the second section of a four-part post. The next section deals with our need for the process to be impartial, balanced—fair.

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I just want what’s fair!

I have been a mediator for 40 years, and before that I was a family lawyer. In all those years, there is one statement I have heard in every divorce: “I just want what’s fair.”

Wanting fairness is automatic, instinctive, it seems to be part of our humanity. We all want to know we have been treated fairly. What we mean is we don’t want someone playing favorites. We want the decisions to be consistent with standards or rules. And, if a judge, mediator or other person is involved, we want them to be impartial, fair-minded and unbiased.

When people are in conflict—such as in a divorce—each one expects the other to be “fair.” Each person thinks that she or he is being reasonable, decent and open-minded.” And, each thinks the other person is stubborn, closed-minded and unreasonable. That’s where the problem lies.

Because when we say the decisions were fair, it always means I got what I wanted. Even if that means the other person is disappointed or feels unfairly treated. We think the other person is just upset because what they wanted wasn’t fair. On the other hand, what I wanted was fair.

One of the difficult things in talking about fairness is that it has different meanings for each of us. For some, fairness means equality—50/50. For others, fairness means that the outcome makes sense, it fits their situation, and it’s workable. Fairness might also mean there was an open and honest discussion and there was an opportunity to present ideas and proposals, that they were listened to and given respect—no matter what the outcome might be. Still, for others fairness means they were able to make decisions for themselves without outside influence or coercion.

There are many more ways to think about fairness.

1. Fairness usually means we are satisfied with the results. Fairness can also mean that the results met our expectations. Or, that the outcome is similar to what others have experienced. It might even mean the outcome is consistent with “the law” as we understand it. In other words, when we talk about feeling satisfied with the outcome, we mean that the end results made sense, they were reasonable and they were consistent with how others have been treated.

2. There are times when we use the word fairness to mean we are satisfied with the method or system by which the results were determined. Whether in informal discussions, at a mediation session or through a trial, we feel a sense of satisfaction when everyone was treated the same, each person had the time and opportunity to tell their story, present their proposals and respond to the other person’s ideas, and when the mediator or judge was impartial and unbiased.

3. We might also feel treated fairly when we participated actively in every element of the decision-making. Satisfaction comes from feeling fully engaged and able to be part of the discussion, to present ideas, ask questions, be listened to and given a full opportunity to join in making decisions that affect us and our children. We experience satisfaction when feel composed, confident and hopeful.

This will be a 4-part post. I will talk about each of the three elements of satisfaction in more detail and with examples to illustrate when people feel a sense of satisfaction (fairness) or when it’s missing. The next section deals with fairness in terms of outcome, the results.

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Valuing Our Children Through Divorce

A couple of years ago, “Lucy” contacted me for financial assistance with her divorce. She was questioning her attorney and seeking a second opinion. When Lucy came into my office, she brought the spreadsheet her attorney had created that outlined a proposed settlement scenario, and I could fairly easily tell that her legal and financial interests were well represented.

I answered her questions pertaining to spousal maintenance and property division, as well as questions about general financial concepts. But as the hour unfolded, it became evident that she was less interested in listening to me and more interested in having me help her find ways to achieve her notion of justice.

Lucy’s husband had cheated on her several times during the course of their marriage, and she was understandably angry and in a great deal of pain. Her desire was to make him feel pain by engaging in an adversarial process that would cost him a great deal of time, money and embarrassment. She wanted to use the court system as a public forum to air his marital indiscretions. I emphasized that it would cost her a great deal of time and money, probably thousands of dollars, for something that, in the end, would do little to solve her problems.

I told Lucy I thought her attorney was on the right track, and that I wouldn’t be able to help her. As we said goodbye, I suggested she settle amicably and use some of the money she would have spent on an adversarial process to take a trip around the world and start her life anew. I was grateful that this couple did not have minor children.

My interaction with Lucy got me thinking about the concepts of value (as in worth) and values (as in principles). Causing her husband embarrassment had a greater value to Lucy than the thousands of dollars she would potentially spend in achieving her goal. To me, the money I could earn helping Lucy achieve her goals could not compare to the cost to my conscience of doing so. Value and values, however, are personal to each of us.

My own divorce was non-adversarial. My ex-husband and I worked everything out ourselves with the help of a two-hour mediation session. Our co-parenting relationship has been amicable and our 18-year-old son, Liam, is thriving. One afternoon, when Liam was 13, we were driving home when he told me he had forgotten something at his father’s house and asked, somewhat apologetically, if we could go pick it up. I said, “No problem,” to which he responded, “You know, Mom, I don’t feel like I have two separate households.”

That heart-swelling moment clarified for me that nothing in this world holds a greater value than making it possible for my son to identify and achieve his goals and dreams in life. Not being “right,” not achieving a sense of “justice,” and certainly not whether I got my fair share of equity from the sale of the marital home. My ex and I have both had to, and continue to have to, do a lot of letting go of what we each want or what we think is right, in order for Liam to feel like he’s not pulled between two separate households. But, oh what a reward!

Of course, there will always be cases where the adversarial process is important, even necessary. After all, an amicable divorce requires two willing adults. It is, however, my fervent hope that, in divorce cases, particularly those involving children, people are provided with the tools, the roadmap, the opportunity and the encouragement to work through their issues as amicably as possible. Our kids deserve nothing less.

What happens as parents…stays with parents

The phrase, “What happens in… stays in…” has become well known. It’s used in many situations to express the idea some things should be private.

The phrase applies really well for divorcing parents and their children. Conversations about some subjects should stay with parents and not be shared with the children.

Children need information about the changes in their lives and what will happen in the future. In divorce, the familiar is gone, replaced by uncertainty and anxiety. Children, just like their parents, need to get their bearings. They need information about things that directly affect their lives.

They need to know:
Is this for real? Are you seriously getting divorced?
When will this happen?
Where will I be living?
Can we stay in our home?
Where will the other parent be living?
Is there a schedule for being with the other parent?
Can I go to the same school?
Can I still take music lessons? Can I still be on the soccer team?
Are you going to make me see a counselor?
If we move, how will I see my friends?
Do Grandma and Grandpa know about this?
Can we still visit our cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives?

Honest answers help them adapt to the changes in their lives. They need to know you are looking out for them. They will be better able to adjust to the changes if they know what to expect.

However, there are some things children do NOT need to know, such as:
Why are you divorcing?
Whose fault is the divorce?
Did one of you have an affair?
Is this because you drink too much?
How much is child support and alimony?
Are you seeing a counselor?
What did your attorney tell you?
Do you plan to remarry?
Are you going to be OK?

Talking with your children about these things doesn’t help them. It does the opposite. It leaves them anxious. They can end up feeling responsible, as though they should be doing something. Your children have no responsibility for making or changing your choices.

But we all know, they have no influence or control over these decisions. They can’t change your mind or affect your choices. They may be too young or too scared to understand what is happening. They are children, not adults.

As parents live by this rule: “what happens between adults, stays between adults.”

Purchase Divorce and Separation: A Practical Guide to Making Smart Decisions (an ebook) on www.Amazon.com

Currently, we have published editions for Florida, Vermont and Oregon.

Versions for California and Massachusetts will be available later this year.

New editions will be published in 2019 for:
Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Talking to Your Children About Your Divorce

At some point during separation and divorce, your feelings can boil over. You may be feel a sense of betrayal—that your spouse failed you in some deep and important ways. You might feel, a deep sadness at the loss of a partner or at the loss of a future you had envisioned. You might be anxious even fearful about the future, trying to living arrangements, finances, and parenting plans. Often, when these feelings well up, you simply can’t hold them back. You might shout at your spouse, cry to yourself, talk with friends or family members, seek counseling.

You blame your spouse for everything you’re going through. If he or she had been more loving, responsible, truthful, then…. If your spouse had spent more time with you and with the children….If she or he hadn’t gambled away the family’s money…. If weren’t for the drinking, there would still be enough money… If he or she hadn’t had affairs and betrayed you… It’s all her/his fault.

Divorce brings up all these messy, angry, bitter feelings and you need to talk to someone about what happened, the impact on you, and your concern for the future. At these times, good friends and family members can provide a sounding board, listening to you and offering advice. As adults, they can hear your troubles without taking on responsibility for fixing them.

But, your children can’t do that. They have no power to influence what you and your spouse do any more than they had the power to influence your behavior during the marriage. Telling your children that their other parent is horrible person creates a terrible dilemma for your kids. They desperately want to make things better—for themselves and for you. They may want to do something, show you how much they care. But, what can they really do? They certainly can’t change the past, and they can’t affect the decisions that you and your spouse will make. Putting them in this position by sharing your feelings about your spouse, their mother or father, is confusing, scary and can make them feel anxious or stressed.

And, to show loyalty to you means they have to reject their other parent. You are asking them to take sides. You are asking them to limit or even abandon their relationship with the other parent. You are asking them to do this because you are bitter, anxious, frustrated and angry.

Your feelings for the other parent have no place in a conversation with your children. You should NEVER tell them why you and your spouse are divorcing—that’s got nothing to do with them. They were not involved, and they sure can’t fix anything. So, talking with them about conflict with your spouse is just selfish. And, it’s hurting your kids.

This is what your children need to hear:
– We are not happy together anymore and have decided to live apart.
– The separation is permanent.
– We are still your mom and dad and will take care of you.
– What happened between us is not your fault.
– Nothing will ever change the fact that we both love you.
– We are still your parents and will decide a future plan for our family.
– You can tell us what you think and make suggestions, but your dad/mom and I will make the decisions about the future for our family.

What’s it Like for the Children

As mediators, we listen to parents discuss their children and encourage them to collaborate as parents. It is easy to  wonder what the children are like. What do they hope for? How do they see their future? Do they know how much their parents love them, despite of all that is going on? When parents each argue about who loves the kids more, or who understands them more, its easy to wonder what would the children’s take on this be?

Occasionally we mediators meet the children and it is always a pleasure. Invariably, children ask how their parents are. They want to know that they are all right. Is dad lonely? Is mummy going to be okay? Children may be in the middle of the hurt and anger of the divorce but they still love their parents. They want them both to be alright.

Kids want to get on with their lives. They want to be the subject of their own lives and not the objects of the divorce. They talk about school, their friends and what they like doing. They are funny and sad, busy and lively. All the things kids should be…..yet, their world is changing. Life will never be quite the same. They will be navigating between the two people they love most in the world.

So much of divorce is about the past, the end of the relationship, but when you meet the children you see the future. You see the best reason for finding a way forward.

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