Every now and then, I’ll meet with a couple to discuss divorce mediation just to discover that neither spouse is necessarily seeking a divorce. Recently, I’ve had three such couples. In one consultation, I recall the husband gently putting his hand on his wife’s knee as she tearfully said, “This is so hard because we still love each other.” Another couple both agreed, “We don’t want a divorce but feel like there’s no other choice”. These occasions leave me especially heavy hearted. I have seen first-hand the devastation of divorce even when both spouses seemed certain that it was time to split up. It is difficult to fathom the depth of heartache when neither are convinced the marriage is over. In cases like these, I often remind the couple of the option of filing for legal separation instead of divorce until they are certain of what they want. I also mention the possibility of Conflict Coaching. Many couples can benefit from meeting with a coach who specializes in conflict and communication breakdown. Hearing how we sound and the words we use through the lens of an objective third party can illuminate growth areas and even inject new hope in the relationship. This is not to oversimplify the slow, painful dismantling of a marriage. I understand that years and layers of hurt are not easily overcome. However, if couples are willing to take an honest look at their destructive patterns of relating and take steps to change, in some cases, the results can be dramatic. For couples who aren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, conflict coaching could be a good next step. Change can be excruciatingly hard work though, so hang on to the towel for wiping away the sweat!
Last week’s divorce mediation reinforced for me the importance of asking questions in place of assuming the worst about a person’s actions...or even the best without confirmation.
A year earlier, the husband had requested a divorce and for a year the wife had been dragging her feet on filing. He concluded that she was sabotaging the divorce process out of spite while she truly believed her husband was showing signs of ambivalence toward divorcing (even though they had been separated for 18 months and he was currently living with another woman). When asked how his wife might have read ambivalence in him regarding the divorce, the husband responded categorically that he had no doubt they should divorce. He said she was probably picking up on his deep sadness that divorce meant violating his Christian values.
If only the wife had asked him to clarify her hopeful impressions instead of assuming the best or the husband had sought to understand his wife’s reluctance to file instead of assuming the worst. They may have saved months of painful confusion and growing hostility.
The perils of assumption!
For many separating or divorcing couples with minor children, the last thing on their minds is a new romantic relationship. It’s all they can do to get out of their current soured one as fast as possible. However, more than ever, I’m realizing the importance of couples thinking through and establishing some guidelines for future dating relationships and including them in court decreed parenting plans.
I recently did a mediation for a young couple with a 5-yr. old daughter. A year after their separation, the mother started including her new boyfriend and his adolescent son into her scheduled parenting time with her daughter. When the daughter's father got wind of this, he was very angry and concerned that mom hadn't consulted with or even informed him before she exposed their daughter to this man and his son. He was sick with worry about his daughter’s safety and how this new relationship could confuse and negatively impact her.
Understanding and agreeing to dating guidelines can help preempt conflict and foster more productive communication between parents. It’s important that parents consider such questions as: How long should a parent wait before introducing a new romantic interest to their children? What wording should be used when making introductions? How much time with this person and what activities with the child are appropriate? What might be the impact if the relationship ends?
These issues are difficult and complex, but one thing I know; they are much messier when a parenting plan does not attempt to address them from the get go. Taking the time to think through dating guidelines before dating can spare parents unnecessary conflict and stress. More importantly, it's an extra measure of protection for the children.
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