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.
Mediation is not about getting people to compromise and compromise should not be a mediator’s goal. If you’re a mediator that uses the word “compromise" or even thinks it in your mediation sessions, it’s time to please stop! Meeting someone half way means no one ever arrives! The beauty of mediation is that it allows people to go far beyond positions and luke warm compromises to a place where their real interests and needs are addressed. The driving force behind the conversation changes from staunch demands to dialogue about the things that truly matter. Instead of merely settling for a "middle ground" concession, parties are free to be creative in problem solving, often resulting in options that are satisfying to both.
In my mediation practice I've noted that the deeper interests of parties are usually in regards to broken trust and dignity, not something with which you can "split the difference" or barter over. When the mediator facilitates and empowers both parties to focus on interests, the parties are more apt to collaborate on and customize an optimal agreement. The best outcomes are always the ones generated and driven by the parties.
As mediators, we must learn to bite our lips and resist the temptation to offer our solutions. This is a discipline and practice that takes tremendous effort and self awareness. The benefits, however, are worth it. I have been blown away many times by the agreements my clients have reached; solutions I wouldn't or couldn't have come up with. I remember a court mediation between two former army buddies (let’s say Sam and Jack). Sam had entrusted some of his personal belongings to Jack. Jack had left them in his unlocked vehicle and they were stolen. For almost an hour, Sam kept demanding compensation of $500 and Jack kept insisting that he didn’t have that much money. Fortunately, I squelched the impulse to say what I was thinking, “How about a compromise and just split the difference”. Instead, in a last ditch effort to move the young men off of positions onto interests, I asked if there was anything in addition to money that could be considered of value in their conversation. Sam quickly said, “Yeah, I want my ABU back! It was really special to me.” (Airmen Battle Uniform – I looked it up later). Jack quickly replied, “Really, well you can have mine. We’re the same size and I don’t care about it.” From there, it was just a matter of minutes before an agreement was signed and they were shaking hands with grins on their faces. Jack even voluntarily threw in $100. As they walked out the door, Jack said to Sam, “We’re still friends, right?” I’ll never forget that moment and the realization that I could have really messed it up by inserting myself in their conversation.
Thank goodness I didn’t push for a compromise!
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