Archive for May 2011

High Conflict Divorce Tip #1: Boundaries

In my career as a divorce professional, I have developed a name for myself as an attorney who knows how to guide clients through a high conflict divorce. My business partners observe that I have some of the craziest cases they have seen in their careers. Clients and professionals learn quickly that I am good with tough, emotionally charged cases. Lately, I am even being asked to provide consultation to other attorneys regarding how best to handle cases like this.  My best talent is in helping parties settle even the most acrimonious cases outside of court.

High Conflict Divorce Tip #1: Boundaries

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

My first high conflict divorce tip: set clear boundaries early in the case.

A good deal of the emotional and legal pressure of family law cases results from the parties being unable to respect each other’s boundaries- or maybe just being unable to understand what boundaries should be set. I think of the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Fences”. Here is an excerpt:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

‘Stay where you are

until our backs are turned!’

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

. . . .

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me~

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

(from http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/frost-mending.html visited 05/21/2011.)

Family law is unique because in the vast majority of cases, the opposing parties have had sex with each other. That takes the whole dispute up to an entirely different emotional level from your garden variety legal dispute. The parties have likely spent years with each other lowering boundaries and emotional defenses between them. We are most vulnerable with the one’s we love. We also feel the safest and allow the mixing of our lives. Privacy becomes less important to us than closeness. Trust is more important than verification. We lower our defenses with our lovers and share everything. But when the break up happens, we try to go back to what we were before we met. The problem is that folks invest a lot in each other emotionally. So even though there is the intellectual understanding that lives should be disentangled, old habits die hard and we leave our boundaries open.

I had a difficult high conflict divorce case early in my career where a husband and wife chose to divorce, but live next door to each other. The idea was that this would be good for the kids. Having mom and dad live next door to each other would make co-parenting easy. They believed that an informal and less rigid co-parenting arrangement would be best.

However, what happened was that the father in this relationship didn’t quite sever the relationship in his head. He kept a key to the mother’s residence and would walk in unannounced. He tried to leave his dirty clothes in the hamper at the wife’s house. He would walk in and take food from the fridge. One day the wife came home and found him in her shower. He explained that he was remodeling his shower and that he needed to use hers. Naturally, he never paid towards her water bill or replaced any of the food he “borrowed”. The wife became exasperated and the tensions escalated. She asked him not to come in uninvited anymore and to do his own laundry. He became angry because, after all, the divorce was not final and his name was still on the deed to the house. He talked to the kids about how “unreasonable” their mother was being. Although she changed the locks, he obtained copy of the new key from their teenage daughter. Needless to say, we spent a lot of expensive time in court on this one.

In my opinion, the case got off to a bad start because the husband wanted to keep the same level of familiarity with his wife even though he had filed a petition for divorce. I am no shrink and I am sure a psychologist could talk about what issues there were that led him to not wish to sever the relationship. The wife’s mistake was not being very clear on her required boundaries early in the case. When he moved out, perhaps he should not have moved next door. Perhaps it should have been clearer for both of them that they now had separate residences and that although they used to sleep in the same bed, privacy and respect for personal space had to be respected. Sadly, the conflict in this high conflict divorce escalated to the point where their children were in emotional crisis.

I spent a good deal of time in this high conflict divorce case helping the parties set new boundaries. The locks would be changed again. The wife would express that he could not come over unannounced. He had to do his own laundry and buy his own food. He would shower at his own place. Most importantly, the children would not be exposed to the adult business of their dispute. With boundaries, things improved.

I had another potentially high conflict divorce mediation case where the parties chose to remain in the same residence for a period of time. Given the state of today’s real estate market, many parties are choosing to delay the sale of real estate. We spent a good amount of time early in the case establishing boundaries, in spite of the choice to continue to cohabit. The parties agreed to a nesting schedule for the children, where one parent would be “on duty” at a time. They chose not to expect to have meals together. They bought two refrigerators. They did, however, agree that one day per week they would have dinner together with the children as a family. All of the finances were divided and they no longer shared expenses. They would pay equally on certain joint household bills like homeowner’s insurance, property taxes or the mortgage. Most importantly, they agreed that if there was ever going to be an argument or dispute between them, the children would never see it. If a disagreement became too much for them to navigate on their own, they would return to mediation for a facilitated discussion before letting it get out of hand.

I was very concerned about this case because of the parties’ close proximity. I was terrified it would become a high conflict divorce and I would be receiving a call in the middle of the night that one of them had been arrested. However, I was gratified that they followed their boundaries quite well and even came up with new rules as needed. Because they respected one another’s space and privacy, things actually went very well. In my opinion, they could only have such success in reducing the conflict between them because they chose early on to set rules and boundaries. Then, the respected the rules and boundaries that they set. Later they told me that at first it was easy to slip back into the old habits they had when married, but that they quickly learned that respecting the rules made their lives more peaceful.

Now, I would not recommend a cohabiting relationship for most divorcing couples – especially those in a high conflict divorce, but I can say that the lesson to be learned here is that boundaries matter. Redefining the relationship early in the process is essential and can have a tremendous effect on how the case goes. It can be the difference between a mutually agreeable settlement or thousands of dollars in court costs in a high conflict divorce. It can be the difference between happy and emotionally healthy children and kids in crisis.

Another useful metaphor for the high conflict divorce is that it is important to know, as if on the highway, which lane you are supposed to drive in. If people switch lanes chaotically or don’t follow the traffic rules, bad things can happen.

So here are some pointers for building good fences to prevent the case from devolving into a high conflict divorce:

  • Have a meeting early in the case to determine what boundaries need to be set and what rules for interaction are agreeable to the parties’ transition from married to single people.
  • Make sure the kids’ boundaries are respected. Don’t allow the kids to be used as messengers between the parents. Make sure they are not exposed to the parents’ legal dispute or “put in the middle” in any way. They just need to know that they have two parents, who love them. They don’t need to be immersed in “adult business”.
  • Get a parenting plan figured out early and then follow it to the letter. Make sure that the parenting plan accounts for possible disagreements and clearly spells out times and locations for exchanges. The plan should specify a clear holiday and vacation schedule. Err on the side of overly detailed. The parties can always choose to be flexible with one another, but make sure there is a clearly defined procedure for parental communication and for how the parenting plan could be modified in the event of mutual agreement.
  • Be sensitive about introducing new love interests. Sometimes it can be very upsetting to the other party when the new love interest comes into the picture. If step-parenting is anticipated, make sure that the parties have a conversation about the roles and expectations regarding the step-parents and their relationship with the children.
  • Codify the agreed about boundaries by stipulated court order and make sure that the order includes clearly defined consequences should a boundary be crossed.
  • Divide financial responsibilities early. Have clear understandings about who is responsible for what joint bills. Consider establishing a temporary support regime as early as possible. Make sure that financial disclosure happens early and that automatic temporary restraining orders relating to community assets and debts are followed and enforced. A lot of the fights in high conflict cases arise from simple misunderstandings about financial boundaries and responsibilities.

So, do fences make better neighbors? Possibly. Do good, clear and respectful boundaries make better ex-spouses and co-parents? Absolutely!

For more information about managing a high conflict divorce,
contact San Diego Divorce Mediator  Shawn Weber at 858-410-0144.

 

Other helpful posts about setting boundaries in your high conflict divorce:

How to Establish Boundaries After Divorce

Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD, Clear Court Orders for Shared Parenting: http://billeddyhighconflictinstitute.blogspot.com/2010/08/clear-court-orders-for-shared-parenting.html

Women’sDivorce.com, Dealing With Your Ex After Divorce and Setting Boundaries: http://www.womansdivorce.com/ex-after-divorce.html

Adultery: Should You Contact A Cheater’s Spouse?

adultery
Adultery can be a terrible betrayal, but I completely agree with the sentiment expressed in this article. If you go and interfere in someone else’s marriage, you are simply making a bad situation worse. The best thing you can do is stay away.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Why I absolutely love Collaborative Practice for Resolving Divorce Cases.

Collaborative Practice offers the promise of peaceful negotiation with maximum professional support.

I have been involved in matrimonial law most of my career. I have seen some pretty awful stuff. People come to my office at the worst time of their lives: a family in pain; lovers betrayed. As the family is the very heart of our existence and interaction as men and women, the demise of a marriage thrusts real, honest people into some of the deepest and most exquisite pain we humans are capable of experiencing. Divorce professionals, for better or for worse, are given a front row seat to such sorrow and tragedy. We go through a lot of tissue. I have seen a coffee cup thrown across a room. I have seen strong, grown men cry. I have seen suicide attempts and suicide successes.


 

children, kids, custody, visitation, parenting, coparenting, collaborative practice


 

I have seen the serious collateral damage that a divorce war can inflict on the most innocent – children. I witnessed a divorce so terrible in its conflict that the children of the marriage were literally destroyed with depression, anxiety, drug addiction and self-mutilation that so often accompanies children of divorce.

Early in my career, I enjoyed the thrill of a battle in court. Litigation can be intoxicating for an attorney. I experienced the adrenaline rush of a nasty phone call to an opposing counsel, the delivery of a strongly worded letter on attorneys’ stationary and the excitement of combat in the court room. It is easy to allow oneself to get caught up in the warfare and become a part of the problem rather than a guide to a solution. In law school we are taught to be “zealous advocates” for our clients. The problem, however, is that in our zeal, we often overlook and destroy our client’s most important asset – the family relationships. Furthermore, “zeal” with its weaponry of formal discovery, motions, court work and general nastiness can deplete the family finances in such an extreme way that our clients are left bankrupt. Sometimes I feel like some attorneys are more zealous advocates of collecting more fees than they are of doing what is best for the client. It is actually called the “adversarial process” in that parties are purposely pitted against one another. Surely, encouraging couples to be adversarial rather than constructive and mutual when discussing delicate issues like parenting is terrible for a family. Don’t get me wrong, some cases require a court battle. However, the vast majority do not.

collaborative practice keeps people out of court

I have since recovered from the mindset that everything must be scorched earth. Towards the beginning of my career I did mediation, which was a great way to keep folks out of court and focus on solutions. The limitations of mediation, however, are that the parties don’t often have the support of advising attorneys in the room. As a neutral mediator, I am unable to advise what is in a party’s best interests. I can’t protect the interests of my clients. I always recommend that clients seek independent legal advice, but it is hard sometimes, if the attorney is not in the room. On the other side of the same coin, some advising attorneys misunderstand their role and drive what could otherwise be a simple mediated case into litigation.

In Collaborative Practice, however, the parties and their attorneys jointly sign an agreement that they will not be going to court. The agreement further stipulates that should either party choose to litigate, both attorneys are disqualified from participating. This frees the attorney from having to posture with every meeting. If the attorneys are not constantly concerned that they will have to litigate every issue, they are freed to focus on solutions rather than looking for more conflict. The attorneys’ roles switch from zealous advocates to “legal educators” and “counselors at law”. The power shifts away from the attorneys to the parties. The parties decide what the agreement will be and the attorneys merely provide advice regarding the law.

Additionally, the parties can bring in additional professionals to work on their Collaborative Practice team. Mental health professionals can be utilized as divorce coaches or child specialists to assist with the hugely emotional issues in every divorce case. A neutral financial professional can be brought in to assist the parties with understanding the money issues and for planning for the future. As an attorney, I am then relieved of the burden of having to act (incompetently) as an emotional support, child custody expert or as a financial guide. Often these additional professionals will have a lower billing rate than the attorneys so tremendous economies of scale can be achieved. You pay money to the people most qualified to give the particular service.

I enjoy Collaborative Practice as a human being as well. It is wonderful to work with a collaborative practice preserves familiiescouple to transition their family in the least destructive manner possible. I love collaborating with professionals from other disciplines to help the family find the very best solutions for their situation. Collaborative Practice is much more mutually respectful, civil, child-centered and humane than traditional litigation. Although divorce is always painful no matter which model of dispute resolution is used, couples can leave the collaborative divorce process feeling good about their futures and knowing that they found constructive solutions for their families.

For more information about Collaborative Practice, contact Shawn Weber for a consultation at 858-410-0144 or view:

Collaborative Practice

Collaborative Divorce: A Safe Place

See also:

Collaborative Practice California

Collaborative Family Law Group of San Diego

International Academy of Collaborative Professionals

 

collaborative practice, san diego divorce attorney, collaborative divorce, solana beach divorce attorney, Shawn Weber

Study: Divorce harder on children than a parent’s death, shortens children’s own lives | Deseret News

This is a link to a fascinating study about the effect of divorce on children.  I would think that many of these negative effects could be miniumized if the divorcing parents worked more cooperatively.  I would think that methods of alternate dispute resolution such as collaborative divorce or mediation would go a long way in reducing the stress and long term effects on children.

Here is a link to the article:  Study: Divorce harder on children than a parent’s death, shortens children’s own lives | Deseret News.

Do Siblings Help Each Other When Parents Divorce?


This is a great article about children of divorce. I wish more of my divorce clients would consider the effect that their divorce may have on the kids. What is the moral of the story? Parents, watch what you are doing because your kids are watching!
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Collaborative Practice Public Service Announcement

Here is an excellent video with information about Collaborative Practice.  I am a firm believer that Collaborative Practice is a better way to divorce.  By attorneys, mental health professionals and financial professionals working together, a couple facing a divorce stands a much better chance of transitioning their family in a respectful way that is better for the kids and the couple’s finances.

For more information about Collaborative Practice in California, go to www.cpcal.com.

To schedule a consultation for a Collaborative Divorce, contact attorney Shawn Weber at 858-345-1616 or visit our website at www.BraveWeberMack.com for more information.