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