You do not stumble over a mountain but you do over a stone
There is a point in some negotiations when a party will decide that this is the hill on which they will fight the final battle. They may have reached agreement on a myriad of issues but this one is “a principle” or “so unjust” that they are willing to walk away from the whole agreement if they do not get what they want on this one issue.
Often these parties have worked extremely hard and are at the end of their energy and endurance. It is critical at this stage for parties to take a moment and consider the entirety of the negotiation. It is helpful for parties to remember:
For me, this proverb rings true when I see parties who have overcome significant challenges and have climbed the mountain, only to trip over a stone in the path. Staying focused at this stage can help parties to keep sight of their goals and to side step that last stone.
I have had the unusual pleasure as a family mediator of working with some couples who wish to try reconciliation. Family mediators will tell you that these cases are unusual and that often people do not survive the crisis which brought them to mediation. However, from my perspective, I always feel honoured to work with people to try and design a roadmap for reconciliation.
For some couples, a crisis has precipitated the decision to come to mediation. For most people by the time we are sitting in mediation, it is too late to reconcile. Too much has happened and without knowing it the parties have crossed a line in their relationship. Even in these cases, one party may wish to reconcile. However, for reconciliation to work, both parties must be committed to the process.
For other couples, both people feel a great deal of ambivalence. A crisis may have occurred but there are reasons which make them want to try to save the relationship. This book, "Should I stay or should I go?" provides a potential way out of that dilemma.
Raffel suggests that parties need to respond to the crisis, which he sees as a "call to action". He suggests a controlled separation gives both parties time and space to heal and to work on the reconciliation.
To work towards reconciliation, the parties will need to work with a counsellor to address the relationship issues which led to the crisis. However, in mediation I can work with people to create a roadmap for reconciliation. We can work on the practical issues:
In family separation, people need containment for the chaos that may be unfolding for them and, hope to see a path forward. For many people, separation exposes them to a range of negative emotions which can strip them of a sense of agency and of their future. As a family mediator, it is typical to meet with people for whom trust, faith and shared futures are gone. People can remain mired in the past and blame, and this can lead to a sense of cynicism and a strong sense of disempowerment.
If there are children then it is in their best interests that their parents find a way to function effectively as co-parents. This can be extremely challenging at a time when parents wish to separate their lives, their duties as parents compel them to communicate and interact.
One way to help parents is through the concept of hope. Hope can provide the motivation for parties to try and choose a different path forward. Used appropriately hope can provide people with the ability to make an effort, to choose to move forward and to allow themselves to reimagine the future.
Some have seen hope as a negative as it can be deceptive and may encourage delusional expectations. This can be a risk in some cases, where co-operation is interpreted as providing hope for reconciliation. In family mediation, we need to ensure that hope is not creating ‘false’ hope.
Instead a family mediator can work with the parents to use hope as a transformative tool to enable them to move forward. J.R.R. Tolkein compared hope to a fairy-tale, however he also saw that hope has the virtue of allowing us to change and adapt. Without the hope of change and a better path forward many families would remain mired in conflict and negative intimacy. Hope remains a powerful tool in the mediator’s toolbox.
Are hope and despair two sides of the same coin? Michael Schreiner commented that they are two sides of the expectations coin. Both hope and despair are focused on a set of future and unknown circumstances. Schreiner describes them as an educated guess about what will happen. He argues that hope is despair in disguise as if it is not supported by circumstances then the coin will flip and it will be replaced with despair.
Hope can also be seen as delusional. It can be seen as a form of self-deception. Rather than facing up to the realities of a situation, hope may make someone ‘hope’ for the best. This line of thought argues that hope may prolong suffering as rather than take responsibility for making changes, someone may hope for the solution to appear. In addition, rather than accepting a negative reality they may deceive themselves.
Hope may be seen as preventing us from preparing for the worst. If we cling to hope rather than prepare and take action we may be overwhelmed when positive expectations are not met and negative realities occur. This is a special type of magical thinking. A belief that we do not need to anticipate or prepare for negative consequences as can just cling to hope that things will be better.
Hope can be seen as an abdication of our personal responsibility to solve problems for ourselves. If we hope that the ‘deus ex machina’ will arrive and save the day we may cease our own efforts. if we maintain a false hope that a solution will come we may cease to work on our own solutions.
Whilst I acknowledge these challenges, I reject these characterisations. From my perspective, hope is an attempt to navigate an unknown future. I applaud the parties in mediation who have the courage to hope that they can make a better reality than the one they have inhabited. Without doubt it takes courage to choose hope when bitterness and disillusionment beckon from the present and the past. As a problem solver I am interested in what works. Does it help for parties to despair? Does it help for them to remain mired in blame?
In mediation, I see people who have no reason to trust, deciding to make that leap so that they can motivate themselves to move forward. Choosing hope is an acknowledgement that the alternative to hope is a never-ending battle. It is a defiant statement that empowers people to create structures and plans for tomorrow.
For the next few weeks, I will focus on different aspects of Hope. From my perspective as a mediator:
And now for my favourite animal in real life and in the Chinese zodiac, the Dog. I have written previously about what dogs can teach us about conflict. Every day, my dogs teach me more life lessons, many of which involve the importance of access to treats and how to bark at wild boars.
In the Chinese zodiac, Dogs are well known for their loyalty. It is a defining feature. Loyalty may seem to be an unusual quality to look for in conflict, however, it has a role to play. In family mediation, trust and loyalty are gone. However, they still have a place if there are children. If there are children, then the former partners will continue to be co-parents.
This continuing co-parenting relationship demands connection at a time when many people wish the other person would disappear. As a family mediator in Hong Kong, I have an ethical duty to assist parents to focus on their children’s best interests. Research would tell us that ongoing conflict has the most negative impact on children.
As parties are dissolving their adult relationship, it is difficult to remember that the other person remains a co-parent and should remain a team-mate. Whilst your former partner may no longer deserve your loyalty as a partner, they may need to receive your loyalty as a co-parent, for the benefit of your children. I remember listening in a child inclusive mediation as a child consultant brought messages from their children. The children had specifically requested that their parents could be “a team”. Even though the children understood that their parents were separating, they still wanted to be parented by both of their parents. The children wanted to know that they had a team of adults looking after their needs and caring for them. Team-mates have loyalty for one another because they have a higher goal that they are seeking to achieve. Team-mates have loyalty for one another because they are focused on something other than their own feelings. Loyalty can have a place in conflict.
The International Survey of Family Law 2018 is about to launch. I was honoured to contribute the Hong Kong chapter. The Hong Kong chapter looks at challenges for families and practitioners arising from the lack of innovation in our legislation. This has necessitated invention by judges, lawyers and mediators.
The Survey is the annual review of the International Society of Family Law. This year's survey contains chapters covering topical issues ranging from legislation to customary law to reproductive technology.
Copies are available for purchase from Intersentia.
One of the key principles of parallel parenting is that instead of having unspoken rules, the co-parents put in place explicit and clear rules to manage their relationship. For whatever reason, the old patterns of behaviour did not work for the family and helping co-parents create new patterns of behaviour is a critical part of setting up effective parallel parenting.
Rules may include:
The list goes on. Each family needs to consider their circumstances and what rules are needed for them. For some families, the flashpoint for conflict is communication (e.g. texts), for other families the flashpoint will be attendance at school events. A family mediator will work with the parents to tailor rules which work for their family circumstances.
It can seem very strange and awkward to put in place ground rules when people have been in relationship for a long time, however, moving forward requires parents to change to new patterns for interacting which can form the basis for parallel co-parenting. Research would indicate that a third of separated parents can work co-operatively and that a third remain conflicted. For the other third of parents, parallel can provide a space for mutual respect and appropriate behavior.
Respect is a key principle for parallel parenting. Whilst parents may have different approaches or different rules, a key component of parallel parenting is that one parent does not undermine the other parent. For example, if Parent A believes bed-time winding down begins with a story and Parent B believes that it should start with a bath, neither parent should criticize the other.
Each parent is responsible for doing the best they can with the children when they are in their care. It is not unusual for parents to agree some common rules for younger children (e.g. bedtime) and for older children (e.g. electronic usage). This can assist each parent to present to the children as a co-parental team. However, there will also be differences between each parent’s home rules. This is the essence of the work by Isolina Ricci (Mom’s House Dad’s House).
Next post, putting it all together and using parallel parenting as means of moving forward.
Why do many separated parents use parallel parenting? Because at a time when the adult relationship is ending, parallel parenting can provide a foundation for the co-parental team to continue functioning for the benefit of the children. Because parallel parenting provides a space for parents to acknowledge the difficulties and challenges inherent in their transition through separation and yet to be available to co-parent without open warfare.
What are the basic principles that can guide co-parents to set up parallel co-parenting?
How do parents disengage from the battle?
In Hong Kong, family mediators try and help parents to focus on their children when making decisions about their children’s arrangements. By sharing research about how to enhance protective factors for children in separating families, family mediators can help to redirect the parents away from focusing on their adult relationship and towards their co-parental responsibilities.
Another casualty of separation is often whatever ability there was to problem solve or communicate. Separating parents may find it difficult to communicate and to problem solve together. However, constructive separation requires both good problem solving and clear communication.
In addition, whatever trust may have bound a couple together is usually gone. Understanding that a lack of trust and respect is often a part of this process can help parents to refocus on how to make things work for their children as opposed to winning a battle.
The patterns of behaviour which have led to the separation need to be replaced, but consciously deciding to disengage from conflict is the first step. Next post what new patterns can help separating parents to form a new co-parental team?
Parallel? Co-operative? Conflicted? You and your partner may have made a conscious or an unconscious choice about your parenting style when your children arrived. Divorce and separation, however, requires parents to make a conscious choice.
In family mediation, parents have the opportunity to determine the type of co-parenting style they will use to raise their children in their newly separated family. Will it be difficult for the children to move between your houses? Will you make it so that your children can smoothly transition between each house? Will your children look back and remember their childhood as a time when things were tough but they knew that you were both a co-parenting team? or will your children feel that every transition was fraught with tension?
For some parents they have always been co-operative and as they separate they are able to work hard to focus their co-parenting on their children and not on their adult relationship. For other parents the fallout from the hurt and pain of their separation impacts every aspect of their co-parenting. It can seem that these are the only two options - co-operative or conflicted co-parenting.
In family mediation it may be helpful for parents to consider a third option - parallel or disengaged parenting. Dr Isolina Ricci's book, Mom's House Dad's House, has given numerous families a practical pathway to parallel parenting. When parents decide that open co-operation is too difficult to achieve and open warfare is too harmful to their children, there is a third option. Parallel parenting allows for parents to continue to co-parent with structures e.g. communication rules, and a responsibility not to undermine the other parent.
In the coming weeks, I will focus on how parallel parenting can help families transition through separation and divorce.