Margaret and Jane, married for 9 years with their 9 year old son Cole, were still living together when they began divorce mediation. My notes from our first meeting included each of their goals for post-divorce life, their finances, homework, and the next meeting agenda. Under the topic “Child support and allocation of child expenses,” these were the first two items noted—each the inverse of the other:
- Margaret says she cannot meet her expenses or Cole’s if she is paying support to Jane.
- Jane says she cannot meet her expenses or contribute to Cole’s if she receives no support from Margaret.
The presenting issues—who stays in the house, who pays what for Cole’s uninsured medicals, extracurricular activities, and summer camp, and their income disparity—were seen in this context: Margaret felt vulnerable because she was making more money than Jane, and Jane felt vulnerable because she was making less money than Margaret.
I recommended they see a CPA, who specialized in working with divorcing parties as a neutral, to show them their after-tax incomes before and after the application of MA Child Support Guidelines and consideration of the alimony statute. After one session with the CPA they were working in a revised context: Margaret agrees to pay some child support even though it will jeopardize her ability to remain in the house with Cole, and Jane says the child support won’t be enough for her to have a decent home to share with Cole.
In the second mediation session Jane cried so much she could hardly speak, and Margaret said it was imperative that Jane move out. I concluded there would be a greater likelihood of a productive exchange of ideas if I met with each separately. I reminded them that the mediation agreement provided I would disclose to the other party all relevant information shared in my private meetings with them.
After separate meetings I was able to draft a substantial outline of all the matters to be addressed in their divorce, and their requests as to how to resolve each—some now agreed but more at loggerheads. One emailed me after the second round of separate meetings, “I knew she’d try to bully me into whatever scheme she’s cooked up. She won’t listen to what I want at all.”
They were both equally convinced that the other cared nothing for her. Jane saw Margaret as withholding, while Margaret saw Jane as a grabber. Both predicted the worst outcome, and each considered leaving mediation and letting a judge decide.
In the meantime they were conferring with their lawyers, and each of them made equally strong statements about her lawyer’s assurance of success if litigation ensued.
While the parties appeared to take turns being the more unreasonable–and maybe one could have been faulted more than the other–I did not have to make that call. What I saw was that they were–
- both scared and wanted to figure out how to best care for themselves and their son
- grieving the end of their marriage—in differing ways and for differing reasons, but each suffering deeply
- each convinced their positions were more righteous than those of the other
- sick to death of fighting
- doubting they’d ever get to yes on all issues
After several more weeks—some of silence as they sat with their disagreements, and some of proposal exchanges I coordinated—the proposals grew with incremental trade-offs and surrender on some points when it seemed no longer worth the fight, and became further refined with more legal information from me and advice from their lawyers. They were finally honed into a 24 page agreement that made clear—
- who kept what
- what was to be divided later
- child support and alimony now and how modified in future
- a parenting plan with a lot of structure that encouraged flexibility as time went on
- tax filing statuses in relation to the child
- health and life insurance obligations and contingencies
While each thought their divorce would have been easier and less costly if the other had been more reasonable, these were their major feelings around the time they signed their agreement–
- relief and resignation about an agreement that gave the other more than she deserved but at least avoided the other getting everything she demanded
- continuing resentments and friction though with each having some hope about the future
- each resolute that she would continue to make their child the center of her life
Jane and Margaret’s anxieties were triggered by their fears about the future, which together with their communication dynamics that preceded and continued into their divorce, set the stage for the anguish they each felt in their own separate ways. Each wanted to do the honorable thing, while they each felt the best they could do, in the kind of triage they found themselves, was whatever worked best for herself and their child—and let the other fend for herself. On some issues they never agreed—though were finally able to agree what actions each would take on the matter—whether for better or for worse in their respective views, depending on what was required of them.
They each exhibited nobility as they went about the task of burying their marriage and restructuring their family. Like many of the people I see divorcing, they proceeded with a great deal of grace. More often than not they dealt with the messiness and pain of one of life’s great challenges in good spirits as they continued to raise their child, earn livings, and take responsibility for themselves and their futures—guided by what was fundamental to their enduring connection–the love of their child.