Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon
Empowerment and recognition shifts can happen between people whose interaction has fluctuated for years. I recently worked with a couple whom I’d also met with once a year ago. The more recent conversation seemed to help them get to a much better place and also seemed to help them arrive at agreements about a few things. As I wrote about that conversation below, I noticed I didn’t know exactly what parts of the conversation represented shifts and what parts were simply indications of a deeper reality of how the couple was relating to each other. I’m curious whether you have any interpretations.
Laura told me by voicemail that she and Evan needed help. I had mediated their divorce about a year ago, and it had become legal in the past few months. Now Evan had announced he’s moving 15 miles away, which at certain times means a 50 minute drive from Laura’s house or from the daycare that 2 year-old Abigail was attending. Laura didn’t like how Evan made this decision without consulting her, given that it might affect Abigail’s life significantly. But when Evan told her that the sellers accepted his offer, she wanted to mediate as soon as possible before it became a fait accompli.
We arranged to meet by video conference the following night, after Abigail’s bedtime. And Evan accepted my offer to talk on the phone before the meeting, since I’d already had a brief call with Laura. He wanted to know what was on Laura’s mind. I reminded him that I don’t share the content of what another party says to me, but I acknowledged that emails between the 3 of us suggested Laura had concerns about Evan’s planned move. Evan wondered why Laura couldn’t simply raise those concerns directly with him. I shared that people often wanted me to participate when they felt anxious or overwhelmed by the prospect of a certain conversation. I also observed that the transition from being married to divorced can be challenging as new questions arise about how much input co-parents have in each other’s decisions. While it’s not normally my place to frame the issues as I did here, this felt like a natural part of mine and Evan’s conversation, and I did it in a way that I hoped made it clear that my framing was just one possibility of what was happening. Evan seemed reassured and we agreed we’d see each other that night in the video conference.
At our meeting (we used Zoom), Laura and Evan talked about a variety of aspects of the situation. They talked about whether Evan had included Laura sufficiently in his process of deciding to move. Evan said he had told her on the same day both when he started looking at houses and when he made this particular offer. He also asserted that since they are no longer married, Laura no longer has the right to decide where Evan lives. Laura acknowledged that she doesn’t have that right and added that she has no desire to interfere with Evan’s choices about where he lived. At the same time though, she said, as a co-parent, Evan should have talked with her in greater detail about how they would manage co-parenting at this greater distance.
At the hardest moments of this conversation, Evan and Laura accused each other of being more concerned about themselves than about Abigail. Laura felt victimized by Evan’s lack of regard for both Abigail and her. And Evan felt judged, criticized and controlled by Laura. At more harmonious moments, each of them acknowledged the other’s care for Abigail and they shared heartfelt wishes for each other’s well-being. At one point, Evan appeared emotional around his gratitude for what a beautiful, joyful connection exists between Abigail and Laura.
Laura’s biggest fear around the move was that it might lead to Abigail attending school too far away from where Laura lived or worked. Laura wanted Abigail’s school close enough so that she could be involved without sacrificing her career. Evan agreed that it was good for Abigail to have Laura very involved. He agreed to the principle that Abigail would attend school within 8 miles of Laura’s work or home. That commitment eased Laura’s fears. They also agreed that if the added car time appeared to be harming Abigail, they would discuss changing their parenting schedule and other options for eliminating that harm.
They also discussed how they would handle the possibility that the car time would hurt Abigail. Laura suggested that they have potential solutions already agreed to. Evan felt there was no way of meaningfully exploring those options until they knew the nature of the problem. They both acknowledged respectfully their differing approaches – Laura tended to be more vigilant about these things and more into planning solutions, while Evan preferred to assume the best until a problem became clear and to deal with it then. They agreed to take each other into consideration – Laura would say there was a problem only if there really was one, and Evan would take her concerns seriously if they arose.
If I had to guess, I’d say that, compared with how they were at the start of the conversation, both Laura and Evan felt stronger in relation to each other. They both had clearly stated their vision of how they wanted to co-parent and their take on Abigail’s needs. They also seemed more responsive toward each other. They had acknowledged the legitimacy of each other’s perspective and had recommitted to taking each other into consideration. As far as I could tell, this was an example of conflict transformation.
The Complete Lawyer — an online magazine covering professional development, quality of life, and career issues for attorneys published by Don Hutcheson — has added an ADR column, “The Human...By Diane J. Levin