It's a universal truth that divorced co-parents will have conflict. It doesn't matter how much of a peacemaker you are; at some point (and for most of us, it's going to be a lot more frequently than once), you will find yourself in a full-blown dispute with your ex over something to do with the kids.
Take, for example, my friends Holly and Matt.* After ten years of marriage, they decided to divorce. Trying to save money, they worked out the details of their divorce and parenting agreement without involving experts. They were proud of this, believing that divorcing on their own showed their maturity and open-mindedness.
And then things changed. A few months after the divorce was final, Matt moved 60 miles away to be closer to his job. His move threw many of the details they'd worked out into chaos. For example, Holly had depended on Matt to watch the children when she had evening commitments. She frequently got that time back by picking up the children and taking them to a movie or another weekend outing—which was Matt's parenting time. When they lived five minutes apart, this was all fine, but when it became an hour of travel time, things got nasty…fast.
Soon, they both had lawyers. They discovered that the parenting agreement they'd cooperatively (but naively) put together had a lot of gaping holes. As a result, they spent several years in a protracted, contentious, and very expensive parenting modification disagreement.
Their situation reminds me of a billboard for a plumbing company I saw the other day. It read simply, "We're the ones you call after you try fixing it yourself." I chuckled, thinking of all the times we've tried to do what we thought was a simple home repair, only to discover it was way more complicated than we knew. In trying to save some money by not hiring an expert, we made the repair more costly and much more aggravating.
Like home repairs, negotiating conflict in your co-parenting agreement seems like you should be able to do it yourself, but it often gets complicated very quickly. Like Holly and Matt, many of us assume that we can't afford to hire lawyers or mediators in a divorce or custody modification. But seeking expert advice to help you negotiate these tricky and complex legal issues is one of those things where if you do it right the first time, you don't have to keep fixing the same shoddy job over and over again.
Here are five suggestions for successfully mediating a conflict with your co-parent.
1. Commit to Mediation over Litigation
Most people who wind up in court have one thing in common: They believe that a judge can't help but see their side. Unfortunately, most of the time, judges come up with solutions that leave everyone unhappy. In trusting the courts to mediate your disagreements, you may get some of what you want, but you rarely get the resounding moral victory you think you deserve.
Most importantly, once you go before a judge, you give away your power to decide. In other words, the judge becomes the decider. In contrast, a mediator will listen to what you say and help you and your co-parent see compromises. But, you retain the power to decide, not a third party. Sure, you may not get everything you want, but ultimately you choose what you can live with rather than having a judge force it on you.
2. Find the Right Mediator
Finding the right mediator can feel intimidating. You want someone who will understand your needs and desires. However, you shouldn't want a "Yes Man." If you're asking for something way outside the realm of possibility, you need a mediator who will level with you and bring you back to reality. Otherwise, you will spend a lot of money to fight battles you have no chance of winning. Try to find a mediator who will help you and your co-parent manage expectations and emotional reactions.
How do you find this perfect someone? Start by asking people you know who have had a successful mediation experience. You can't beat a personal recommendation. If that doesn't work, try searching for your state court's roster of mediators. From there, you might follow these steps to pick a good one.
3. Leave Your Competitive Spirit at Home.
Mediation is not a football game. If there are winners or losers at the end of the day, you're doing it wrong. Instead, remember that the goal of a mediation session is to find a solution, not to establish who is right. Leave that desire to be right at home.
4. Really Listen to the Mediator's Recommendations
Mediation works because the professional you've hired doesn't choose a side in the fight. The mediator must strive to be impartial. While it's tempting to dismiss their words or suggestions because you think they don't understand how important this is to you, it's much more likely that they see an issue neutrally, and you don't. Listen to what they recommend rather than digging in your heels to get your way.
5. Don't Give Up too Soon
Mediation can take time to work. You and your co-parent face significant challenges in solving your conflict. So don't give up because the first session didn't seem to work. Instead, think about the mediation process as similar to buying a car. Don't expect to find the right deal the first time out. It helps if you give yourself time to consider the mediator's suggestion. Talk it over with your life partner. Sleep on it. Get past the initial rush of emotions that come with conflict.
Research shows that people who successfully complete mediation are more satisfied with their outcomes than those who go to court. And mediated agreements are more likely to be followed than those that go to court for resolution. Mediation really is the less expensive repair when it comes to fixing what's broken in your co-parenting agreement.
*names have been changed.