A Tribute to My Favorite Co-Mediator, My Dog

Today’s blog isn’t about conflict.  It’s a tribute to my favorite co-mediator, my dog.

My dog and I had a solid relationship.  We spent a lot of time together and enjoyed each other’s company.  She was a bossy thing, but my husband says that I am a bossy thing, too.

On Monday, just four days ago, my dog died. 

For the first eight years of her life, I sheltered my dog from my work and my clients from her.  She was only in the office on days that I didn’t have private mediations.

However, in the fall of 2015, I started bringing her to the office for private mediations as well.

I wonder what she thought at that first mediation session.  It wasn’t as if I could prep her for it in advance.  “I know that you’ve been coming to the office with me for eight quiet years, but now, when you come to the office, people are going to yell and scream and you and I have to maintain calm and keep the peace.”  That’s what I would have said, if I could have said it and had her understand.  Instead, she just had to figure that all out on her own.

It worked out better than I could have hoped, as she practiced her own instinctive form of mediation.  She always greeted people enthusiastically, doing her part to make them feel at home.  If someone didn’t like dogs or didn’t want her attention, she would generally leave that person alone after the initial greeting.  Sometimes, she positioned herself between the two individuals.  Sometimes, she stayed with the person she thought needed her most.  Occasionally, she went back and forth between them.  And sometimes, she felt like I had it under control and she curled up near me and went to sleep. 

Clients looked forward to seeing her, asking after her if she wasn’t at the office when they came.

While she was being petted by a client, she would give me a look that said, “You see this?  This is how you treat a dog at the office. You should do more of this.”  I got a lot of those looks.  I thought the office was for working, not just petting the dog.

One day, my dog had gone to sleep when the clients were having civil discussions, only to be woken by their loud arguing.  She groaned loudly.  We humans laughed.  The tension was diffused and the argument softened to a disagreement.  She went back to sleep, confident that I had it under control again.

She was a good dog.

I knew she had a health issue and she had been struggling with it.  I had taken her to every vet appointment, trying to find some way to make things better for her, while watching things get slowly, inexorably worse.  I had occasionally cried to the vets and to family members, asking, “Is she going to die from this?”

At the same time, it just didn’t seem that bad.  She could still play with the dog next door or cop an attitude with a dog she didn’t like.  For the most part, she was healthy.  And most of the time, it just didn’t seem possible that she could die from this.  It’s like when someone you know dies from the flu or pneumonia.  You know intellectually that it is possible to die from the flu or pneumonia because people do die of it every year.  However, the vast majority of people survive the flu and pneumonia, so when someone you love dies from it, it takes you by surprise.

We like to believe that our loved ones will be there for us forever.  However, we all only have a finite number of days on this planet and we never know when someone’s time will be up.

Tonight, when you go home, please give your loved ones a little extra love, and let them know how much you appreciate them.  Let’s put as much love out there as we can while we are here.

How to Get Rid of 80% of Your Unhappiness in Relationships

APPLYING THE 80/20 RULE TO RELATIONSHIPS

Have you heard of the 80/20 Rule?  The theory is that 80% of consequences are a direct result of 20% of causes.

Have you ever applied it to your relationships?

When you think of your friends and family members, which 20% create 80% of your desired outcomes and happiness?

These are your peeps.  These are the people with whom you want to spend your time and, if it’s a healthy relationship, these are the people with whom you should spend your time. 

Take a moment after you’ve finished reading this and make time to get together with them.

Now, think of your friends and family members again.  Which 20% create 80% of your problems and unhappiness?

Here is the harder question.  Why are you sacrificing so much of your happiness to them?

Here are some of the answers I have heard:

“She’s my mother.”

“It’s not his fault.”

“I have nowhere else to go.”

“I’m married.  I made a commitment.”

“My (adult) son needs me.”

“I’m a rescuer at heart.”

“I’m Superman.”

“Who will take care of her if I don’t?”

“I’m too old to change now.”

“I couldn’t live with myself if I weren’t there for him.”

“He’s my brother.”

“I can’t afford to leave.”

Here are things that people often think but don’t say:

“I’m afraid no one else will love me.”

“I don’t think I deserve to be treated any better than this.”

“I’m so ashamed that it has gotten to this point.”

“I need to be needed.”

“I don’t know how to have a relationship where my needs are met, too.”

“I’m afraid of what will happen if I stick up for myself.”

“I’m afraid of change.”

Here is the part that can be too scary to even think:

“I don’t know how to put my needs first (in this instance or maybe in life).”

Here’s the reality:

First, let’s talk about the extent of problems and unhappiness you suffer as a result of the person.  Not all unhappiness is equal. 

When you have contact with this person, how do you feel on a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being minor irritation and 10 being high level anxiety or anger, often resulting in a need to medicate yourself with food, alcohol, cigarettes, or other substances? 

How often do you currently have contact with this person?  How often do you really need to have contact with this person?  Could you decrease your time with this person?

Is the person causing you unhappiness because the person is emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive to you?  Has anyone told you the person has been abusive toward you, even if you would not describe the person as abusive?

Can you take a step back from the person to better evaluate the relationship?  Often, we don’t even know the reactions our bodies are having until we step away from the relationship.

There is a difference between someone creating 80% of your unhappiness intentionally versus unintentionally.  There is also a difference between someone creating 80% of your problems on a temporary basis versus on a permanent basis.

For example, if a loved one has cancer, you are likely to feel a great deal of unhappiness as a result.  You may be worried, angry that this person is suffering, sad, anxious, and more.  If you are married and there are medical bills piling up as a result, you may also feel anxious, worried, distressed, angry, and more.  Still, it is perfectly healthy to be there for the person as much as possible, to love the person and to also feel great pain.  You may experience caregiver fatigue and look to find ways to support yourself emotionally as a result.  You may experience caregiver fatigue and decide that you cannot do anymore.

In the alternative, if you love someone who rejects you, puts you down, always has to ensure that his needs are met (and yours are not), then it could be time to take stock of the relationship.  You know that it is not working for you – that is why you have listed it in with the relationships causing 80% of your unhappiness.

Can the relationship be fixed? Is the person willing to work on the relationship to meet your needs, too?  Is the person willing and able to talk with you, to meet in counseling or mediation to discuss it and put together a plan to get things back on track?

If it can’t be fixed, and you still want to maintain the relationship, then can it be contained?  Can you limit the amount of time that you spend with the person, spend less hours together, have a buffer present, opt for telephone contact, email, text, or Facebook instead of in person contact?

If it can’t be fixed, you know it’s not healthy, and it’s causing you a great deal of distress, it’s time to really look at why you are investing so much of your time in this person.  We have a finite amount of time on this earth.  Think of what you could do with all of that time that you currently spend unhappy.  Why is it more important to be there for that person than to be there for yourself?

Parenting Across the Miles

When people with young children divorce, they create a schedule of parenting time for each parent with the children.  They typically look at what their parenting schedule has looked like while the family was intact and what they want it to look like once they are living in two separate households.

In many instances, at the time of divorce, parents are committed to living in close proximity to each other, be it in the same town or in neighboring towns.  They want to remain involved in their children's lives and want their children's lives to be disrupted as little as possible.

Then, a parent meets a new significant other (S.O.) who lives farther away.  The parent is torn between the love for the new person and the love for the children.  Wanting to have it all, the parent looks to move to a point that is close enough in proximity to make the new S.O. happy, while also being not so far away as to make the children or the former spouse unhappy.

That is when the trouble begins.

The former spouse complains about the move and refuses to drive the children any further than before because "It was your choice to move."

The S.O. believes that the former spouse is completely unreasonable and unjustified in this position.

The former spouse doesn't like the S.O., thinks the S.O. is a bad influence, and doesn't want the S.O. spending so much time around the children.

The S.O. doesn't like the former spouse and thinks the former spouse is a bad influence on the children.

The parent who remains in the same location believes that all of the children's activities should center around that same location.

The parent who moved only realizes after the move how much commuting is involved in living half an hour or more away.

The parent who moved demands to exercise the exact same parenting time as before, even if it is causing a problem for the children, because the parent doesn't want to lose time.

In the alternative, the parent who moved unilaterally stops taking the children on certain days, leaving the other parent scrambling.

The focus is on the needs of the parents, and not on the needs of the children.  The focus must shift back to the needs of the children if you want to be successful with respect to co-parenting.

Success in co-parenting isn't measured by whether a child likes you best or whether you won the argument.  It's measured by the extent to which you support your children in being well-adjusted, emotionally and physically healthy individuals.

You may have thought that once the divorce was over, you were done with having to make big decisions (and have big arguments) with the other parent.  The truth is that while divorce provides an end date to your marriage, it does not provide an end date to your co-parenting.

The sad truth is that ten years after divorce, a study found that one-half of women and one-third of men were still intensely angry at their former spouses.  Even if you're not talking to the other parent, that parent is taking up a lot of space in your head, and none of it is good.

If a parent is moving, and you can't work out together what to do in terms of revising the parent-child contact schedule and transportation for contact, it's time to come back to mediation, where you can have a difficult conversation and be supported in the process.

In mediation, you can discuss what is the best contact schedule going forward.  You can also discuss how to handle transportation responsibilities.

The parent who stayed may be burdened with more transportation responsibilities, not only to exchange the children for parent-child contact, but also for extracurricular activities that the other parent used to handle. 

The parent who stayed may see child support reduced, as the other parent has increased transportation expenses associated with exercising parenting time with the children.

The parent who stayed may also end up with more time with the children, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

In the alternative, all of this might be reversed.  It could be that the children have a stronger bond with the moving parent and would prefer to move with that parent.  Then, it could be that the moving parent got more time with the children, got more transportation responsibilities, and also got child support for the first time.

In mediation, you can explore how best to support your children's connections in each community.  Children need to be able to have access to friends and supports in each community.  A parent who lives in a community where the children have no connections is being set up for failure. 

If you are the parent who stayed, you may be OK with the moving parent being set up for failure.  After all, that person moved.

Are you OK with your children being set up for failure?  Children of divorce typically rely more on their friends for emotional support than they do on their parents.  They need access to friends and supports in each community.  Also, they want the love and support of both of their parents, whatever their parents' imperfections might be.

If you have the children going to school in one community, consider having the children go to summer camp or other recreational activities in the other community.  Find a way for the children to have friends in both communities. 

The parent who moves will have to work harder to help the children make inroads into the new community.  You can't just count on your children to make friends on their own at school if they aren't going to school in your area.  You have to look for opportunities that will allow your children to make connections.

At the same time, the parent who moves will have to work harder to stay connected with the children's school and extracurricular activities and friends in the first community if the children are still going to school there.

Co-parenting across the miles is difficult work.  Mediation can help to get you on the right track again.

 

9 tips for divorcing mindfully

Divorce is never painless, but there are ways to make it less painful.

1.  Do not demonize the other person.

Demonizing the other person is a short-term gain with long-term consequences. 

You loved your spouse at one point.  You loved your spouse so much that you got dressed up and said to a room full of people that you wanted to be with this person for the rest of your life.

I understand that you no longer want to be with your spouse.  You can make that decision without making your spouse the devil incarnate (unless your spouse really is the devil incarnate).

In the short-term, you may feel better believing your spouse did everything wrong and you were the innocent victim who did everything right.  You may want to be compensated for the suffering you have endured just in being married to that person. 

Most people in Maine and NH are not compensated for the suffering they have endured being married to another person.  Moreover, unless there are piles of money and assets involved, you could spend a lot more money in attorneys' fees attacking the other person than you would actually receive if the Court actually decided to compensate you for your suffering.

Litigation is painful.  Yes, you get to tell the Court how awful the other person is.  However, the other person also gets to tell the Court how awful you are.  No one looks good on cross-examination.  Every petty, rotten thing you have done or the other person thinks you have done may come up in cross-examination.  You can have a divorce that goes on for over a year if you choose to demonize the other person and fight it all out in Court. 

2.  Do not put the other person on a pedestal.

You may not want the divorce.  You may not have known it was coming.  You may be willing to do anything (well, almost anything) to keep the other person, to win the other person back, or to prevent the other person from leaving.

In the short-term, if there is a way to save your marriage that is ethical and respectful, then, please, see if the other person will give it one more try.

If, however, the marriage is ending, the other person has moved on, then it is time for you to move on as well.  Putting the other person on a pedestal interferes with your ability to find love again.  It keeps you in that painful position of adoring someone who does not love you.  You deserve better than that.

3.  Do not involve the children in your warfare.

People will say to me, "The children have a right to know why we broke up."  Not in most instances, they don't.

You want to tell the children so that they can see that you were right and your spouse was wrong, that it is not your fault that you are getting divorced.  It may not be your fault, but it is certainly not your chldren's fault.

The children love both of you.  If they are biologically yours, they have received 50% of their DNA from you and 50% from the other parent.  Even if your child looks just like you or acts just like you, there is still another half of that child that is genetically just like the other parent.  When you teach your child to reject the other parent, you teach your child to reject 50% of him/herself, whatever parts remind your child of the other parent.

If the children are not biologically yours, if you adopted them, then they have already experienced the loss of one set of parents, even if they were too young to remember it verbally.  Losing a parent is traumatic.  

The children need to know that you both love them and will both be there for them to the best of your abilities.

4. Protect your children from abuse.

Protecting the children from abuse is not the same as involving them in your warfare.  If your children have been abused by your spouse, notify the appropriate authorities.  You will need to look at what safeguards should be in place to protect the children.  Seek out as much information and support as possible.

If you have been abused by your spouse, please note that people who abuse their spouses are much more likely to abuse their children than those who do not abuse their spouses.  Even if your spouse has never hit your child, your child has likely been exposed to the trauma of watching you be abused by your spouse.  Your child also may have experienced emotional abuse and/or the power and control games used by an abuser.  If you are not there, your spouse may choose to hit your child.  In the future, when your spouse is in a new relationship, your spouse may abuse that new partner in front of your children.

Do what you can to protect your children from being abused.

5.  Own your part in the divorce.

We all play some part in a relationship beginning and ending.  What was your part?

For example:  "It's not my fault that we broke up.  She was the one that was cheating."  Sometimes people have affairs because they are unhappy in a relationship.  Sometimes people cheat because they like to cheat.  Sometimes someone has an affair but wants to stay in the relationship.  Some people consider cheating a "fireable" offense, while others are willing to work through the issue.  What choices have you made and are you making?

For example:  "He's always drunk.  I can't take it."  Maybe he was "always drunk" before the two of you even married but you thought that you could change him.  Maybe you got sober and he didn't.  Maybe he was injured and now lives with chronic pain and this is how he medicates that pain.  Maybe it's your job to nag and it's his job to drink in your relationship.  What choices have you made and are you making?

You can only learn from your part in it if you know what it was.

6.  Divorce impacts cognitive functioning in the short-term. Give yourself time to process things.

Recognize that divorce can impact your cognitive functioning. 

It is not just the conflict and the stress associated with it.  You are grieving and that takes its toll on you as well.

Moreover, you are learning new things, a lot of new things, all at once.  Your brain is used to functioning on auto-pilot for large portions of the day.  Now, it is being asked to figure out how to live separately from someone you once loved.  You have parenting schedules with your children that you never had before.  

If you need more coffee to get through the day, that's OK.  If you need to take a mental health day from time to time, that's OK, too.  You will bounce back, but you have to give it time.

7.  Allow yourself (and your children) time and space to heal. Be gentle with yourself.

The grieving process takes time.  When someone died, people used to engage in ritual mourning practices for a year.

Give yourself a full year to grieve.  After all, you are grieving the loss of not just your spouse, but also some pretty significant hopes and dreams.  Allow yourself to experience the full range of emotions that come with grief.

You may find the first holidays after separation particularly triggering.  Maybe you loved your in-laws and are having your first Christmas without them. 

Then, the first heavy snow falls in January and you realize that you have to shovel the walk and snow-blow the driveway and clear off the car, when your spouse used to take care of this for you.

In February, you want to be able to take the kids to Florida on vacation as you used to do, but you really don't even have enough money for a staycation. 

You see a movie about a couple in love in April and it reminds you of you and your former spouse, back when things were good.

Your former spouse and her new boyfriend come to pick up the kids in June.  You didn't even realize she was dating, let alone that she had someone who was serious enough to come with her to pick up the kids.

Your anniversary was in September.

You have the kids for Thanksgiving, but you will be alone for Christmas, as your former spouse has the kids and your parents live far away.

Once you've been through a full year, you will have a better idea of how to live with the changes that divorce brings.  You will have strategized how best to celebrate holidays when your former spouse has the kids.  You will have a year's worth of experience living singly under your belt.  You will have new memories and new patterns.

8. Budget, budget, budget.

Your financial situation often worsens and sometimes precariously so in the months after you file for divorce.  You are now supporting two households on the same income you once used to support one.  Your standard of living is likely to temporarily decrease. 

Now is not the time to buy or lease a new vehicle.  If you do so, you may not be able to buy the condo or house you were just looking at, as you just killed your income to debt ratio.

9.  Mediate if possible.

Mediation is a win-win-win.

It is a win financially, as it typically costs (much) less than litigation. 

It is a win emotionally, as you are able to move through the conflict, as opposed to being stuck in the adversarial process and posture in the court system.

It is a win in terms of personal power, as it allows you to have much more control over the outcome than when you put the case before a judge to decide. 

 

 

The Value of An Experienced Mediator

Yesterday, I spoke with someone who was interested in receiving mediation services from me until he learned that I charge $200 per hour.  Suddenly, he wasn't so interested in me anymore.  In fact, he wanted to know if I could refer him to a cheaper mediator.

Look, I understand the value of a dollar. 

I also know from having been a litigator before I was a mediator that people are more likely to pay an attorney to advocate for them and fight against another (and pay a lot of money to said attorney) than to pay a mediator for assistance in having a difficult conversation.

We like to think that we can solve our own problems.  We like to think that we can navigate conflict on our own.  We can a lot of the time.  Then, there are the times that we wait too long, that the conflict gets too big, and suddenly (although it wasn't sudden at all, if you look back on it) there is a lawsuit and everyone needs lawyers.

You can certainly hire me to mediate at that point.  However, it may be cost-effective to hire me proactively, long before it gets to that point.

I charge $200 per hour for mediation services.  What do you get for your money? 

You get someone who has mediated over 1,000 times since she trained as a mediator in 2004 and 2005.  That means that I have sat with over 2,000 people in conflict and have helped them to have a difficult conversation.  Not many people can say that.

I have seen conflict of almost all shapes and sizes.  There is little that happens in mediation that surprises me anymore.  You have to do something really big, really outrageous (and please, don't).

I am comfortable sitting in conflict.  I can help you to be comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable, moving through your conflict.

Is it helpful that I know the law in two states?  Yes.  However, what is more helpful is that I know people.  I listen to not just what you are saying, but who you are.  I listen and learn from you, getting to know you on a deeper level so that I can best help you to navigate the conflict successfully.

Other people may offer you their standard, cookie-cutter advice.  "You just need to do this." And whatever "this" is, it is what they would do in that scenario and it is the same advice that they give to everyone because they do it themselves and it feels comfortable to them.

I support you in your figuring out what is best for you to do in your situation.  You are the one who is going to have to live it, long after I am gone.

In life, as in mediation with me, you get to decide what works best for you.  Do you want an experienced mediator who looks to meet you where you are?  Do you want to feel supported and empowered during the conflict?  If so, then let's talk.  I could be the right mediator for you.

Mediation Mutt

MY CO-MEDIATOR

MY CO-MEDIATOR

My dog has become a regular in my mediation practice.

When I first introduced her to the practice, I thought that she would be a pretty passive participant.  She has been coming to work with me for years, though it used to be only on days without clients.  In those days, "going to work" meant that I worked and she slept.

Well, now that she has entered the mediation world, it turns out that she wants to have a much more active role in "going to work."

1.  She thinks that her job is to bark when people knock and then greet them enthusiastically when they enter.  I could do without the barking.

2. She knows that if she wins the clients over, then they will pat her during the mediation.  Ideally, they will let her sit somewhere between the two of them and perhaps they will both pat her at the same time.  That is perfect, as far as she is concerned.

3. She also will perform her own interventions during the mediation if she thinks that it will help.

  • If someone is crying, she may go to that person to comfort that person.
  • I had a mediation where the couple had argued heatedly, had settled down, and were ramping up for another heated argument.  My dog groaned loudly.  We all looked over at her and laughed.  The tension was dissipated by a dog groan.

We see service dogs in hospitals and in nursing homes, helping people through some of their most difficult times.  Many therapists in my office building bring their dogs with them to work.

My dog has decided that she can provide some comfort to people in the midst of conflict as well.  And she is right!

I watch people reach out to her or call her over as the conversation gets tough.

When we pet a dog, our brain releases oxytocin, a hormone which makes us more likely to trust and less likely to respond negatively to external stressors.  Oxytocin is a very helpful hormone to have present in the midst of a difficult mediation. 

Petting a dog has a calming effect, helping to lower your heart rate and blood pressure.  This helps to counteract the fact that your heart rate and blood pressure are rising in the midst of a difficult conversation.

So, make an appointment to mediate and get two mediators for the price of one -- me plus my dog.