When I was in high school, in a class about some of the conflicts that raged in Europe in the 20th century, I was exposed to the idea that the ancient Greeks had a philosophy about conflict. This philosophy looked at the reasons that nations went to war and it divided those reasons into three categories:
More recently, however, I have found that the conflicts that emerge from the decline and dissolution of interpersonal relationship can be viewed in many of the same ways that war was viewed in ancient Greece.
Below are examples of each of the three reasons for the conflict. These examples have crossed my desk JUST IN THE LAST FEW WEEKS:
Casus belli: These are the things that people tell themselves about why a relationship ended.
Proschemata: These are the things that people tell others about why a relationship ended.
When it comes to working through conflict, it makes sense to focus on the prophasis – the real reasons that the conflict exists. People, however, tend to insulate themselves with the casus belli – they tend to want to believe what they’ve told themselves about the situation, so it makes reaching the prophasis a difficult endeavor at best. When asked, they often fall back on what they’ve told their friends or family about the conflict. Their proschemata sounds like a well-rehearsed litany of what went wrong and how the decline of the relationship wasn’t their fault.
Part of the skill and a huge part of the goal of mediation is to listen to people describe their causae belli and their proschematae…and try tease out enough details that we can start to understand the real, deep, underlying truth behind the conflict. If we can do that, if we can isolate the prophasis, then we can start to work on ways to get through the conflict – we can work towards peace.
I have always been reluctant to post a ‘FAQ’ section to my website. While it can be useful, it seems impersonal – as if the question that you have deserves a cookie-cutter answer rather than a specific, thoughtful response. Given the choice, I’d rather answer your question like it is the first time I’ve discussed the topic with a client, rather than like it’s the 400th. That way, I can be sure I get you the answer you’re after and don’t resort to cliché or an answer that doesn’t really address the reason you asked the question.
WITH THAT SAID…
One of the most common misconceptions, and therefore one of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to the reality of co-parenting is the question of custody - and in particular, when it comes to the difference between custody and parenting time.
Many people, understandably, think of custody as possession. I have the kids today, so I have possession of them so I have custody of them. It’s a logical way of thinking about it, but it is also incorrect.
Custody is the legal decision-making authority for the child or children. That means that decisions related to education, non-emergency medical issues, religious upbringing and official residence fall under the purview of the parent with custody.
Parenting time is the amount of time each parent spends with the child or children.
It is theoretically possible for one parent to have full custody and zero parenting time, and for the other parent to have 100% of the parenting time but not have custody.
In reality, it doesn’t happen that way, but it is theoretically possible – the two concepts are that distinct from one another.
There are three options for custody in the normal course of things. Either one parent has custody, or the other parent has custody, or they share joint custody.
Courts cannot order joint custody – it has to be something the two parents agree on together. If they agree, it can go in a court order, but if they do not agree to share joint custody (decision-making authority) then custody will go to one parent or the other.
The logic here is that joint custody means working together to agree on educational, medical, religious and residential issues…and if the parents cannot agree in advance that they will work together to make those decisions, they are unlikely to be able to actually agree on the topics themselves.
Unlike custody, which has only 3 options, parenting time can be organized in a nearly infinite number of ways. While there are considerations that go into making a parenting time schedule that include the best interests of the child, the developmental level of the child and the schedule of the parents, there are few systemic constraints on what can and what cannot be worked into a parenting plan.
If you’re looking for a unique way of structuring parenting time, a skilled mediator can work with you to figure out what is good for the kid or kids, as well as what meets your needs.
I should mention here that child support calculations are impacted by the parenting plan (not custody), but in the same moment, I’ll mention that I often ask parents to figure out the parenting plan first, regardless of the financial impact, because it allows them to focus on the best interests of their children.
I should also mention that parenting plans are necessarily complex. There are a lot of questions to ask and answer. Take Thanksgiving, for example. Many parents agree to alternate Thanksgiving with the kids. Seems like a reasonable solution, right?
Some questions to answer about the Thanksgiving parenting time:
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you are stuck with whatever you come up with. There are no parenting plan police. If you mutually agree to do something different, you absolutely may. We drill into this level of detail so that if and when you can’t agree on something else, you have a complete plan to fall back on.
Communication is difficult. It is made even more difficult when the two people communicating are in a dispute. Then, it is still MORE difficult when the communication involves discussions that aren’t face-to-face. Universally recognized body-language and tone are lost when parties communicate with each other via email or text. This difficulty is magnified significantly when one party or the other isn’t a good writer, or when there is a significant disparity in the communication skills of the parties.
I majored in English in college. I remember very clearly an assignment in one English class where we were asked to write seven pages on two lines from Homer’s Odyssey. Two lines of poetry. Eight or nine words. In order to complete the assignment, we had to drill deep into the meaning of each word, discuss the possible interplay with each word and the one that preceded it in detail, discuss again the interplay with that word and the one that followed it, then create a chain of interpretations that created meaning that was consistent with the rest of the work. It was frustrating at the outset, but was also extremely instructive, as it laid bare how variable and complex language can be, and how, as discussed above, even a simple phrase can be interpreted in many ways.
Not every writer is Homer. In fact, most people, when they write, don’t spend time considering the complex interplay between one word and the next. Most people use the words that come to mind when they have a desire to express a meaning, and leave it at that. Some people are good at that. Their writing is clear and conveys the meaning that they hope it will to the majority of readers.
Some writers suck.
Speaking and writing are very different skills. People who are very good at expressing themselves when they speak are not always as proficient with the written word. The converse is true as well. Writers are not always speakers. When in a dispute, or in a relationship that has problems, writing that is unclear or that can be misinterpreted often makes matters worse.
Jimmy and his ex-girlfriend Amy have a child, Mary. Their kid is about 4, and when she recently went from Jimmy’s house to Amy’s house, Amy noticed a rash on Mary’s leg that hadn’t been there a few days before. She called Jimmy and asked him if he had noticed it. Jimmy said no, but that he’d keep an eye on it, and she promised to do the same. A few days later, after exchanging Mary back and forth again, Amy checked the rash again and it was much worse. She texted Jimmy “why the hell didn’t you take Mary to the doctor?”, she asked. To her, it was clear that it was a medical issue that needed swift resolution. Jimmy’s response, “I didn’t think it was that big a deal”, sent Amy into a fury, and she responded by telling him that she thought he was “a fucking idiot”. Jimmy responded that she is a “controlling bitch”…and then they ended up in my office.
Clearly, Jimmy and Amy disagree about the severity of the rash, and the course of action that it requires. It is striking, however, that they could have the conversation on the phone that goes well and articulates a plan, and that they would subsequently text and it dissolves into animosity.
When they arrived in my office, and they were again speaking, rather than writing, it became clear that Amy had been alarmed when she had asked him “why the hell” he hadn’t taken Mary to the doctor, and that it wasn’t taken as the attack that Jimmy had perceived it to be. Further, upon looking at pictures, in the several hours between when Jimmy had dropped the child off at school and when Amy had picked her up, the rash had gotten significantly worse. They were able to work through this and to come up with a plan for when she’d go to the doctor and with whom, including how the doctor’s conclusions would be communicated to the other parent…all without dissolving into the invective that it had taken a few short texts to achieve.
When subtly of meaning exists, this can be even more difficult. Take the example of envious vs jealous. To some people, these two words have nearly the same meaning. To others, being envious implies a wistful desire to have something similar to what another person demonstrates. Being jealous implies both a desire to have what that person demonstrates, and a desire to share in that particular one.
This is best described with an example.
Bob texts his friend Steve a picture of his new car. Steve feels a twinge of…something.
Envy would be if Steve’s twinge was a desire for a new car of his own - maybe even one like Bob’s.
Jealousy would be if Steve’s twinge was a desire to have the exact car that Bob now owns…a desire to get Bob out of the driver’s seat and replace him.
Romantic Envy and Jealousy
In terms of romantic relationships, envy and jealousy are common and the distinction is very important. Instead of a new car, it might be a new lover, or it might be a vacation that one parent takes with the parties’ child to which the other parent might not be invited.
Being envious because of the new lover might suggest wishing to have a new lover of one’s own, whereas jealousy suggests a desire to take the place of the new lover.
Being envious of the vacation suggests a wistful desire to be able to offer the child the same kind of experience, whereas jealousy implies that the parent who isn’t on the trip wishes they were there, perhaps in place of someone else.
The problem is, for some people, jealousy and envy mean the same thing. For others, they are two subtly different words with subtly different meanings. If the parties do not have the same perception, problems can arise.
Given the above examples, and the possibility for confusion there, imagine a mother texting a picture of her, her new husband and the parties’ child with Mickey Mouse to the child’s father to show how happy the child is at Disneyland.
The father replies “Awww…I’m so jealous!”
What does he mean?
Email vs. Text
To an ever increasing extent, texts and emails are different. For many people, both appear on their mobile device in almost the same way, but emails convey an official nature and a formality that texts do not. Emailing “I need to set up a time to talk to you” carries a very different connotation than getting the same message in a text. If the text actually says “I need 2 set up a time to talk 2 u”, there is still less formality.
That means that in deciding how to communicate with one another, people in a dispute should be aware of what the method of communication says about the message that they are trying to convey. There is not a right answer or a wrong one here, there is simply a recognition that emails and texts, while they may say the same things, send very different messages.
Pitfalls of Texting
Texting is a difficult mode of communication. While it can be informal and quick, it can also lead to informal and quick responses rather than thought-out or measured responses. In a dispute, this can be dangerous. Similarly, the time between responses, whether there is punctuation, or capitalization, the length of the text, the use of whole words rather than substitutes, or the use of emojis…all of these things can convey a very different message than the one intended.
All of these factors are impacted by age, gender, generation and schedule, and it makes the subtle undertones behind any text message potentially problematic. When in a dispute in which one party might be looking for reasons to continue the dispute, ‘potentially problematic’ becomes an understatement.
The Bottom Line
There is no clear answer to how to communicate with someone with whom you are in a dispute. There is no way to say ‘use texts rather than emails, and include at least 2 emoticons and your communication will be fine!’ Obviously, human communication doesn’t work that way.
Do be aware of how your messages might be received.
Do be aware that more information conveyed in any form of commutation that exceeds what you say.
Do be aware of the fact that the other person might not want to cut you any slack.
Do be aware that the other person might view your message in the worst possible way, rather than the best.
Therefore, with this awareness, be careful and deliberate about how you say what you say.
Taking the extra time to craft your message before you send it can save tons of time, heartache and trouble down the road.
I am not an attorney. I know quite a few, though, and I have come to understand the way that they are taught, and the way that being an attorney shapes the framework for how they think. Things for an attorney are very binary – either something is legal or it is not. A person can get away with doing something or they cannot.
There is little grey area in such a world view, and yet for many people, life happens in the grey areas between absolutes. Because this is true, dealing with emotional, difficult and life changing situations in a binary, black or white way can often leave people without a solution that meets all of their needs.
This is the role I fill. I am someone with a deep knowledge of the legal process but without the procedural commitment to it. I can work with people to achieve the goals that they have within the grey areas to create a lasting, satisfying resolution.
In divorce cases, an attorney can take two parties who hate each other and who want the other to suffer, and use the power of the Judge and the courtroom to force a conclusion. Sometimes this is necessary. Most times, however, parties simply want to have as painless and as fair a conclusion as they can.
If fair and painless describe the situation in which you want to find yourself, mediation may very well be better for you than going through attorneys.
It is certainly cheaper, and mediated agreements tend to work better than court mandated decisions, because people are choosing for themselves how they want to shape their lives. They make an affirmative choice, rather than being told by some higher authority what they have to do.
When it comes to costs, mediation can often be a better choice as well. Attorneys will often cost between $5,000 and $10,000 for EACH PARTY! In particularly contentious cases, or with some attorneys, the total cost for a divorce can be over $100,000. This can be ruinous, especially at a time where families are trying to set up a new living situation and to get themselves stabilized.
By comparison, a mediated divorce can often be completed for somewhere between $1,000 and $2500. This includes up to 4 sessions of mediation and time to complete the documents involved in the divorce process. This varies, of course. Some are significantly less expensive and some are a bit more, but that range usually covers most cases.
Since mediators are trained and ethically bound to be neutral, only one mediator is needed. This also dramatically reduces the costs – parties are not paying two professionals at a high rate to handle their case, but rather one professional at a lower rate to achieve the same or even a better result.
One of the hard parts of the end of any relationship is that a person who once looked at you with affection, love and respect now sees you as the 'bad guy'.
The problem is that nobody sees themselves as the villain in their own story. Sure, mistakes were made or both parties contributed to where things are today...but the bad guy?
It seems unfair, or mean, or like the other person just doesn't get it.
Why treat me like I'm the one at fault, or I'm the reason for all of this?
I'm a good person!
In fact, being treated like the 'bad guy' often leads people to be frustrated or angry...turns them into the villain that they were trying to avoid being. In turn, this makes the other person feel justified, leading to a feedback loop of misunderstanding, hurt and anger.
When mediation happens, this process often has been ongoing, and it is one of the most significant bars to communication that I have to deal with. People tell me all the time that if it weren't for the lack of trust, an agreement would be easy and a solution would be in their grasp. The problem is that the trust has been eroded because both parties feel unfairly maligned by the other, and are frustrated by how they're treated as a result.
Most people believe of themselves that they are good, decent and respectable people.
Most people resent when people ignore the good and decent and respectable in them and instead see the worst sides of them.
Often, the challenge isn't that in fact one person is evil and the other is good, but that trust, communication and the willingness or ability to see the other's perspective has been eroded by whatever caused the relationship to fail.
Mediation can be one way to bridge the gap between how each individual sees themselves and how the other party sees them. It can help show the 'bad guy' why they are seen as such, and can help show the other person why they're not sitting across the table from a 'bad guy'.
Making progress on this front can help resolve disputes and is often one of the most impactful things to come out of a mediation session.
Language choices are among the most impactful choices that any person in a relationship makes. Let me tell you a story:
Bill and Laurie are in a divorce mediation. They’re discussing finances, and finding that they disagree on what amount of spousal support Laurie should get from Bill. There is no doubt that Bill has been the primary bread-winner. Their plan when things were going well was for Bill to make the money and for Laurie to take care of the kids and the house. That’s not an entirely uncommon plan for people to have.
In discussing what life looks like after the divorce, it was clear that Laurie would have to get a job, and that how much support Bill would pay would be impacted by what that job was and what it paid. As such, the conversation turned towards what Laurie could earn.
Before they had kids, Bill and Laurie were both on a professional track. Both were rising in the ranks of the medical field. Both had aspirations of making a good living in the next several years when they met. Laurie got pregnant soon after they got together, and when they got married, she took on the role of wife, homemaker and soon after, mom.
Over the next few years, Bill’s career continued on the expected trajectory, and Laurie’s was put aside because she and Bill had made a plan. Now that they’re getting divorced, though, Laurie’s career aspirations are at best, 7 or 8 years behind Bill’s.
Fast-forward to the mediation. We’re talking about what she can expect to earn and what kind of job options she’ll have, and she mentioned that after she got out of college, and when she met Bill, she was working full time and decent money. Bill interjected and said “yeah, but it was never significant”.
You could hear a pin drop.
Bill’s intention when he said what he said was to make clear to the mediators that the money she earned was not the determining factor in whether their household was solvent on any given month. He, a detail-oriented person for good or ill, wanted to set the record straight that he had been the one earning the money for most of their relationship and the he could do it absent Laurie’s contribution.
Of course, what Laurie heard was substantially different. She heard that the days when she didn’t feel well but got up to go to work anyway were worthless. She heard that when times were tough financially, but she was able to contribute and they stayed afloat, she didn’t actually do much, and she heard that when she felt pride about being an equal partner in what was, at least for a while, a good, healthy and stable relationship, she actually didn’t do anything significant.
Whether Bill meant to load his comment with so much meaning is still unclear to me. I don’t think he was trying to be mean, and I don’t think he was trying to undermine her feeling of self-worth. In fact, in the context of the conversation, it would have been strategically beneficial to him to inflate her earning potential rather than to undermine it. Nevertheless, once he made that comment, the pain in his wife’s eyes was poignant and the tension it created in the room was palpable. I think that to this day he still doesn't realize the impact that his comment had on her. For my part, I can’t help but wonder how many times something like that happened, and what impact those comments had on the deterioration of their relationship.
What is clear from Bill and Laurie’s story is that a word or comment, chosen without thought, can have lasting and devastating impact. Words matter. They reflect and reveal thoughts. The power of language is that it conveys meaning outside of the dictionary definition of the words used. Bill’s comment, taken out of context, could have meant any number of things, but in context it was a brutal indictment of Laurie’s ability to contribute to the relationship.
The role of the mediator.
A mediator is accurately described as a bridge between what one person says and what the other one hears. In Bill and Laurie’s case, if that moment had been one where we could have drilled into what he meant a little further, we as mediators might have been able to tease out the fact that Bill was asserting his own capability as a supporter of his family, and that he didn’t really mean to say that Laurie wasn’t a worthwhile contributor. We could have also spoken to both of them about their perceptions of the comment and given Bill an opportunity to clarify and amend his comment. It might not have healed all of her hurt, but it would have gone a long way towards clarifying both the significance of the comments he made in terms of the case itself, as well as the intent behind them in terms of how he thought about his wife.
Layers of communication:
Any statement can be thought if in terms of three different layers.
Layer 1: What the speaker wants to convey.
Layer 2: What the speaker says and how they say it.
Layer 3: What the person spoken to hears and how they interpret it.
The best case, as often happens in healthy communication, all three layers are substantially the same. If that isn’t possible, then the hope is that at least the first and third layers are pretty much the same.
In the case of Bill and Laurie, there were problems in all three layers of this communication. What Bill wanted to convey was not what he said. What he said is not what I think he meant. What Laurie heard is not at all what Bill intended her to take away from his statement. Instead, Layer 1 and Layer 3 were so far apart that it caused hurt and confusion.
What do we do when what I say isn’t what they hear?
When a relationship is new and fresh, each person listens to the other hoping to hear what they want to hear.
One more story; a quick one about a married couple who, as it happens, managed to pull things together enough to rebuild the foundation of their relationship.
Husband says “I’ll take out the garbage”.
When told “I’ll take out the garbage”, people in a new and exciting relationship hear “I’ll take out the garbage so that you don’t have to because you are so special to me that I’m willing to do the extra work to make our relationship good and so that you don’t have to sully yourself with the mundane”.
When a relationship is coming to an end, communication is often one of the first casualties. When two people have been using their intimate knowledge of one another to hurt each other or to score points agains the other or to prove that they are right and the other is wrong, communication ceases to be what it used to be. Instead of listening for what they want to hear, people start to listen for the worst possible interpretation of what is said.
Instead of the glowing reasons behind “I’ll take out the garbage”, people in this more toxic kind of relationship hear “I’ll take out the garbage, because I know you won’t. You never do. My mother was right about you…”. The implied criticism may be at the root of the offer to take out the garbage, but it may not. It may be that the person offering to take out the garbage really means “I’ll take out the garbage because I know you hate it and because I know that our relationship isn’t what we both want it to be or what it used to be, so I’ll do this to take away something that you don't like in order to make you happy”. On the other hand, it may mean “I’ll take out the garbage because I can’t stand another minute in this room with you”.
The problem is, so much of what is said is subject to misinterpretation. The fact that a 5-word offer to take out trash has so many possible subtexts and so many potential meanings opens the door for serious misunderstandings within relationships. When those relationships are under strain or dissolving, the misunderstandings and the consequences of those misunderstandings can be magnified beyond proportion and can cause serious and lasting harm.
Communication is complex, particularly in a romantic relationship. Communication is an attempt to convey information, whether that information is an emotion, a call for action or to fill a need felt by the other person. It is made complicated by the fact that when we communicate we rarely articulate the specific motivations behind what we say and we rarely make clear what we hope the other person will take from what we say. It is cumbersome and socially awkward to say “I’ll take out the garbage, and I hope you understand that I’m doing it in order to have a vague but positive impact on our crumbling relationship". There are far more questions raised by that explanation anyway, and by the time that a full articulation of all of the motivations and hopes and explanations of terms and clarifications of this-and-that is made, the garbage has gone from smelly to putrid and more often than not in a relationship that is ending, a tense moment has degenerated into a fight.
There is a complex nexus between what you mean, what you say and what the other person hears. Even if you think through all of the possible ways that what you say can be interpreted and are very careful about what words you use, the other person’s perception of what you say can be impacted by their own emotions, their own assumptions about what you probably mean (regardless of what you say) or their own perspective on the way that communication between you usually goes. That means that you can be left in the frustrating position of speaking clearly and with the best of intentions and yet left with a misunderstanding that causes problems within your relationship.
A mediator’s role is to understand the offer regarding the garbage for what it is. Perhaps it is just an offer to take out the garbage, and there’s nothing more to it. Perhaps it is the implied criticism of the character of the other person. Perhaps it is an effort to build back some of the positive aspects of a relationship gone sour…and perhaps it doesn’t matter, because no matter what is intended by what one person says, the other person isn’t going to hear it that way anyway!
A mediator is a bridge between what you mean and what the other person hears. A good mediator will take the time to understand the situation well enough and to ask enough questions that they will understand what you mean by what you say. Then, a good mediator will take that understanding and the information that you have provided and speak with the other person, taking time to get to know them and to understand what their perspective is well enough to pass your meaning on to the other person in such a way that they will understand what you mean.
This is a complicated interaction, requiring both parties to understand that they are in mediation in part because communication has broken down, and to be willing to use the mediator as a bridge across whom to convey the meanings they hope the other will understand. When this works, communication through a mediator can build or repair trust and it can open lines of dialog that have been closed due to misunderstanding. Regardless of the motivations behind offering to take out the garbage, a good mediator can ensure that those motivations are clear and that whatever you wanted to communicate to the other person by making that offer is understood.
Both examples used here are relatively mundane. They discuss trash and earning potential. They don’t touch on really complex issues such as long-term divorced co-parenting, the hopes and dreams of two separating parents for the mental health of their child, the pain that divorce is causing one person or the other, or any of the myriad larger issues that come into mediation. Even in such simple conversations, however, language choices have a massive impact. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how magnified simple mis-communications can be when in a more complex conversation. It is really a wonder that it goes right as often as it does. When it doesn’t, good mediators are experts in working through the issues presented by that kind of communication and making sure that what one person says is conveyed well and accurately to the other person in order to allow for communication about complex and difficult topics.
Alex Tillson is an experienced family mediator in the Portland, Oregon area. He specializes in domestic relations issues such as divorce, custody, parenting time and other family disputes. You can reach him by phone or email: