No One Understands How Hard This Divorce is!

No One Understands How Hard This Divorce is!

Divorce can be overwhelming, alienating and lonely. Even when friends and family want to help, they often grow tired of listening, offer unhelpful advice, or are simply at a loss. You may ask yourself “If divorce is so common, how come I’m the only one I know going through it?”,”Why doesn’t anyone understand how hard this is?” or “Will I always be on outside looking in?” In this episode of their podcast Kate and Jane explore many of the tough but common thoughts and feelings they’ve heard from people going through separation and divorce (including each other!), and share ideas about how to begin to feel normal again.

Episode 15: No One Understands How Hard this Divorce is!”

Divorce and the Holidays: Why it’s OK When Traditions Change

Divorce and the Holidays: Why it’s OK When Traditions Change

Divorce changes everything, including how we spend our favorite holidays with our kids and extended families. Especially in the first year post-split, you may worry that disruption to long-held, beloved traditions will cause further pain to your already reeling family. Facing the first Christmas morning in 15 years when you won’t see your kids open their presents? That’s a jagged pill to swallow. Missing your in-laws’ annual family ski trip for the first winter in decades? That smarts.

 

But the truth is that, especially in divorce when so much is already in flux, we tend to idealize holidays. It’s no wonder these celebrations often become conflictual hot buttons in custody negotiations. Because, now more then ever, we crave “ordinariness and “sameness,” we imbue these (albeit special) days with  intense significance. We worry that any break in the old way of doing things will be a slippery slope into chaos (“If we don’t go to midnight mass ‘as a family’ like we always have, we’ll lose our co-parenting good will and our divorce will become acrimonious. That will ruin our kids’ lives!”). In reality, holidays are days. The sun rises, it sets; they come and go pretty quickly. If the first round of winter holidays is lousy, don’t take it as a sign that Hanukkah has permanently shifted from holy miracle to holy hell. Lick your wounds, get on with life. By this time next year you’ll have experienced lots of tough “firsts.” You’ll have come a long way toward adjusting to your new normal. You’ll have more perspective and less worry. You’ll be ready to start reviving and reworking your holiday traditions.

 

In the meantime, remember: Tradition is continuity, not stasis. Here’s a lovely short article that reminds us why everything will be ok: Because you, not your house or apartment or ski chalet, are your kids’ emotional home. Forever, unalterably. And really, that is all the tradition they need.

 

Washington Post: “Teaching my sons this Christmas that home isn’t just a place you visit. It’s a feeling.”

Corporal Punishment for Children of Divorce

Corporal Punishment for Children of Divorce

Although I discourage all forms of corporal punishment, I know plenty of thoughtful parents who still believe  it can be a useful form of discipline. But here’s something to consider: When we are stressed and emotionally overwhelmed, we are at increased risk of lashing out at those we love (including our kids) in ways that are atypically hurtful and out of control. If your child is coping with divorce, they’re already feeling scared and unsafe. I’m not suggesting your child should get a free pass for bad behavior, ever. But even if you have found spanking to be effective in the past, perhaps now is a time to consider alternatives.

Here’s a thoughtful article on the potential harmful effects of physical discipline on kids. Give it a read. See what you think.

From the NYT and the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Spanking is Ineffective and Harmful to Children”

How the New Tax Plan will Affect Divorcing Families

How the New Tax Plan will Affect Divorcing Families

Whatever your politics, you’d have a tough time arguing that the recent tax overhaul is good for divorcing families. Rather, it adds insult to injury for folks facing the financial challenges that come with having to stretch an already tight budget to cover a second household…

Here’s the issue…

Up to now, alimony (also called spousal support) has been taxable to the person receiving the money, not the person writing the check.  At first blush, that might seem unfair. After all, isn’t the purpose of alimony to redress substantial discrepancies in earning power and standards of living between the two households? Why further punish the financially disadvantaged spouse? The answer is that since the spouse providing alimony is the higher earner, he or she is likely taxed at a significantly higher rate than their ex.  Having alimony taxed at the tax rate of the receiver saves money overall– it preserves resources for the family as a whole. How to then divide that money can be addressed as part of the negotiation about to meet cashflow needs for everyone involved.

Under the new plan, and beginning in January 2019, the spouse paying the alimony will be required to pay the tax on it. Here’s an article that unpacks this unfortunate and short-sighted policy in clear detail: How the Tax Overhaul will Afffect Alimony Deductions

 

8 Rules for Dealing with an Overly Emotional Ex

8 Rules for Dealing with an Overly Emotional Ex

“I want to co-parent with my ex, but his emails are out of control! Last week he sent a ten-pager — ten words of which were about the kids. How can I make him understand I don’t want to talk about ‘us’ anymore?”

“My ex hates that I’m dating. She calls incessantly to “check in.” If she can’t reach me, she leaves messages telling me what a bad father I am!”

“Last night my ex texted to ask what I was feeding the kids for dinner. Before I knew it I’d fired back: ‘None of your damn business!’”

Sound familiar?

It might not make logical sense, but it’s true: If your ex pounces on every opportunity to lure you into a fraught exchange, they’re having a hard time letting go. After all, if they can keep you emotionally engaged — even against your will — they can avoid the painful awareness that you’re no longer a couple.

Fighting is an intimate act.

The fact that we now have so many ways to be “in touch” is a double-edged sword for divorcing parents.

On the one hand, electronic communications (voicemail, text, email) offer a more controlled alternative to in-person contact — helpful if you can’t be civil in each other’s presence. On the other hand, they’re loaded with potential problems. Electronic communications:

  • Allow a needy spouse to be in too-frequent contact
  • Allow an angry spouse a forum for unfettered verbal attack
  • Are notoriously easy to misinterpret
  • Establish an unhelpful expectation of immediate response (“It’s been a full hour of radio silence!”)
  • Allow for impulsive, destructive responses without offering the possibility of quick repair (ever wish you had a magic “I take it back” button on your keyboard?)

If you’re co-parenting with an ex who’s hell-bent on pulling you into unproductive, upsetting communications, you’re facing a challenge.

It’s tough, but with practice you can learn to avoid being sucked into the vortex.

You need some New Rules:

New Rule #1: Know Thyself

We all have pesky vulnerabilities in our characters which, when activated, throw our emotion into overdrive and our judgment into idle. And no one knows your soft spots better than your ex. If you’re someone who craves approval, a zinger like “Everyone knows what a terrible person you are for leaving this family!” will send your heart rate through the roof. If your sense of guilt is over-developed, a well-aimed “I hope you can live with yourself — our kids will never be able to trust anyone again!” may plunge you into depression. Learn your trigger points, so you can resist rising to the bait.

New Rule #2: Adopt “The Boundaried Response”

When it comes to communicating with an over-emotional ex, most of us err in one of two directions:

Mistake #1: The Defensive Response
The recipient responds with irrelevant, wordy rationalizations that invite further attacks.
Watch out for this if you’re insecure or conflict averse.

Mistake #2: The Retaliatory Response
The recipient responds with sarcasm and/or counter-accusations, thus upping the ante.
Watch out for this if you’re quick-tempered or still hurt and angry.

What we are aiming for is:

#3: The Boundaried Response
The recipient ignores all emotional content and responds only to relevant child-related issues — using few words and a neutral, business-like tone.
This response establishes appropriate limits and sets the stage for healthier communication in the future.

To give you the idea, here’s an example of a provocative email followed by Defensive, Retaliatory, and (finally) Boundaried responses:

The Provocative Email:

“When I picked Tommy up from school today he had a fever. I took him to the doctor — he has strep. Apparently he told you this morning that he didn’t feel well. What kind of mother takes a sick child to school just so she can get to work on time?”

The Defensive Response:

“Last night Tommy had a cough and a slight sniffle. I asked him how he felt and he said ‘fine.’ I took his temperature and it was one hundred degrees. I told myself I’d wait until morning to decide what to do. This morning his temperature was normal. I considered calling the doctor, but Tommy said he didn’t want to miss his science presentation today. I resent your insinuation that I’m not a good mother because I made a different judgment call than you would!”

The Retaliatory Response:

“Sorry you had to take time off from watching ESPN to take your son to the doctor, but someone has to make a living.”

The Boundaried Response:

“Tommy seemed fine this morning, slight sniffle. Sorry about the strep. I’ll give him a call later to check in. Tomorrow’s my day, so let me know if you’re keeping him home from school so we can coordinate pick-up. I’ll assume you’re sending him with meds unless I hear otherwise.”

New Rule #3: Don’t answer the phone

If your ex’s number shows up on caller ID, let it go to voicemail every time. Then check the message right away. If it’s your kids (or a true emergency), call back. If it’s a rant, ignore it.

New Rule #4: If every call is a rant, tell your ex you’ll only respond to written communications.

New Rule #5: Set a communication protocol

Ask your ex if he/she prefers email or text (don’t offer telephone), and stick to that format. Tell him or her you’ll respond to child-related communications within twenty-four hours, then do.

New Rule #6: Ignore petty communications

A text such as: “Sally arrived home with filthy hair. There’s this new product called ‘shampoo,’ ever heard of it?” requires no response.

New Rule #7: Impose a mandatory waiting period

When replying to a provocative email, wait at least one hour before pressing “send.” After you’ve calmed down (assuming you still want to reply), edit aggressively — using The Boundaried Response as your guide. If your second draft is one-tenth the length of the original, you’re in the zone.

Finally…

New Rule #8: Give yourself a break

Divorce is rough, and you’re only human — you will get pulled into old dynamics once in a while. When you find yourself in a fruitless tug of war with your ex, breathe — then let go of the rope.

Why You Should Consider Hiring A Mental Health Professional to Write Your Custody Agreement

Why You Should Consider Hiring A Mental Health Professional to Write Your Custody Agreement

Many separating and divorcing parents (as well as parents who have never been married) hire divorce experts from the mental health field (like me!) for help crafting their custody agreement  — the document that describes how they will make decisions and take care of their children once their family is divided into two households. Sometimes they want that professional to serve as a facilitator who can offer expert advice, other times as a mediator. Some folks seek help on their own, others are referred by attorneys or attorney mediators who feel that a mental health professional (with a background in family systems and child development as well as expertise in separation and divorce) is often better qualified  to help craft a plan that will be in children’s best interests now and into the future. And it doesn’t hurt that most mental health professionals charge lower hourly fees than do their attorney colleagues.

Sometimes a couple will work with a mental health professional independent of any legal process. Other times they’ll work with a mental health professional on parenting issues, and with attorneys (or an attorney mediator) on financial issues.   Whether you and your co-parent get along well and agree on most aspects of parenting, or can barely speak to each other and disagree on almost everything, the right experienced mental health professional can help you come up with a detailed, workable plan that will hold up over time.

What is “custody” anyway?

The term custody is composed of two parts, “residential custody” (how much time children will spend with each parent and according to what schedule) and “legal custody” (how parents will make decisions related to three major areas- religion, health, and education).  Shared residential custody means that each parent will have at the children living with them for a substantial number of  overnights in a given year (the precise percentage varies by jurisdiction); joint legal custody means that both parents will have equal input into decision-making.

What is the difference between a “parenting plan” and a “custody agreement?”

Court-generated custody agreements are basic– they typically address the weekly and holiday schedules and decision-making on major issues, but not much else. They are also static, so they don’t change as the needs of a family change. They often contain boilerplate, legalistic language about how each parent will behave. Often parents don’t see this language until after their attorneys (or, a judge) have drafted the document. So while such language may make good sense in the abstract (e.g. “Parents agree not to disparage each other in the presence of their children”), it is unlikely to make much difference in real world interactions.

A good parenting plan, on the other hand, contains no boilerplate language. It goes far beyond the basics of scheduling and major decision making; it addressing the myriad (sometimes subtle) important issues that affect parenting on a day-to-day basis. A parenting plan is the product of a series of facilitated conversation in which the parents make their own decisions. But even if you want to maintain control over post split co-parenting decisions (and you should!), you’ll want guidance. After all, you’ve never done this before (at least not with this partner).  When I’m working with a couple I offer the benefit of my years of experience working with divorcing parents and children of all stripes. I answer such questions as “How have other families handled various time-sharing schedules for kids of varying ages?”, “How have they shared holidays?”,  “How have they dealt with the introduction of new significant others?” I help parents anticipate the not-so-obvious implications (positive and negative) of various ways of doing things and, if asked, I share the results of the latest research.  Because children’s needs and  family circumstances change over time, a good parenting plan is a living document. It is thoughtfully crafted, comprehensive, and written in such a way that it can meet the evolving needs of a developing family.  It’s counterintuitive, but the more detailed your parenting plan the less likely you’ll be to  refer to it over time. Why? Because knowing you have a default plan that is fair to both of you will probably leave you feeling freer to be flexible with each other when the time comes.

And remember: Your parenting plan is your floor.  At any time you and your ex can mutually agree to make one-time or permanent modifications- without permission from a court or anyone else.

How do mental health experts work with a couple to craft a parenting plan?

 Every professional works a bit differently. My  typical protocol (it’s not cast in stone) involves:

  • An initial joint session for the three of us to meet and for both parents to get a sense of what it would be like to work with me.
  • Two individual appointments (one for each parent) in which they’ll have a chance to share their perspective and concerns. These are not confidential meetings (I won’t be holding any secrets), but it does give me time to get to know each parent better and to learn what is most important (or worrying) to them.
  • A series of meetings (typically one and a half to two  hours in length) in which we work through the clauses of the parenting plan.

 

What goes into a parenting plan?

A parenting plan contains a number of potential “clauses;” some will feel relevant to you and others won’t. How much detail to include for each clause (or whether to include a given clause at all) will depend on your particular situation and parenting dynamics.  Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of clauses that are typically addressed in a parenting plan:

  • Shared Narrative: What will you tell your children about your divorce? How will you answer their questions?
  • Decision-Making: How will you make decisions of such issues as education, religion, health,  extra-curricular activities, child-care and summer camps? What decisions must be joint? What decisions can be made independently?
  • Transitions of children: When will they happen? Where? Who will transport the children?
  • Make-up time: What (if anything) will happen if either of you is unable misses a substantial amount of time with your kids?
  • Right of first refusal: If one of you is unable to care for your children will you be obligated to offer that time to the other parent before hiring a babysitter? How much time will trigger this obligation (A few hours? An overnight?)
  • Unscheduled days off from school:What will happen if school is closed unexpectedly or if the children are sick on a school day?
  • Well medical: Who will take the kids to their routine medical/dental appointments?
  • Holidays: How will you handle federal holidays and long weekends, as well as Thanksgiving and any other major/minor holidays you celebrate?
  • Birthdays: How will you spend time with your children on their birthdays?
  • Breaks from school: How will you handle Spring Break and Winter Break
  • Summer and summer vacation: Will the ordinary weekly schedule continue into the summer, or will you change to a new one? How much time will each parent have to take vacations (or staycations) with the children?
  • Communication: What (if any) protocols will you use in communicating with your children and with each other?
  • Information sharing: What measures will you take to make sure each of you has access to and is up-to-date on all important information about your children (including educational, medical, and social)?
  • Parent attendance at children’s events: Will both of you be free to attend all events to which parents are usually invited, or will you divide some of them?
  • Introduction of new significant other: Do you want to discuss any “rules of the road” in this area?
  • Relocation: Do you want to discuss any mutual expectations about how to handle a local or long-distance move on the part of one or both parents?
  • Dispute resolution: What protocols will you follow for resolving disagreements in the future– hopefully without having to involve lawyers or the courts?

 

How long does it take to write a parenting plan?

How many sessions we will need to complete a particular couple’s plan depends on many factors such as:

  • The number of children they have, and their ages
  • Whether or not any of the children have special emotional, developmental or learning needs
  • How much overlap or difference their is in the parents’ opinions, desires, and parenting styles
  • The level of conflict between them
  • The complexity of their lives

I have done parenting plans in as few as one session and as many as….. a lot.  But I am always interested in efficiency- I want to spend as little of my clients’ time and money as I can while ensuring that  both comfortable with their outcome and that I feel confident in the quality of our product. 

Does a parenting plan become part of a separation or divorce agreement? Who drafts the parenting plan?

Again, different professionals work differently. I typically write draft parenting plan language in real time. I have my laptop open during meetings so I can capture our current draft language. At the end of each meeting I email both parents the latest working draft of the parenting plan, along with  any “minutes” capturing general discussions we had during that meeting.  That way parents can review working agreements (or options under consideration) between meetings, and can refer to the language itself if they have trouble recalling our latest conversations.  Couples differ widely in how involved they want their attorneys to be in the process of crafting a parenting plan.  Clients should always feel free to consult their attorney/s anywhere along the way, or wait and bring him or her a completed plan for review and final drafting. If a couple is  planning to  legally separate and/or divorce, their parenting plan will then get attached to the financial Agreement and become the Custody portion of your Separation Agreement or Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).