Emotions run high in almost every divorce situation. This is especially true in contested child custody cases, which our firm handles routinely. However, these strong emotions and the behavioral side effects are not usually conducive to the mandatory requirement of mediating cases before they are scheduled for trial. Here are some tips that might help you minimize communication breakdowns and disengage from the emotional battlefield in order to properly focus on finding solutions that will move the family forward in a healthy direction:
1.) Remember that most of the communications which exist in divorce are most likely the same ones which led to the divorce situation in the first place. What does that mean to you now? It means, you most likely will not be able to “fix” them now that the two of you are living separately or having to co-parent without the benefit of living together anymore. Therefore, you must find ways to work around the communication problems instead of trying to eliminate them altogether. For example, if your ex is always able to pull you into an unrelated argument when you call him or her to discuss the child's soccer schedule that week, don't call anymore.
Rather, choose a form of communication which eliminates the back and forth of a telephone conversation, such as email. Send one email with the pertinent information related to the child's schedule. If a reply is necessary, be specific with your question and if possible, form it so that it only requires a “yes” or a “no” to answer (i.e., Will you be able to pick up Johnny at 7 PM on Wednesday evening?). When family court litigation is going on, it's very easy for parents to slip back into the unresolved arguments of their marriage when communicating directly. However, by moving non-emergent communications to written emails, (1) you eliminate the direct contact which may ignite the old fights and (2) you can control what information is included, thus minimizing your ex's ability to reasonably interject the unrelated issues into the communication without making him/herself look bad to the Court when you print that email as evidence in a contempt action.
2.) Agree on and adhere to a tiered communication system. What if one parent is an “over-communicator” and the other one just desires “as-needed” or “regular, but not daily updates” about the children? This creates more conflict and breakdowns of communications than most any other thing in my Guardian ad Litem practice. One parent wants to talk to the children multiple times of day, including during special activities or vacations with the other parent. The other parent almost never interferes with the parenting time of the other, but only requests an email or a few texts every so often to keep him/her abreast of any changes in the child's life or schedule.
One easy way to deal with this in order to avoid future conflicts is to create a “tiered communication system.” Similar to how the military and local governments enact a DEFCOM system, you can establish and agree on specific levels of communication depending on the situation at hand. For example, emergent, life-threatening, immediate scheduling changes would be considered top tiered communications and require either an immediate phone call or a text (for couple who truly cannot speak to each other without issues arising). Sharing or informing about issues in the child's life that do not require an immediate response (or no response at all) could be considered a middle-tiered communication and contained in a weekly email update. Sharing schedule updates that are pre-planned weeks or months, in advance that are either for information only or may require discussion of scheduling decisions sometime down the road could be entered on a shared calendar program and would be considered the lowest tiered communications.
By coming to an agreement on which types of information should be shared in which manner, you can easily avoid the dreaded “caller-ID-itis” that affects so many co-parents — there phones ring so frequently that when they see their exes name, they never want to pick up, and thus may miss out on very important information about their children in the process.
3.) Balance your own expectations and standards of communication against how you wish your ex to treat you. The old Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” holds true even in family court litigation, even if it wasn't evenly obeyed during the marriage. If you find your family court negotiations breaking down suddenly, go over your positions with your attorney, a mediator or some other trusted advisor to take an honest look at your expectations and how those expectations are being communicated to your ex. If he or she expected those things of you or delivered the message in the same way to you, how would you react? If the answer is negatively, then take some time reassess your positions, make sure they are in line with your and your children's actual needs and examine whether your ex is being provided all the information necessary to understand your position. For example, if you are demanding the marital house, but are hiding the ball on its true value or the fact that you are worried about where you and the children will live if you don't have the home, your ex may be very defensive about just agreeing to your demands.
That being said, demands rarely go anywhere in a mediation or negotiation session in a family court case. Make requests of the other party with respect, with factual data to back-up your position and with a focus on what is best for the children and you instantly add credibility to your positions and increase the likelihood of success in those areas. Making demands only re-ignites the anger and resentment left over from the failed relationship and will do nothing but short-circuit what could have been a productive settlement negotiation. Words matter. Choose them wisely.