Have a Happier Divorce

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Maureen Palmer’s new documentary, How to Divorce and Not Wreck the Kids, follows three separated couples as they employ different methods of divorce – a do-it-yourself kit, mediation, and collaborative law – in an attempt to minimize the trauma and disruption in both theirs and their children’s lives. Here, Palmer talks about the breakup of her own marriage, putting the kids first and the long-term benefits for the whole family of a low-conflict divorce.

Here is the webisode #1 from Bountiful Films on Vimeo.

Q: What are you hoping to communicate to people with this documentary?

A: We probably have about 30 years of carnage from high-conflict divorce, including a whole generation of kids who grew up and are now young parents. Their marriages are breaking up and they’re adamant that they’re not going to do to their kids what their parents did. The General Social Survey, which is done by Stats Canada, says that two million people got divorced in Canada between 2001 and 2006, and the vast majority of them did not go to a lawyer. There’s a quiet grassroots revolution going on where people are working out relationships that actually keep them away from conflict.

Q: What are parents worst fears related to the kids when they divorce?

A: I think the fears are different from female and male perspectives. I think for women there’s a fear of poverty, and that they’re going to be raising their kids with a really different standard of living. I think for men it’s a fear that they’re going to lose contact with their children, and that the relationships are going to be fractured forever. On both sides, I think parents fear that their kids are going to grow up with anxiety and insecurity. Kids are filled with enormous anxiety when a family breaks up, and most of us don’t really talk about it. You’re so immersed in your own anger, fear, frustration, grief, etc. that it’s hard to put the needs of the kids first.

Q: You have personal experience with this issue. How long ago did you get divorced and what were the circumstances?

A: That was 1996. I think it died a natural death. It was completely unanimous; we both wanted to split up. From the beginning, it was unorthodox. We rented the house that was kitty corner from ours [in Edmonton] and then took turns living in it so that the girls didn’t have to leave the family home. Then, about six months later, I ended up taking a job in Vancouver. We decided, instead of pulling the girls out of school and bringing them to live with me, that they would stay in the family home and I would fly back to Edmonton every second weekend. He let me stay in the basement in a new bedroom. So, for three or four nights every two weeks I got to be mum – cooked, cleaned, did homework together. We spent every Christmas, birthday and Thanksgiving together, even with new partners. I think it was an enormous exercise in being mature for both of us. Overall, we kept our eye on the long-term prize. When we were really angry or upset or frustrated, we took ourselves out of the moment and asked what kind of relationship do I want to have with my children and the father of my children when I’m 60? You want to be grandparents together. You want to all show up at the hospital together when a baby’s born. You don’t want your kids to have to worry about scheduling the grandparents.

Q: What method of divorce did you choose?

A: We ended up going to a mediator. We really didn’t want to spend a lot of money fighting. We didn’t have a lot of money back then, and I knew that if I was going to be a mother in a different city, we wanted to make sure we had money to invest in our kids. We found a mediator and she had us do a really great exercise at the very beginning. She had us sit separately and figure out what our true cost of living was. We both realized that we were in a deficit by the end of the month living singly instead of as a couple. We knew that, no matter what, circumstances were going to change so we wanted to figure out how best to put that money into creating a home that’s good for the kids in both places.

Q: What’s the difference between mediation and a collaborative divorce?

A: In mediation, there is one professional, who can be a lawyer or a psychotherapist or counselor. Mediators can draw up the agreement to separate, but a lawyer still has to draft it. In a collaborative law situation there’s two lawyers and everybody in that room signs a contract not to go to court. It can still be fairly expensive if there’s a lot of assets and a lot of meetings, but it’s much more effective. People don’t get mean in that room. The lawyers actively work to dissipate the tension, as opposed to ramping it up – which is what traditional adversarial lawyers do. It’s most commonly for couples with children and couples with a lot of assets. The best thing about collaborative divorce is that it works even for high-conflict couples. The lawyers are specially trained in dealing with conflict.

Q: How do you think the outcome would have been different if you’d gone through the court system?

A: I would say, bare minimum, $25,000 each. The mediator cost us $700 in total, but by law we each had to take that agreement to a different lawyer and have that lawyer advise us on our rights and where we could be endangering our emotional and financial wellbeing. So soon we started wracking up the bills. My lawyer would phone and say, you need to be aware of this, this and this. And his lawyer would phone and say, you need to be aware of this, this and this. We started fighting. At one point, [my ex-husband] said, you’re not going to screw me and I’m not going to screw you so let’s just stop this. So we had a $700 mediation bill and a $2,500 each legal bill to get advice on how not to fight – which started us fighting. It was a microcosm of the worst-case scenario.

Q: Do you think that if you’d gone through the conventional courtroom scenario you would have ended the process on terms as friendly as they now are?

A: No way. You’re forced to be adversarial. You’re forced to lay out the circumstances under which you’re the best parent and the other person is not so good. There’s no way that kids can come out first in that scenario because both parents are left feeling that they have to defend themselves and their kids. But kids are a product of both of you, and they love both of you. If both parents are dumping on the other, kids feel an enormous burden. And using kids as the conduit to dump on each other is very bad. It’s incumbent upon us, as mature adults, to make choices. And every day you make choices about how you’re going to interact with your ex. Even if that person is in a race to the bottom of the pool, it doesn’t mean you have to join them. If we actually think about our kids every time we open our mouths, we’ll have healthier kids.

Author by Sarah Treleaven


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