FamilyCraft: The Private Practice of Family & Divorce Mediation

Monday, October 31, 2005

Good Fences In Co-Parenting Plan Mediation

Good Fences: implications for family and co-parenting mediationIn his epic poem about a Vermont apple orchard, “The Mending Wall”, Robert Frost puzzled over the timeless proverb

Good fences make good neighbors.

After a five year relationship, my clients, John and Mary (not their real names, of course), had a son. Two years passed since they separated (they had never married) and they came to mediation because co-parenting struggles persisted. As shift workers, they had quite changing work schedules and it seemed difficult to easily arrive at any parenting time schedule. But I was interested: they had no court orders of any kind (none re child support, none re decisionmaking, none re timesharing).

After exploring the topic more with them, I learned that their conflict was ordinary in the sense it derived from fierce issues about power and control. What was extraordinary was their fear of organizing and committing to any court-ordered plan on any of these issues. Why?

I learned that John and Mary had so long fought parenting battles over their son by threats (“if you don’t agree to this, I will just do the following ...”), they found the prospect of losing that conflict management style scary. If nothing else, their past pattern of managing conflict by opposing threats was familiar. After all, they had a long history of how to manipulate, cajole, and ultimately arrive at some accommodation.

After looking at this dynamic, John and Mary — with some trepidation — concluded this approach was becoming increasingly unworkable. Both understood that defining boundaries in parenting (as with all relationships) takes some measure of courage, since it limits one’s options as well as assures one’s rights. In our work together in mediation, John and Mary came to acknowledge that the benefits would outweigh the costs — in making some basic agreements and having the court enter orders compelling their observance (absent their mutual consent to deviate from those orders). It was a case where Frost’s proverb seemed all too true; John and Mary's relief in negotiating a written parenting plan for formal court order was palpable.

I am fond of saying in mediation: “There is no Divorce Agreement Police Force.” By this I mean that no one will interfere with divorced or separated couples/parents negotiating on-the-fly changes to their official court orders. I persistently remind my clients that those orders never limit the flexibility of cooperating parents. At the same time, establishing a formal plan and sometimes obtaining court orders often offers significant relief to parties exhausted from constantly skirmishing over those boundaries. Such was the case with John and Mary.