Sunday, 2 February 2014

A Philosophy of Family Law Part V

In the heat of the moment eg with the late back from contact situation - it is very tempting just to get angry - the other person is wrong - they broke the agreement to bring the child back at 5 so you are entitled to be angry. But does it make a difference being angry? It usually just shuts the conversation down altogether and gets in the way of conversations about anything else. Of course, do not have these conversations in front of the children. Make an arrangement to speak on the phone or email or something. Remember also that the person who has broken the agreement will be on the defensive - which can take many forms. I know myself well enough to know that if I start to get angry it is more often than not because I have done something wrong so I start to construct a story to excuse myself (eg late for train, don't have time to buy ticket, know that I may have to pay a fine, start to get angry about all the times the trains are late but they never offer any money back and pick on people like me who are perfectly willing to pay the fare just did not quite have time to get it organised - woe betide the inspector who comes across me at this point). Language is key. So try to start the conversation with an acknowledgement of something positive: thanks, I've had a lovely peaceful afternoon, thanks for taking the children to do X - they've been wanting to do that for a while. The children love spending time with you, I know. Have you told them that the behaviour bothers you? Calmly, so that they can hear you? EG I've noticed that this is the third time in a row you have brought the children back later than we agreed. It may be that 10-15 minutes from their perspective seems trivial and they are just assuming because you have not raised it before that you are okay with it. They may not even have noticed that they are late. Have you asked them for an explanation or why something has happened from their perspective? Is there something about getting back here on Sunday for 5pm that is a problem? eg train times, activity times Have you told them why it upsets you? It may sound silly but it makes me worry that you won't bring them back or that something has happened to you all. Or - I like to take them to church on Sunday and to get there we need to leave the house by 5.30 at the latest. Or - I need to make sure they have done their reading practice before they have tea and go to bed. What would make a difference? Extend the contact time? If the exact return time is not that much of an issue, it may be more about communicating as to arrival times by text? Make an effort to get them back at the agreed time if this is really important. Do the reading practice during contact? If the boot is on the other foot ie you are the parent returning the children late: A simple apology may go a long way. S/he may be thinking you don’t care. If you start off straight away acknowledging you are in the wrong – sorry I know I should have got them back by 5 but the traffic was terrible / trains were late etc. I really appreciate spending time with them and want to make this work. The return time thing is often a problem for me because …. And then I get stressed because I am worried about what you will be thinking. I always try to get back at the agreed time but things do sometimes go wrong. If they do, what would help you? You have then acknowledged that you have broken the agreement, made plain that you did not do it for an ulterior motive and opened the door for a constructive conversation.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

A Philosophy of Family Law Part IV

Ask yourself some questions: What is it that is not working in this situation? What am I always complaining about? What can I be responsible for? How does the situation occur for the other person / people? How do they see it? What's missing for me or them in the situation or conversation that it would really make a difference if it were there? Very often what's going on for the other person is not what you might have assumed. We human beings often assume that everything in an interaction is something to do with them: you are angry, I must have done something wrong or at least they think I have. Or we go to the other extreme: you are always angry - it can't have anything to do with me - it must be your fault. It is also important to look yourself squarely in the mirror and work out your own devious ways of coming out on top or your own motivations – and we all have many. Maybe you are secretly hoping your other half will just disappear off the face of the earth: the more difficult you are about contact, the more likely they are to give up the fight, thereby 'proving' that you were right about them all along ie they were not committed and don't deserve the relationship with the child. For myself, it was waiting to see if he was committed before I would commit. Actually, I was not ready to commit. I wanted him to do so before I did, so there was no risk to me.

Friday, 31 January 2014

A Philosophy of Family Law Part III

First listen to yourself as you have conversations with your friends and work colleagues about life in generally and particularly listen for the times when you use the words always or never or similarly general words. Or when you start talking about your rights in the situation? When do you use these expressions? Identify the scripts which run your life: all men are ...., people let you down, everyone is out for themselves, nothing I do is ever good enough. Secondly listen out for how you talk to others - and yourself - about the arguments you tend to have with the other parent. He's always late bringing the children back, she never tells me what's going on at school, s/he waits till the last minute & changes the contact arrangements, s/he has to have the last word and be in control. Particularly listen to yourself and ask others to listen to you when your guard is down, for example, when you are having a chinwag with a mate over a beer or a glass of wine or in the middle of a sobbing meltdown. Also look at what you know you delete from the account(s). What you don’t say to yourself or the other party or about them? That you once had a good relationship? That they are a good father or mother in some ways? That they love the children? That they are better than you at allowing the child to take some risks? That they are better at protecting the child from risk / acknowledging what the risks are? Try to uncover for yourself what it is that pushes your buttons, how it makes you feel and what it triggers from the past. Does it remind you of the way you were treated by your parents, your teachers, your school peers, a previous boss, another partner or even this partner in the past? It may be this baggage which has you reacting in a situation and the person you are dealing with is copping it for all these past slights whether real or imagined. What decision did you make about yourself or the way the world worked when you were not picked for the netball team or did not get the good grade even when you worked hard or got caught doing something wrong and were punished? He brings the children back late - he has no respect for me, he doesn’t think I am a good mother, I am terrified he will never bring them back. She doesn't tell me about school – I never get a father’s day card, she just wants me out of their lives, that's why she left me in the first place. Notice how easy it can be to go from a plain fact - the what happened - the children are brought back late from contact - to an opinion about what this means - he is going to run away with the children, or he does not care about me - the story about what happened. Human beings collapse the two together all the time.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Philosophy of Family Law Part II

Can you think of a time when you just knew exactly what the other person in a conversation was going to say? No? Not even your mother when you phone after a long gap in contact? Or how they were going to react? No? Not even your partner when you want to go to visit that relative you know they don’t like? Or you want to negotiate some time to watch your favourite football team? Or your teenage daughter when you ask her to do her homework or tidy up her bedroom before you agree to her going to that party? My point is that there are situations where we have already written the script of how the situation is going to go. Another way of accessing examples which may be meaningful to you is to think about the times when you are tempted to say that someone ‘always’ or ‘never’ does something or ‘never’ understands you or ‘always’ takes things the wrong way. A typical example in a family law dispute is the money / contact dichotomy. The parent with whom the child lives most of the time wants & needs some money. The other parent wants to see the child. The lack of money on offer ends up with a meaning far above the money itself. It means that the other parent is not responsible. The other parent does not care. The other parent does not deserve a relationship with the child. The lack of contact ends up meaning that the relationship between parent and child is not acknowledged. (Even if they cannot find a job, and even if they did any money they paid over would simply come off the resident parent’s benefits so that no one would be better off). The other parent thinks that the resident parent wants to airbrush the other one out of the equation. They will only spend the money on things other than the children (when things other than the children need to be paid for to keep the show on the road such as the car and why should all one person’s money go on the children and not on something for themselves). They would not be in this position in the first place if they had kept to their marriage vows. I'm treated like an unpaid babysitter anyway and now they want me to pay for the privilege of seeing my child which is my right. The bad news is that this tendency to maintain that we are right and other people are wrong never entirely goes away. But with practice you can spot it happening before you open your mouth and react. You have a choice: you can be right or you can make a difference. If you say the same old things you'll have the same old life. Try saying something different - and then - and this is key - listen to the answer you get rather than the one you predict you will get.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A Philosophy of Family Law Part I

I am posting a short series of posts about a philosophy of family law which I hope will provide food for thought for those of you who are locked in a family law battle and can't see a way out. Once they are posted I will put them altogether in one article and link to it. I am going to ask you to read what I will say without any of your usual running commentary - turn off the little voice in your head that tells you what to think - the one that is right now saying - what little voice? The one that says that nothing that anyone can say will make a difference to my situation because the other parent is just being completely unreasonable and I can't reach them. Listen out for anything I might say that you can relate to - even if it's not exactly applicable to your life or situation. I am not saying that I am right or that what follows is true: but please just have a look and see if any of it might be helpful. I am trying to write something general. It may not apply exactly. You may have a child as a result of a one night stand. You may have a child having been happily married but this is no longer the case. Your partner may have died but you are still dealing with their extended family. You may have suffered terribly at the hands of your ex. Your situation is your own unique one – just see if something lands with you. But do consider carefully anything you are tempted to dismiss out of hand – I ask you to consider that the more it goes against the grain, the more there may be for you to see about yourself. As a barrister I obviously spend a lot of my time around parents and professionals who are not able to reach agreement about matters to do with their children. Much as I love my job, and much as sometimes the forensic process can get to the truth or an approximation of it, most people who go through court cases about children come out dissatisfied and upset and no further along the road to reaching any kind of understanding or accommodation with the other parent or professionals. The trouble with court cases is that people have to adopt a position in which they are right and the other person is wrong. Unfortunately this accords only too well with our natural desire to look good & be right. In the run up to the court hearing people also act on an equally natural tendency to surround themselves with other people who will bolster this view of themselves so that it comes as an even worse shock when they are confronted with the judgment and opinion of others which may go in a different direction. Ironically, this often happens to those on each side of the argument, with the Judge ending up being critical of the behavior of both parents. Of course, there are many other ways of trying to reach an understanding through mediation or family therapy etc but I am not convinced that there is time in the publicly funded mediation process always to get to the bottom of the different world views and family therapy is a rare and expensive commodity. When I started out in family law I would often represent people in cases where there were allegations of domestic violence or bad behavior around contact or separation and I would read with open-mouthed amazement a description of an incident from two different perspectives which were seemingly irreconcilable. I tended to assume that it was as simple as one person was telling the truth and the other was not. Very occasionally it is as simple as that, but this is rare. And even when domestic violence – or some other black and white bad behavior has taken place - this does not mean that the victim’s perception of everything else about the relationship is wholly accurate. It also does not make forgiveness impossible, nor change on the part of the wrongdoer; although, it may, of course, make it take a great deal of work on the part of the wrongdoer. And do not get me wrong – violence towards another human being is never justified. Eventually, for my own reasons, I went on a personal development course which helped me understand how I behave and think, which in turn helps me to understand the diametrically opposite positions people can adopt in litigation. Most people are aware on an intellectual level that other people see things through a filter and even that they themselves do it but we are very rarely aware of how exactly we do it ourselves. I suddenly saw that I had adopted a way of looking at the world in which all men were frankly b******. I had plenty of evidence of this in the way my father had behaved (in my head, at least), the way men had behaved towards me in relationships, the evidence all around me of men using violence towards women. I don’t mean to suggest that none of this is accurate. But I listened to someone saying that she knew her partner did not want to talk to her because he started unpacking the dishwasher. I was nodding in agreement. My then boyfriend (now husband) used to spend hours on the computer late at night which obviously meant he did not want to talk to me. A question was asked: had the dishwasher cut out his tongue? And all the dominoes fell down in my head. The woman had never said to her partner that she wanted a conversation. She just expected him to know because it was on her mind. It was perfectly possible to have a conversation at the same time as unpacking the dishwasher. I, like her, was capable of making the smallest of actions part of my evidential foundation for writing off half the human population. I could see that I was so resigned to the way I thought the world was I had given up on trying to expect anything else. Of course, none of you do that, do you? To be continued

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