Category Archives: Difficult conversations

A Divorce Lawyer’s Caution to Stay at Home Parents

Super Hero Mom

After more than 30 years as a family law attorney, I still worry about some clients as they leave my office with their divorce decrees in hand. Some are still swimming in emotion. Some have tragedy on the horizon as they walk into new relationships before they are fully healed. The clients I worry most about are those who have been stay at home parents for long periods of time during the marriage. Those clients often face the most difficult emotional and financial “hits.”

No family expects divorce, but if one parent is planning to be a stay –at-home parent there are important things to consider to avoid devastating consequences if it does happen. (Although I am beginning to see men as the stay at home in recent years, I am using “her” as the gender for the stay at home parent).

I cant’ tell you the number of times I hear, “I told her to get a job and she wouldn’t,” while the other parent responds, “He may have mentioned my going back to work but he also liked not having to deal with the house and children as well as his job. Plus there was the high cost of child care.”

To avoid crisis if divorce erupts here’s what I recommend to stay-at-home parents:

  1. Have a detailed plan. Develop a plan that includes how long a parent will stay out of the workforce before one parent moves forward with staying home with children. Smart couples have a deadline for the stay at home to return to the workforce that is re-evaluated in a focused discussion each year. Discussions about all aspects of the stay at home arrangement should take place in person, at designated times and not just in passing when emotions are running high. I like to say that all discussions should be “kitchen table” discussions when the kids are not around.
  1. Enlist a third party to assist you with the plan. Get help from a family lawyer, financial planner, counselor or family mediator at the outset, and also when tensions erupt. Difficult conversations are easy to avoid. A calm third party can facilitate a discussion that results in a clear understanding and agreement. These experienced professionals also know the impact of staying home with the children and can assist with a list of things to consider that couples overlook.
  1. Prioritize finances for both parents. Despite our fluid roles, I still see that one spouse typically handles the finances. The other spouse often delegates that task and then never pays attention.  Smart couples meet monthly to review detailed family finances. I encounter numerous divorces where one party thought there was plenty of money when it turns out the family was living on credit cards. “I tried to tell him/her we were spending too much,” is a phrase heard often in my office.
  1. Be clear that alimony won’t support your lifestyle. Stay- at- home parents often believe if they divorce the income earner will absolutely be obligated to support the parent who stayed home. This is simply false. Alimony laws are in a state of flux in many states. In the vast majority of cases the stay at home will have a short time to receive a small amount of “rehabilitative” alimony and then they are expected to get to work. There is only so much money to go around and in most families it is impossible to support two separate households on one income.
  1. Keep your skills and contacts sharp. Don’t completely unplug from the work world while staying home. Take an online course or courses, and keep your skills current. When I took time off from my law practice while my children were small I hired a sitter for a few hours and attended bar association meetings and seminars. I never said I was “offline” in my work; I simply didn’t discuss my caseload (which was virtually non-existent for a time). Once I re-entered nobody knew that I hadn’t been practicing law all along and I was able to get up to speed quickly.
  2. Fund retirements for both parents. A good financial planner can advise on how the stay  at home can save for retirement. Although all retirement earned during the marriage is usually divisible to both parties in divorce, the emotional attachment to retirement accounts by the working spouse causes conflict in many cases. Retirement funds set up for each party help diffuse emotion at the negotiation table if divorce ever comes up.
  3. Stay connected in your marriage. Child rearing years are difficult on even the strongest marriages. One spouse in the business world and one at home all day can create a gap in interests and experiences that over time can erode connection. Prioritize time as a couple and take fights seriously as a warning sign. Working on your marriage may seem like the last thing you want to do amidst the exhaustion of all your obligations, but it will be the greatest investment you will ever make.
  4. If you do face divorce, explore collaborative law.  If you have to divorce there are respectful processes that work to move both parties forward in a dignified manner.  Consult with a family lawyer  to see if you and your spouse are candidates for collaborative divorce.

Kimberly Stamatelos is a mediator and family law attorney in West Des Moines, Iowa with Stamatelos & Tollakson. She is the author of the book “The Compassionate Lawyer” available on Amazon.

 

 

Speaking the Truth, in Love

origWhoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favor rather than one who has a flattering tongue.-Proverbs 28:23

As an attorney, my days are filled with difficult conversations. I may deliver painful news to people involving their legal matter, or speak firmly with another lawyer as I advocate for my client. Recently, I had  to have difficult conversations with three different people who had  let me down or hurt me.

The approach I try to take  in all these circumstances is to “speak the truth in love.” That  means speaking directly but with a clear motive of trying to help the person receiving the message to understand something,  and not to punish, condemn or play victim.

Failure to initiate difficult conversations leaves us feeling disappointed or resentful and keeps us from being authentic and emotionally healthy. Avoiding these conversations may instead result in passive aggressive behavior or whispering our hurts to friends leading to gossip, triangulation of relationships, and fuel for our hurt.

Here’s what I’ve learned about initiating difficult conversations:

  1. Operate from a clear head not an emotional tsunami. Emotions are a gift, but letting them drive the moment leads to disaster. Initiate tough conversations when you are well rested, calm and emotionally even. This usually requires a reasonable “pause” between whatever has occurred and the time you choose to discuss it.
  1. State what went wrong with clarity. Using “I” statements can be helpful: “I was hurt when you weren’t there for me when I needed you,” or “I got overwhelmed when I had to step in after you didn’t follow through on your commitment.” Maybe even, “I have received complaints from clients/coworkers/teammates about your work.” If your communication begins with an email, don’t turn it into a long dissertation of drama. Use succinct bullet points and keep the tone businesslike. Having an in-person discussion is best.
  1. Know your goal. Be clear on what you need to remedy the situation. You may introduce the solution by saying “Here’s what I’ d like to see happen moving forward.” Another solution might be to offer to work together to remedy the problem, troubleshoot issues or even set a time to talk in more detail.  In most instances the goal will also be to preserve or  strengthen the relationship.
  1. Stay courageous in speaking your truth despite the response you get. If the person becomes argumentative, doesn’t listen or tries to turn the conversation back on you, stay firmly in your truth. Don’t cower under, say “never mind” or otherwise retreat until the issue is fully “aired out.” Your heart may be pounding but it’s critical to stay in the discussion in a healthy way.
  1. Keep calm. People aren’t used to facing conflict square in the eye. They are more familiar with passive aggressive approaches, or cryptic accusations on Facebook. It’s easy to criticize behind a keyboard. Talking on the phone or in person can trigger anything from fidgeting to wild histrionics.  Stay calm and focused while delivering your comments with dignity and respect.

Here’s what I recommend if someone “speaks the truth in love” to you:

  1. Listen closely. A tough conversation might come out of the blue at an unexpected time. If it does, tune in as quickly as you can to be able to hear what is being said. That may be difficult to do if you feel a strong emotional reaction at the outset of the conversation.

2.  Validate feelings before you respond. “It sounds like you are  really disappointed, I  understand how you might feel that way,” or a similar statement, lets the initiator know that you “get it.” Their feelings are valid for them. Whether their position is correct is another story. Pivoting into defensiveness or attack, or telling them they should not feel the way they feel, gets you nowhere and diminishes your credibility.

  1. Don’t shut down, become angry or defensive. Because most of us have not been exposed to healthy direct conversations, we can tend to think it’s a “fight” leading us to get into “attack” mode.  The minute you take the content personally, you have lost the opportunity for growth and clarity. Your personal hurts can be triggered, creating insight for you on unhealed wounds that could use further work later. By focusing on the problem and not the people you will avoid a poor response.
  1. Let the initiator know you understand, and only then, explain your perspective. Giving your side of things out of the gate minimizes your effectiveness. State the problem as you have heard it before you begin to describe things from your point of view. Once it’s your turn, breathe throughout your explanation and speak as slowly as possible so that you can be clearly understood.
  1. Apologies are magical if they are sincere. An apology can be critical in many circumstances. You may feel you did nothing wrong, but if your action or inaction let someone down even acknowledgement of that fact is powerful. “I am so sorry my actions upset you; our friendship is important to me,” or “I apologize for misunderstanding the work assignment; I didn’t mean to let down the team.”
  1. Investigate how to move forward. Asking how to repair a situation is perhaps the most critical reaction to a difficult conversation.  The simple question, “How can I make it right?” can open the door to great resolutions and healing. Only one of the three people  took this critical step in my situations.

Speaking the truth in love can be challenging, but it  provides growth for those who aspire to live with authenticity and courage.

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