Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

Not All Marriages Can or Should Be Saved

But When Is It Really Over?

At Oak Tree Mediation, our One Last Look™ program helps couples see what divorce is about.  They gain clarity and confidence in their options.  That may be reconciliation, it may be divorce, or some other path forward.

One of our first questions to couples looking at divorce is simple and clear.  “How did divorce become your option for this marriage?”  The response is revealing.  When people indicate mutual participation in the decline in marital satisfaction, there are many more options open to them in their path forward.  When the conversation focuses on the other person, there is little hope for flexibility moving forward.

Looking at the research of John Gottman, this cascade toward divorce is evident when a couple has difficulties starting a conversation without a harsh beginning.  Those conversations continue with criticism, defensiveness, contempt and avoidance tactics (Dr. Gottman refers to this as stonewalling).  The result of this emotional pressure is to become flooded which is a physiological condition of a pounding heart rate over 100 beats per minute, sweating – all the indicators of internal distress.

Next is a body language of withdrawal.  Openness fails as does any attempt at repair.  The result is to rewrite history, focus on bad memories, compound every small issue into larger ones, and finally eliminate the other person from the emotional bookshelf.

John Gottman notes that “In general, the brain stores two kinds of memories, explicit and implicit. The former are conscious remembrances: your grandmother gave you a doll for your sixth birthday, the Red Sox won the World Series (and it wasn’t a dream). But implicit memories may not be completely conscious. Instead, the brain responds with a sort of intuition, extracting rules that fit the circumstances. When the traffic light turns red, you remember to brake— you don’t need to think it through. But when the brain confronts two opposite realities at the same time— what’s called cognitive dissonance— it rewrites your history so that it makes sense and is easier to remember. If you once had fond remembrances of your wedding but now consider your partner a self-centered boor, your implicit memory shifts. The brain spins the past, extracting new rules that fit current circumstances. Now, when you think of your wedding day, what first comes to mind is your new husband’s failure to tell you how beautiful you looked. Whether a relationship is over or just ailing depends on how pervasively negative its history, as the couple tells it.”

This final stage, when history is re-written, is when at least one person starts to focus on the thought that anything is better than this.  As Caryl Rusbult describes it as the comparison level alternative; the desire for something better that ends the current pain.

Couples Are Not the Only Ones Affected

At this stage, when both sides see that the marriage is over, it is time to look at a new relationship – what we refer to as Family Re-Formation.

The process of reforming the family is critical for children.  Research shows that children of divorce, are impacted more by the fighting and negative interaction.  Based on the Gottman’s research in emotionally intelligent children and adults, it becomes clear that when parents are content in their relationships, the children are able to live in an atmosphere of emotional security.  From that platform, they are able to experience the world in a secure way.

I sometimes comment that people should raise a puppy that is fully socialized before getting married.  The process of socialization requires that the puppy is given a positive environment that encourages it to explore and trust that the world around it is full of interesting things.  The other part of good socialization is that the trainer only has the first 12 to 14 weeks in which to do this.  It is a true learning experience that helps people see relationships from a very different perspective.

When considering family changes, the new structures can be as varied as there are families.  But the reality is that couples will not end their interaction with a divorce.  In fact, the level of interaction will become more complex and possibly more frequent than when they were married.

Recognizing this reality can lead to growth or war.  Will this be a step forward into growth or a continuation of hostility?  That is a choice facing couples at the end of a marriage.


Armand & Robbin D’Alo

If I Only Knew…

Sometimes divorce is your best option.  But do you really know what is ahead?  Here are a few of the realities that people just do not realize are part of the process, until they are deep into it.

Court Can Be A Cesspool of Contempt For You & Your Children:

It is not the judge, and it is not the attorneys.  It is what happens to you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse.  In criminal court, those on trial strive to look their very best.  In family court, the opposite happens.  While you may be trying to make your case about how bad your partner is, the judge is looking at you and wondering what is motivating you to make all the accusations.  Then it all reverses, and you get attacked as a response.

When people go through the actual court process, they end up feeling damaged.  There is no place to win in there.  You put your life in the hands of a stranger, and you depend on your attorney to be better at debate than the opposing counsel.

Family Is Always Family Even In Divorce:

In our e*book, FACCT, we note that the first letter, “F,” is for Family Re-Formation.  If there are children, you are still the parents.  That will never change.  Even if there are no children, there is still the extended family and relationships.  When one or both sides go for court, those friends and children turn away.  While you thought you might find support and love, when you go to find those friends, you only find emptiness.  People and children do not want to be in a toxic environment.  Sadly parents do not realize this lesson until it is too late.

A couple was arguing over child visitation arrangements.  The mother told these young children how “bad” their dad was and that he did not care for them.  Over time, the children turned from their dad and did not want to see him.

Years later, as these children grew into adults, they started contacting their dad.  They learned that all the things they were told as little children were not true.  In their adult lives, they spent far less time with their mother than with their father.  That choice was based on the toxic world she had created for them and insisted on perpetuating into their adult lives.

Parents need to be very careful about what they do with their children in divorce.  It can come back to hurt them later in life.

Awareness Becomes Crucial:

What you thought was important takes on less meaning.  Things fall away, and suddenly the realities of a basic life take hold.  Everything that seemed significant turns out to be unimportant.  Suddenly those possessions you are fighting about will take on less and less meaning.  When a judge gets into the act, the garage-sale value of everything comes into focus.  Life and what’s important changes radically.

Knowing When It Is Over:

Sometimes you just have to move on.  But how do you know?  By looking at research, we find five key tests that indicate the marriage is probably over.

  1. What is the level of fondness and admiration for your partner?
  2. Are you operating as “Me” or as “We”?
  3. Do you maintain a healthy (not suspicious) awareness of your partner’s world?
  4. Do you look at struggles as something to be overcome together or as an obstacle in your way?
  5. When you think of the relationship today, how do you remember the good times you went through? Or do you remember the past as one disappointment after another?

When these five elements combine, and negativity becomes the abundant sentiment.  It grows to the point that the scales are tipped away from connection.  When they tip so far that the possibility of connection feels lost, it is probably time to move on.

For more, download the e*book, F-A-C-C-T.  Learn what every couple should know about the realities of divorce before you start down that path.

Armand & Robbin D’Alo

Holiday Survival Guide for Divorce

Moving Forward

This is a longer article that is worth the time.  We want to share these thoughts to help people going through tough times during the holidays.  There is also a great piece of information at the end of this blog that connects with a powerful Ted Talk on happiness that you will want to see.

No one discounts the feelings people have at this time of year; especially when something hard, like separation, is facing you.  Family and traditions weigh heavy when couples are struggling through change.

In our eBook, FACCT, the first principle of separation and divorce is Family Re-Formation.  The holidays are a perfect time for that to start.  Making family the focus of holidays is hard since couples typically view the separation as the end of their family life as they knew it.  Part of that is true – the “as they knew it” part.  The rest is not necessarily true.

Remember the first time you left your parent’s home for college or some other life event?  You were not always around for the holidays, especially if you were far away.  As life went on you developed new traditions and new ways to celebrate.  But you probably kept the memory of your core family in those activities in some form.

When a couple is first married it may have been painful dealing with two families wanting you to be totally committed to their separate holiday traditions.  It tears people apart and makes the holidays painful.

Similar events are happening to you and your children.

You have the option of holding fast to old celebrations or you can help the kids, and yourself, to remember the past in proper context, and then build new traditions.

How do you do all this?  It starts with understanding yourself and the pressures you are imposing on you.  In the holidays there is the stress of seasonal demands.  There are events, schedules, financial demands, parties, business events, friends, extended family, the new relationship (your co-parent partner) and so much more.  For kids, there may be school events and other forms of celebration that are part of their extended communities.

To disrupt the lives of children based on your separation may promote them feeling like this may be their fault.  They have to deal with consequences that were not of their making.  As a result, if managed poorly, children are hit hard in the holidays.

Here are some ideas from families and professionals that may help as you navigate this new terrain.

Manage the Stress

Stress comes in two forms: external and internal.  The external form are deadlines and obligations that are fixed and outside of your control.  Christmas day, the eight days of Hanukkah and more are not in your control.  Dates and times of school activities or business events are also not in your control.

The internal stress involves the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our obligations in the world.  There are internal dialogues that may start, “I am X if I don’t do Y.”  These can become complex equivalents: highly held beliefs about yourself.  Meaning gets attached to what we can and cannot do.  On the other hand, if we are talking to a friend about a similar issue, your counsel may be that, “…it’s not such a big issue …”  You would go on to tell them that they need to cut themselves some slack.

It is interesting how we offer others the space we are unwilling to give to ourselves.

So, start with a page, Post Its on a wall, a spreadsheet – whatever you are most comfortable with.  Make a list of your stresses.  Then note if these are internal or external.  With that list you can begin to see what you have control over and what is not in your control.

Controlled items require a choice on your part.  Are you going to let that be an obligation in your life, or will you make it something that is optional?

For those things that are out of your control, there is a simple question focused on scheduling.  Does it fit.  If not, what are the options.  It is not uncommon, whether married, divorced, or separated, that events collide.  When married, maybe you spit the duties with one person going to event A and the other going to event B.  If your separation is negotiated and relatively peaceful, you may still want to do the same thing – one parent goes to one child’s event with the other going to another’s activity.

The big difference here is that you do not make your divided attention a result of your marital issues – it is scheduling just as it was when you were married.  It should be clear to everyone that time is the issue and not the separation itself.

Manage the Money

Living in two households will strain resources.  Sometimes it lends itself to a financial competition for a child’s attention.  Mental health professionals generally agree that this is not healthy for a child.  They remind parents that it is the time they spend with a child that will be remembered most; not the toys.  When there is a special toy, it is surprising that most are the simplest of things because they carry meaning.

We all give mental acknowledgement to the commercialization of the holidays.  How about finally doing something about it?  Simplicity and service are two ways to make holiday’s more special.  Visiting children in a local hospital that are shut inside for the holidays.  Participate in community events such as plays or choirs.  If Church is important in your life, how can you make that part of your holiday focus.

Holidays are also good times for giving.  Going to help at shelters, making cookies to package up and send to troops overseas.  Making cards for family rather than buying them.  Many adults remember looking through the things of a deceased parent only to find small mementos of their childhood preserved (like a hand-made card).

When it comes to gifts, what makes sense for the needs of those around you.  An attitude of giving versus getting is infectious, even for kids.  Use the season to help them reach outside of themselves.  In this spirit, one parent took her daughter to a local shopping center.  As people went to their cars, mom and daughter, with the owner’s permission, would help them load the car and take the cart back to the collection area.  They also gave the people they helped a candy cane and a happy holiday wish.  Mom reported that they both felt so good even though it was a small act of kindness.

When you do shop for family, can it be simple?  What about starting early and making a gift such as blankets.  Shop all year long looking for the sales in summer and fall.  Be on the lookout for those special items well ahead of time.  Maybe it is too late for this year, but you can start out in January making this your pattern.  It is also a way to keep a holiday spirit alive through the year.

Do What Needs to Be Done

Schedules are more complicated when separation has occurred.  By thinking ahead about the practical side of schedules, children have the opportunity to look forward to the season – they have something that the parents are committed to and that kids can anticipate.

In this same process of scheduling, it may be a time to put any hostility on hold.  We remind people in mediation, if it cannot be put into a box or if you cannot do a math problem with it, it does not belong in the conversation.  That goes for scheduling communications.  No blaming, criticism, contempt, or stalling.  This is a time for learning that your marital separation is what caused this new situation.  Now you must manage the complexities or two households and two schedules.  You are now two individuals that deserve respectful interactions and consideration – you are still the parents and the children have the right to spend time with each of you.

Have A Reality Check

Things are different, and children need to know that life is changing.  What is not changing is how you each feel about them.  They also need to know that their needs are being taken into consideration.  They will feel sad and tears will be shed.  Acknowledging that and helping them experience that sadness in a healthy way can encourage them in moving forward.

It is a very different picture to help a child mourn the reality of losing a one-home family unit and moving to a dynamic unit of two or more households (grandparents or other family may be more involved in the lives of the children).  But the fact that they, as individuals, are important, is critical for their emotional health.  Let them know that they count by asking for their ideas and input.  But remember that you are the parent and the adult.  It is your decision and your opportunity to explain “how” something in the schedule works, not “why.”  The “why” response leads to a defensive posture.  The “how” response simply shows the mechanics of what works and what does not.  It also avoids the possibility of placing blame at a time when emotions may be high.

What About You

Yes, you are important too.  Finding a few anchoring traditions that mean something to you can help in the holidays.  Finding some downtime to listen to music you love, reading a story or finding some other way to engage in that spirit of the season that is meaningful to you.  You may find yourself bumping up against things that bring in memories of the past.  That sadness is part of moving forward.  You are mourning a loss as well.  But in that sadness, just as when you left home, there may be something that can pull you forward with hope.  You are headed into a new phase of your life-experience.

Where Does the Family Go from Here?

If there are past traditions that are meaningful to children, you may still want to embrace those.  These are experiences they carry forward.  These are important for them.

Some of those traditions may carry difficult and confusing feelings for all family members.  This is where new traditions come into play.  Here is the place for creativity and connection with people.  Others have been down this road before you.  Connection with support groups can generate new ideas for brand new sets of family traditions.

To help illustrate this, one idea focuses on holiday meals.  As people and society change, we find that people who use to stay home and “cook for the family” now enjoy going to a special restaurant.  This breaks the old habits in a dynamic way.  It becomes that once-a-year new tradition of spending a holiday with a different cook in a neutral festive setting.  As a side benefit – no dishes and more time together to take a walk, enjoy some decorations, visit someplace special that you normally do not go to.

There are also simple fun holiday games such as driving around to those houses that are “over the top” with decorations.  Then you get to rate them like being movie critics.  Perhaps the winner gets a plate of cookies that you and the kids prepared.

The point is to move out of the old “comfort zone.”  It is not so comfortable in there anymore.  Find a new place of joy with a stretch beyond yourself.  Yes, you need to take care of yourself, and you are still a family.

There may also be another place for some healing, depending on your situation.  Working with the kids to create something for the other parent may build a bridge as the family heals and rebuilds into a new family structure.

Understanding Happiness

Ultimately finding a new happiness is the outcome everyone seeks.  Perhaps some information on what happiness really is about may help.  Dan Gilbert and his associates studied it and found some profound information.  Check out Dan’s Ted Talk on Happiness.

May this season be a time of healing, exploration, and discovery.  A good friend reminded me many years ago of a misunderstood saying.  She cited: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”  She then commented that, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first.”  She remined me that we all will stumble, life is not perfect, mistakes are made, and nothing works perfectly the first time through.  The difference is if we are willing to pick ourselves up and keep going.

May the holidays bring peace to you and your family now and into the New Year.


Armand & Robbin D’Alo

Holiday Stress? There Is a Way To Fight

John Gottman notes that it is rare that couples are in sync with each other, no matter how good the relationship is. He illustrates this with the concept of tossing a coin. Of course the heads and tails are statistically 50% each. In that “best of worlds” scenario that would mean that a couple is open and receptive to each other about 25% of the time. However, that is not the real world. From research it is estimated the couples are only available to each other with both people open and receptive simultaneously about 9% to 10% of the time (and even that is somewhat generous according to Dr. Gottman). The rest of the time is ripe for miscommunication.

So what do you do? This is a quick lesson in how to fight.

Conflict is a part of life and so exposure to it can actually be an important lesson in emotional literacy for kids if it is handled properly.

First, soften your complaints. Remember that the person you are talking to is (at the moment) your annoying friend and not the enemy. The way you do this is to treat disagreements like an object that is not related to either of you. It is an item of discussion, kind of like a piece of art that you are going to look at and comment about.

Next, when you feel yourself getting angry, take a break from the discussion. The research shows that it is important, particularly for men, to take some time to get their heart-rate down. That research showed that heart rates that exceed 100 bpm generally lead to an out-of-control conversation and significant emotional hurt. Taking a break of about 20 minutes, then coming back to the discussion helps tremendously.

Ideas for a break may include doing something you enjoy or meditation. The point is to allow yourself some space to calm yourself down. This does not work if you simply withdraw and get into a lot of “self-talk.” This only continues the negative conversation and will not allow that space to calm yourself. This is not a time out to make bullet points to open the next round. To the contrary, when you return to the conversation, if should be like a fresh start.

Third is to be open to the influence of your partner, even if you think he or she is being totally irrational. John Gottman notes in his research that a good first step, if we want to reach agreement, is to find elements of our partner’s position that you can agree with. Especially when both are doing this, common ground is quickly found and a win-win position becomes attainable.

This is not about being right. That is a dangerous posture and it leads to painful outcomes and a sense of arrogance and contempt – both of those lead down a destructive path. This a position of inclusion and consideration for all sides, including yours and theirs.

We note that this is not about giving up something that is critically important. When the conversation is open, positions tend to reveal higher meanings to positions. It is in these higher meanings – your values and beliefs – that true growth can be obtained and flexibility in outcomes can be reached. It is about acknowledgement.

There may not be a total solution. But there can be understanding. In fact, some positions are not areas where any agreement may be reached. Those perpetual disagreements do exist in relationships. Those are elements that add deapth, diversity and perspective to life together. When honored, these become bonding elements rather than points of division. As Steven Covey once put it, “…seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

With this being a holiday time it is important to remember these lessons. Rudolf Dreikurs noted that, “children are great perceivers but poor interpreters.” They can observe and feel something deeply. But they cannot discern between themselves, their parents and the reason for the fight. They may even blame themselves for your fight and that is not an outcome that anyone wants during a holiday – or any other day.

May this season be one of concern and deep interest in each other making your home a place of compassion and a place where you and your children learn true emotional intelligence.


By: Armand & Robbin D’Alo

Our Nation Reflects the State of Marriage: What Does This Mean For Children?

Earlier this month we were in Las Vegas at a tax conference. Between meetings we were talking with some of our colleagues about how closely the national mood is reflecting the condition of marriages today.

Looking at John and Julie Gottman’s work, they note that marriages are headed for trouble when four major communication “grenades” are employed by one or both spouses – they refer to these as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. When a person becomes critical they are blaming and finding fault in the other person. When that “grenade” goes off the recipient will often become defensive which turns the criticism back to the sender. For example:

Criticism: “If you weren’t so lazy…”
Defensive Response: “If you didn’t spend so much time…”

These two can play on each other with no end in sight. In frustration, to escalate for a “win,” someone may turn to contempt as a method to signal superiority. This shows up in language as well as gestures such as rolling eyes, pointing fingers, etc… anything that signals being superior, being better, etc… than the other person.

What follows is shutting down. The John and Julie refer to this a stonewalling. It is a point at which there is so much negativity coming at an individual that they simply shut down. They try to self-calm or at least to avoid escalating what is happing through a negative response. Yet in this posture of perceived indifference it is often seen by the other person as being ignored. That simple perception of ignoring someone is enough to escalate the problem to a higher level of conflict.

Does any of this sound familiar when looking at the level of public and political discourse in the world around us? A culture in which entertainment is based on finding fault, making crude and profane comments, using situational comedy to mock and degrade with pointless attempts at humor. Society no longer looks at the human condition with the goal of elevating it. Destructive tools are used to degrade and to elicit feelings of laughter at the expense of others.

Looking at our political world, when have we seen politicians running for office having honest discussions? When have they talked openly about issues of substance or exchanging ideas rather than attacking an opponent’s character? The concepts and process of criticism, defensiveness coupled with contempt and ignoring each other are embedded in the world of politics. Then comes the divorce – the disinterest of the public who turns away from the political world to their electronic devices, their online persona, their social media friends (many of whom they may not really know personally). We even turn off when people get together. Rather than talking directly to each other, a text message is sufficient. Taking selfies and posting becomes the substitute for relationship.

That leads to the basic question – what are we teaching our children?

The hardest part of a relationship is showing up. But that is about equal to the other part of that relationship – making it a place where your spouse or partner wants to show up. There is responsibility on both sides. When we allow it to spiral out of control – and we are the ones that let it happen on all levels – relationships are lost and the moment to teach a child about relating to others in the world is also diminished. They soon learn that relationships and people are disposable parts of their lives.

What lesson should we teach children?


By: Armand & Robbin D’Alo

Are You Really Mediating?

As mediators we have a hard time calling the overall process “divorce.” That is the technical term for what is happening. The term means separation or severance and the root of the word is “to divert.”

But what is actually happening is the restructuring and reformation of a family, even if there are no children involved. As couples separate, they become aware of all the connections they have in the world from combined family members, shared acquaintances that are made during the marriage to social activities, social media and places of worship.

When divorce becomes a consideration, couples also become aware of their tangible and intangible assets – those digital elements from the cyber world in which we participate. For tangible assets it is straightforward to identify and split the pension account, but what do you do with a domain name? Who owns the digital property that was purchased? Apple isn’t going to give you two copies of a movie because you are separating.

With all this being put into turmoil it is easy to take a hard position and to look at mediation as a place to enter into court-styled settlement agreements. Before entering mediation people may look at their positions and make calculations about the other person and their position. Then they look at the law with the help of an attorney and seek to use a neutral third party to bring their position to the table. Each person is seeking to be “right” or to convince the mediator.

From our experience, such an approach only undermines what a couple may really be working towards – a peaceful separation. If pressure tactics are used the result can be devastating to the family even though it may be unintended. When these tactics are used, and one person or the other wants emotional support, do they force people to take sides? Does the entire family and social structure need to be torn apart?

Most importantly if children are involved, they certainly will feel this hostility. Even if there are no loud overtones, there are still feelings of anguish and deep hurt all around the community to which the family belongs.

All those that are part of the process, including the full complement of family and acquaintances, need to step back and allow mediation to work. It creates a simple forum for safe discussion and disclosure. Within mediation there is no “advantage” as the power between the parties is monitored and balanced. It is an environment in which seeking to win and take advantage over the other person is disallowed.

The goal for successful mediation is reaching agreements that the couple and family can actually live with and are committed to – something they crafted on their own without court pressure or scrutiny.


By: Armand & Robbin D’Alo