The elevator was just about to close as I exited the court building on the day my divorce was finalized. My attorney put out an arm and stopped it. There we were, paused in the middle of a crowd of people also anxious to get far away from the courtrooms and legal jargon and transitions of our lives that must happen under laws and expensive representation.
"One day when your son asks you all the questions he will ask you, when he attempts to play you against his dad, when he wonders why you two can't get along," she said, leaning toward me, "pull out your parenting agreement and show him the long list of things you accomplished together. If that doesn't work, send him in to see me."
With that, she was gone. (Not forever. I've been to court nine times since then for divorce-related matters.). Those words hung in the cubicle of passengers on that elevator, floor after floor until we finally were grounded.
Of all the advice she gave me in the 14 months it took for my divorce to be finalized and nearly a decade since, it is one of those words from that fleeting counsel that dug in to my mind: agreement.
I'd just spent nearly a year-and-a-half and tens of thousands of dollars and a lifetime of stressful energy undoing my marriage. None of it was easy. It was a no-asset divorce, which meant that what we disagreed on was, for the most part, not money. And holiday time and who would primary parent? Those big decisions went quickly. But that one nonstick frying pan buried at the bottom of a box in storage? Someone (not pointing fingers, but you can totally guess) felt that warranted a lot of emails and texts to claim. The curfew on nightly phone calls, how many times our son would go to Sunday school and a turquoise necklace I'd been given while we dated? I will own up to those sticking points.
On the day we finally initialed each of 50 or 60 pages of the Dissolution of Marriage documents, I wasn't thinking at all about what we had settled. I just wanted it to be over. I was mistaken in focusing both those places. First, this was more of a beginning than an end. And second, as my lawyer pointed out, we'd actually agreed on much more than we'd argued.
As it turns out, that advice from my attorney wasn't just words. Regularly, when my son, now 12, asks why his dad and I are the way we are now, or why we got divorced, or when he does that tween thing of testing out two sides of the parenting coin, I bring up the parenting agreement. Hey, I say, your dad and I might not agree on a lot, but what we do agree on is what activities you do/where you spend holidays/who manages all those doctor appointments and school activities/how your time is organized. So it goes that a pile of papers with official-looking type and scribbled initials quashes the resistance and answers the questions far better than mom. I am good with that.
I've also found that starting with the agreements is a great way to diffuse emotions or disagreements with my son's father. After reading Divorce: Taking the High Road: Simple Strategies for Creating a Healthy Divorce, and interviewing co-authors and divorce coaches Pegotty Cooper and Kira Wilson Gould, I began leading conversations with what we've already agreed on, followed by an ask or a proposal or whatever it is we are trying to resolve. Hey, I say, I know we agreed that our son would only do one after-school activity at a time, and he now has an opportunity to do this other really cool thing as well. Might you be willing to help make that happen?
In Taking the High Road, the divorce coaches' coach Pegotty Cooper, writes that you will need a few tools to be your best self when making decisions and moving forward during (and certainly after) divorce. You will need to learn how to deal effectively with conflict, manage your emotions, develop resilience, find effective two-way communication strategies, and be a credible partner and participant in the process. I am amazed that one quick and direct on-ramp to all of these skills, and thus a high-road relationship with your ex, kids, yourself and anyone else who can bring volatility and triggers into your life, is centering on agreements. Ahhh, you reassure yourself before you blow up or react or start tangling over details that mean very little in the whole scope of life, this really can be OK after all. I can do this.
It is not a magic wand, this tactic of leading with agreements. It does not always work and it is not a formula for things falling in my favor. But it helps – a lot – and it always gets me into a calm and collaborative mind frame before the conversation, which is much better than feeling nervous or getting angry in anticipation of what the response could be. Good for my son, better for discussions with his dad and great for keeping me in a good space. Win-win-win.
Finally, you know what helps us to find common ground, to compromise and cooperate? A history of agreements. Agreements beget agreements. Hey, you say to yourself and others, we've done this before and we can do it again. Let's find some of that precious middle ground.
One day, the alliances might just outnumber the altercations. Or at least, they might be closer in thought or more powerful to execute that squabbling over nonstick pans or even other matters of far more import. Hey, we've been doing such a great job working together, how about we try that again? For old time's sake. Or new. Or both.
This post was created in partnership with CDC Divorce Coach Training. All opinions are my own.
Order the book Divorce: Taking the High Road: Simple Strategies for Creating a Healthy Divorce here. Listen in to the Essential Guide to Surviving Divorce webinar series here for free. Find your own divorce coach here.
Listen in to the Essential Guide to Surviving Divorce webinar series here for free. You can also order the companion book Divorce: Taking the High Road: Simple Strategies for Creating a Healthy Divorce here.