Sometimes mediators are called on to work with parents who have been in conflict for years. On one of those occasions for me, the conflict involved parents who had been divorced for years and were married to new partners who had also joined the fight. The attorneys told me that the “presenting legal problem” was how to divide the nine-year-old boy’s time over Thanksgiving.
Mind-numbing proposals had been traded before I met with these four parents. (The attorneys had insisted, possibly correctly, that the stepparents were as much a part of the dispute as the biological parents.) One of the proposals had it that Christopher would have Thanksgiving dinner at one home and then be picked up precisely at 3:00 to have another Thanksgiving dinner at his other home. An angry response came that Christopher’s first Thanksgiving dinner would not be concluded by 3:00. An even angrier counter-response arrived that Christopher’s unfinished meal and dessert from the first dinner could be boxed up and sent with him to his second Thanksgiving dinner.
Before I met with the two parents and two stepparents, I received from the attorneys two long lists of grievances about how Christopher was being raised in the other household. One of the grievances (bizarrely chronicled and argued in one of the attorneys’ pre-mediation submissions) was that the father and stepmother had purchased underwear that was too big for Christopher.
It’s tempting to believe that huge fights are the result of disputes over huge issues. “Agreement will be hard,” you’ll often hear an attorney observe, “they’re so far apart on the big stuff.”
My experience is that it’s usually the other way around. Huge and enduring fights march in the footpath of petty, insignificant, or even manufactured issues.
Freud even had a term for humans’ tendency to enlarge and personalize disputes the most just when the least is at stake: “the narcissism of petty differences.” The less that’s really at stake, the more apt we humans are (and it’s true for all of us) to become self-centeredly devoted to meaningless positions. It doesn’t make us bad people—but I’m convinced it’s the reason we mortals can become almost religiously committed to seemingly unsolvable disputes that have outsiders scratching their heads or even laughing at us. Once locked in, we can look so small, even unhinged.
But the consequences can be enormous and even deadly.
A good example comes from the infamous 28-year Hatfield and McCoy feud in which hundreds of assaults were committed, houses and barns were burned, and almost 20 people lost their lives. But most interesting, the feud didn’t grow deadly until a specific dispute in 1878.
And over what? The “right” side of the Civil War? The treatment of Union or southern prisoners in the Civil War? Some forbidden intermarriage between the families?
The hatred and deadly attacks commenced over the disputed ownership of a hog. The case even went to court, after which the feud became even worse, culminating in the killing of one of the witnesses.
In every case of protracted divorce conflict I’ve seen, the parents (often otherwise intelligent and truly caring people) had become focused not on large things, but on strangely trivial ones.
And as for the four parents I met with? Their progress was possible only after they agreed they could address a more important question: How do we make this a Thanksgiving Christopher will forever be thankful for?
How can we help people—including ourselves—to ask bigger and better questions?
Children, not to mention our better selves, may be depending on it.
Would you like to know more on this topic? Please read our Joint Legal Custody Handout for more information.
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