Divorce and Animal Custody by Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton, Esq.

d-vodahamilton-bio-picHow can you, as a conflict professional, nip conflict in the bud-before it comes back and nips you and your client in the butt when handling divorces involving animals and animal custody?   Courts do not adequately address the feelings and emotions surrounding an animal that has played a central role in a married couple’s life.  This is especially true when that animal is their child.

When your clients come to you and ask about sole or shared custody of their animal how do you answer their query?  They are likely contemplating that a conflict will arise in the divorce discussion over who gets the animal.  You can’t cut the pet in half.  Courts rarely want to get involved with custody issues surrounding pets.  The law cannot respond to the feelings we have for and receive from our animal that creates the basis for a conflict needing resolution.  As a practitioner, sit down with your client in a collaborative process or clients in a mediation and spend time listening to them about how they see the pet in their life before, now and in the future.  What is it they want/need from the continuation of their relationship with the pet?

Here is an example of what a recent litigation attorney told their client in divorce about their present and future life with Roscoe the dog.  The attorney said that since their client paid at least 50% of the dog’s expenses they deserved to spend 50% of their time with the dog. They encouraged their client to fight for 50% of the time.  Their client spent a great deal of time and money in litigation.    Interestingly, the couple asked to be referred to a mediator before the judge decided who gained full possession of the dog.  Each attorney wished the mediator good luck because these clients were entrenched and immovable on 50% of the time with their dog.

After about four hours of discussion in mediation about how each party viewed the dog in their life, the parties began, independently, to reality test what 50% of the time with the dog would really look like.  All the while the mediator simply listened and supported the speaker, their view of the facts and their love of the dog.  In reflecting back what each of the clients were saying, the mediator had the opportunity to facilitate listening for understanding on both sides of the stories they had in their heads.  It became clear to everyone in the mediation that there was a solution right in front of them, they simply needed to find their way to it on their own.

What were not explored in litigation were the individual parties’ stories involving the dog in their life.  One of the parties was a schoolteacher and really only wanted the dog during vacations.  The other party stayed at home and worked from the home.  They loved having the dog around all day but also really wanted to travel.  By the end of the mediation, they realized that, in fact, if one of the parties took the dog during school and summer vacations, the other person could care for the dog during school and travel too, without having to pay for kenneling fees.  It worked out perfectly.  Mediation allowed them to do something no one had ever done with them before; explore what it was they wanted their relationship to be with this animal.

In mediation and collaborative practice, we can create the opportunity for couples to have that discussion about what their future with the dog looks like.  It works with cats, birds and horses too!  If you step away and don’t add the conflict over an animal to the litigation, you can solve for the best outcome for all, especially the animal.

Unfortunately your pet does not hate your ex. Maintaining an open line of communication truly puts the best interests of your pet into the equation.  Be brave, engage in proactive animal conflict resolution.  Here is a wish for everyone going through a divorce with a pet: that you have the ability to recognize what it is you want in your relationship with the animal first, discuss what that is second, and then finding a resolution where both of parties can enjoy the life and love of their four-legged animal comes naturally.

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To be human is to tell your tale and listen to someone else’s.  But it would make a difference to know that stories are stories.  They are real, but not in the way we think they are when we take them too earnestly and allow them to mesmerize us.  Stories are true as stories but not true as life.  They require interpretation and reflection if we are to draw lessons from them.  Stories teach us through their shapes, sounds, structures, and suggestions, their between-the-lines content that speaks to us through our souls rather than our minds or even our hearts.

To know that my story is not exactly mine, but is rather a wave rising up within the sea of stories, is to appreciate my story and everyone else’s in a new, wider, and more significant way.  Maybe by looking at stories this way we can see them as large and mysterious.  Then perhaps we won’t need to cling any longer to one particular version of our story as the only true story, the story of victimization or trivialization or despair or boredom;  instead we might began to see our many stories as stories of humanness, of being-aliveness, not just our own small possessions.  And then, perhaps, we can be inspired by our own stories, and begin to make use of them in a new way.

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A Story of Yearning… by Katherine Miller

I posted an ad for an associate on a local law-related listserv. The ad goes on to require a number of very specific and unusual application procedures.

Here’s what it says in part:

We are a growing law firm providing non-litigation resolution of family law matters where possible. Our mission is to change how people divorce particularly focusing on developing good parenting plans so that children can still have two good parents following divorce. 

 We work hard to provide value to clients above and beyond providing exemplary legal and mediation services. We need an attorney to provide litigation services where mediation isn’t possible immediately and grow into mediation and Collaborative Law.  The ideal candidate will be a great, compassionate attorney with family law experience, willing to learn mediation and collaboration skills.

The ad was real but this writing isn’t about a search for employment…it’s a story of yearning.

I received a number of responses from lawyers complimenting me on the ad.  I also received the following from one person:

Katherine: Your post moved me. It is the single most inspiring and creative description of what we as lawyers set out to do. I only wish I wasn’t so far – in xxxxxxx, or I’d be there in a heartbeat, because I so wholeheartedly believe in your and your firm’s philosophy. I read through your firm’s website, and found it humbling, while inspiring and moving at the same time.

 After 27 years in this business, it’s often so disheartening (particularly in matrimonials, as well as other litigation): people tend to lose focus and forget the ideals that propelled them into this work in the first place.

 I want to thank you- it did me good to hear from you and your partners, and realize that there still are really good, smart, and dedicated people still in this profession. It recharged/renewed me and actually might keep me going a little bit longer!

 Another person wrote:

Great ad, i almost want to work for you and I don’t do family law.

It seems that the way the ad describes the work that we do, strikes a chord for some lawyers and reminds them of the ideals that led them to go into the law in the first place.  The work we do using the Understanding Based Model allows us to make a real difference in the lives of our clients and touch them as human beings not just paying clients.  Whatever area we practice in, lawyers, as people, crave connection with ourselves, each other and with clients.  We often get lost in the doing of what we are told we are supposed to do, in the structure of the practice and we lose our humanity.  Worse, we are taught that it is weak to be compassionate.

The Understanding Based Model assumes the opposite is true; that there is opportunity in understanding.  Strength in compassion.  Truth in connection.  We all feel the power of these ideas but we are taught to be afraid.  A door was unlocked for me when I attended my first training in this way of working many years ago.  Unlocking that door, pushing it open and seeing the possibility and power that lies in working through conflict together—honoring ourselves and each other—has completely changed the way I live my life not only the way I  practice law and have built my business.  I am incredibly grateful to have found a way to love what I do and to learn and grow as a person through my work as a lawyer.



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Don’t Be One Sided by Norman Fischer

Don’t be One Sided.  This one is very important in human relations, and it runs exactly counter to the usual way we approach things.  Usually we are exactly one sided: there’s our side and the other person’s side, and it’s our side that is important, correct, or right, so much so that we may not even notice that there is another side.  But there’s always another side.  This may be so, but that also may be so.  This may be so today, but tomorrow it may not be so.  If there’s a side there’s always another side.

Don’t be One Sided has another sense too – don’t favor people you like over people you don’t like.  Try not to be one sided in that way.  This seems impossible and inadvisable.  Are we really supposed to regard our close friends, our spouse and our children the same way we regard an acquaintance or an enemy?   Realistically, no.  But that’s not the point.  The point is to notice how much in almost all our encounters we are subtly prejudiced by our one-sidedness, constantly upholding ourselves and those we like and running down (in however small a way) those we don’t like.  These prejudices, which we take for granted and affirm, actually cause us more trouble than we realize.  They create a subtle climate of preference, for and against, that gives rise to  more of our interpersonal rough spots than we realize.  So even though we may not be able to feel an equal feeling toward all, this slogan puts us on notice that we better take our one sidedness into account and do what we can to de-emphasize it.

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Navigating Conflict for Mental Health Professionals

a new workshop offering continuing education credits to all therapists.


Dr. Stacey Shuster

by Stacey Shuster, Ph.D.

Most therapists are trained to shy away from providing concrete advice to clients, and therefore are initially reticent to focus on the steps needed to move from understanding to agreement to contract.  It requires a different set of goals and skills on the part of the therapist attempting to navigate through emotionally laden disputes to know how to bring closure to a set of disagreements and help turn the wishes and positions of clients into mutually agreed-upon and documented arrangements.  For me, making the transition from a psychologist to a mediator involved a steep learning curve.

In 2002, I decided to apply my training and experience as a licensed psychologist to the area of divorce work.  I was originally motivated by a story I read in the San Francisco Chronicle:  Sharon Silverstein, a lesbian mom, had learned that it was too late to stop her ex-partner Annette from completing a second-parent adoption of their child and decided to challenge California’s second-parent adoption statute in the courts.  Not only did she try to limit Annette’s right to a second-parent adoption; upon failing, she took her personal vendetta all the way to the California Supreme Court.

Fortunately, Sharon lost.  But I realized that I did not want to stand by and allow angry exes to try to use the courts to change laws that impact the rest of us when they didn’t get what they wanted from their partners.  That was when I decided to pursue training to be a mediator, collaborative coach, co-parent counselor, and parenting coordinator.  My goal was to make the breaking-up process more civilized, cooperative and caring.  Fourteen years and countless trainings later, most of my work now revolves around divorce.

There were skills that were easier for me to learn – “looping” (what therapists tend to practice as some combination of active or reflective listening, empathic attunement, and reframing); then there were those that were more difficult.  I had a great deal to learn about the nuts and bolts of a divorce case and family law; an even greater amount to learn about financial matters.  I found the conflict I witnessed in divorce cases to be among the most turbulent and heart wrenching I had experienced as a therapist.  But the aspect of the work that I have found to be the biggest challenge was to determine when and how to take the awareness, knowledge, and insight gleaned from the Understanding-based model and move from there to help clients develop an expanded view of what mutually beneficial arrangements might be possible. In Gary Friedman’s parlance, once I went “down the V” and determined the significance of the conflict emotionally, I had to learn when and how to go “up the V” in order to form durable contracts.  I continue to learn about the fulcrum point of moving from the emotional underpinnings of a conflict into a process that can lead to a client’s willingness to include the goals and interests of the other party in coming to agreement.

What I have often experienced is that, for some conflict-ridden couples, the ability to make even small but meaningful agreements with each other starts the long process of laying down the layers of the “cushion of good will”, to use John Gottman’s terminology, and establishing a modicum of trust.  At times, our best efforts at looping, understanding, and recognizing the core issues underlying clients’ positions fail to catalyze the change we would like to see.  But through this work we can sometimes glimpse repair and healing in the midst of heartbreaking pain and struggle.

I’ve had the privilege to work with a fantastic array of professionals who have the same goals I do:  to keep divorcing couples out of court to the extent possible, and to help them co-parent their children with respect and civility. Each time I work on a case with these other providers, my bag of tricks expands, stretches and grows.

I’m honored to have joined the faculty of the Center for Understanding in Conflict.  On March 16-18, Catherine Conner and I are teaching a workshop on the Understanding-based model for mental health professionals.  This is an opportunity for providers originally trained as psychotherapists to learn how to apply the ample range of our skills to conflict-based processes, such as divorce and other interpersonal – and often legal – disputes.  This seminar will explore the challenges in shifting from providing therapy to helping parties work through conflict, and will present a structure for reaching agreements using the concepts and tools of the Understanding-Based conflict resolution model.

I am thrilled that Catherine and I have been able to obtain approval from the California Psychological Association to offer continuing education credits to all mental health professionals. I look forward to working with Catherine to teach this workshop, which will concentrate on how and when to take the insight and awareness that clients can achieve in working with therapist-mediators and work towards forming contracts with each other.

We invite all therapists, mediators, co-parent counselors, collaborative coaches, parenting coordinators, and child specialists – with or without training in the Understanding-based model – to join us to learn together how to help clients achieve understanding about the conflicts in which they are embroiled in order to form durable agreements with each other.  Participants in this course will have the opportunity to engage in a seminar-style learning environment, using role-plays, case material, and research-based learning, to share our collective wisdom in this very challenging work.  Collectively, the participants in this course will have the opportunity share and exchange information, skills and wisdom to help one another learn.

We hope to see you in Berkeley on March 16-18 for our Navigating Conflict workshop.

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Reflections on SCPI

(SCPI = Self-Reflection for Conflict Professionals Intensive)

by Liza Hanks

I participated in the SCPI program for the first time in 2016, a few months after I completed the 40-hour mediation and conflict resolution program with the Center for Understanding in Conflict. I thought, when I signed up, that SCPI would be a good follow up to that training and a way to further practice what I learned there. All of that was certainly true, but I found SCPI to be something different as well—less vocational and more transformative.

Like many lawyers, I graduated from law school, passed the bar, found a job and did my best to do it well.  And then twenty years went by. In the daily pressure of billable hours, building a practice (and raising two kids), there wasn’t time to reflect upon any of it.  In my experience, being a lawyer was often about not making mistakes and hardly ever about being creative, thoughtful, or challenging the status-quo. Being a lawyer was often like wearing clothes that didn’t quite fit—satisfactory, but confining.

Participating in SCPI was an invitation to bring creativity, curiosity and critical thinking to my practice and a welcome one. I’ve found new meaning in what I do and a new vision for how I plan to do it in the future.

Here’s a short list of what I got out of the program:

1. I met colleagues from various disciplines who were interested in using self-reflection to deepen their practices. I felt real affinity for my fellow SCPI participants and it was a pleasure to learn with them.

2. SCPI teaches three foundational practices that I use every day to keep myself focused and continually engaged: journaling, meditation, and taking moments throughout the day to pause, breathe, and check in with my felt sense of a situation.

3. The format of the program lends itself to experiential learning – there’s time and space to practice what you are learning in a supportive environment. It’s not ‘book learning’ — it is learning through direct experience.

4. I wasn’t able to attend the group sessions in person each time, but I came to love doing these through video conferencing. We were able to have deep discussions and group learning even though we were all over the country—without leaving my office I could spend a few hours with smart, committed people and practice new skills in a dynamic way.

5. SCPI (as does the mediation training) frames conflict in a positive way. I’ve come to have tremendous respect for the value of conflict in eliciting honesty and open communication between parties. I’m more patient in my practice and less in a rush to ‘fix’ things—I am better at letting my clients find their own way through thorny issues.

6. SCPI asked me to do something that nothing in my legal education ever did before: value, cultivate, and attend to my own subjective experience while practicing law. This skill has already made me a better listener and a more creative attorney with clients.  That’s the vocational part. At the same time, it has made me more aware of what I do and don’t like about my law practice and has given me concrete ideas about how to make it more satisfying and reflective of my core values. That’s the transformational part.

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Study the Self to Forget the Self

Training in Empathy and Compassion awakens our willingness to be with our own suffering and the suffering of others. Most of us believe suffering is negative, difficult, and to be avoided at all costs. Suffering breaks our spirit and ruins our life. So rather than face the suffering we blame others or the world for the unfortunate things that have happened to us. Or we blame ourselves, imagining that we are essentially incapable of happiness and right action. All of this amounts to a strategy of distraction. Blame is a way of avoiding the actual suffering we feel. And if we are unwilling to face our own suffering, how much more are we unwilling to take in the suffering of others, let alone the whole mass of suffering of this troubled world. There is no way we could even entertain such a thought.

But the training proposes that we do exactly that. That we take in our own suffering, the suffering of our friends, our communities, and of the world, because nothing is more effective than this to change our habitual point of view. We develop this capacity with the practice of Sending and Receiving, which begins with our willingness to receive and heal our own pain. Of course our efforts to do this will encounter powerful resistances within us.

Suffering constellates resistance and loves it, loves our fear, gobbles it up, becomes bigger and stronger. The more we try to push away the suffering the more difficult it is to bear. But through the practice of Sending and Receiving, repeated patiently over time, we discover that when we stop resisting we can bear the suffering with much more equanimity than we previously thought possible. The monster you run away from in the dark becomes more and more frightening the faster and further you flee. The monster you face in your own house becomes a pussy cat, which sometimes scratches, and sometimes makes a mess on the floor but you love her anyway. We discover we don’t have to be afraid of suffering, that we can transform it into healing and love. And this is not as hard to do as we might have thought. Whatever our state, whatever our capacity, we can do it. We need only start from where we are and go as far as we can.

Doing this, we discover that our practice (and our life) isn’t about, and has never been about, ourselves. As long as spiritual practice (and life) remains only about you it is painful. Of course your practice does begin with you. It begins with self-concern. You take up practice out of some need or some desire or pain. But the very self-concern pushes you beyond self-concern. Zen Master Dogen writes, “To study Buddhism is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self.” When you study yourself thoroughly, this is what happens: you forget yourself, because the closer you get to yourself, the closer you get to life, and to the unspeakable depth that is life, the more a feeling of love and concern for others naturally arises in you. To be self-obsessed is painful. To love others is happy. Loving others inspires us to take much better care of ourselves, as if we were our own mother. We take care of ourselves so that we can benefit others.

Training in Compassion, pp.65-66.

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