Power dynamics at play: how to resolve financial conflicts in a peaceful way.
You know what it's like when you're newly in love: you feel like you would do absolutely anything for your partner. What does it matter if you're a high flyer and he's earning peanuts? Love means unconditional support, right?
Right! At least for a while.
Then life gets in the way; love can fade and responsibilities tend to grow. Suddenly that discrepancy in earnings becomes a big deal. A huge deal. Particularly when your relationship breaks down altogether and there are children to consider.
A recent client has found herself in this situation. She has a soaring corporate finance career; her ex-husband is a freelance graphic designer. While her professional life is at an all-time high, he is floundering — his work has always been sporadic but the loss of a couple of major clients has turned a brief dry spell into a full-on drought.
Their separation has been mostly amicable, particularly when it comes to the kids, but finances have become a real sticking point for both of them. Mom is paying spousal support and has agreed to pay for 100% of their childcare fees until Dad is back on his feet financially. Initially this arrangement worked well but Mom has begun to feel resentful about paying childcare for the days that Dad has custody of their two sons. Since he works from home and has very few ongoing design projects, she feels that Dad should be taking care of the children, saving her hundreds in childcare fees each month.
Dad disagrees. Since work is slow, he's spending much of his time searching for new clients, marketing his business, and learning new skills in the hopes of making himself more employable. All of which he says he would find impossible if he were to take on additional childcare duties.
So far they haven't been able to come to an agreement and their animosity towards each other is growing.
The traditional solution would be to fight things out in court, bringing expense, stress, and trauma for their two sons. But just because that's the way things are usually done, doesn't mean there isn't a better solution.
Perhaps you've found yourself in a similar situation? Let's look at how you could resolve the conflict in a way that suits both parties, while remaining civil, and protecting your children from emotional harm.
1. Start over.
If you've had endless conversations about the same topic, without any glimmer of resolution, it's time to start over. Try sending a message to your ex acknowledging that previous conversations got off on the wrong foot and that you want to start over: clean slate time. Don't try to offer any solutions, just state your desire to try the conversation again and ask if he'd be open to giving it a go.
2. Level the playing field.
It's possible that Dad feels Mom doesn't take his work seriously, especially since she's always been the high-flyer in the relationship, and feeling this way is likely to leave him feeling defensive about his work and the time he's spending trying to develop his business.
It's important not to be dismissive of the things that matter to your ex-partner, in this case, the Dad's career. In our example situation Mom could acknowledge the importance of her ex's work search and ask him if he had any ideas about how both things could be accomplished, with him having the flexibility to pursue his work goals while also pitching in more with the kids. Simply recognizing that what he is doing is valid and important will make him more receptive to the conversation and may open the door to a different way of looking at things.
3. Change your dynamic.
In any relationship it's inevitable that we fall into certain roles and breaking out of these can feel like a Herculean task. But doing so can be vital if you want to change the ending of your usual conversations. Perhaps you're always the one who offers solutions while he assumes the role of litigator, trying to find holes in your strategies. And round and round you go.
Sometimes simply naming the dynamic in a non-judgmental way can help you both break through it. Try saying something like, "Daniel, I know our dynamic is _____. Now that we're divorced I want to be conscious about changing that dynamic. I notice we always fall back into the same groove. How can we help each other not to do that?"
4. Sometimes the past is better left behind.
Bringing up past hurts and slights is not the best way to start fresh. The past is the past, so it's generally not useful to go there. Make a pact with your ex that you promise to leave the past behind if he will. I promise you it will make for a better conversation in the present.
5. Save your requests on other topics for now.
Of course you've been mulling things over about a range of issues with your parenting schedule for a long time; you already have your own strategy worked out for everything from how to handle the holidays to what should happen during the three-month summer vacation, to when your child will enroll in Select soccer, and who will pay for it. And you want to 'put it all on the table' so you and your ex can duke it out once instead of a dozen times.
And that may be part of a dynamic that shuts down conversation, so it's a good idea to hold off sharing your ideas about things you want to happen in the future until you've built some trust with each other in the present. For now, tackle one topic at a time and focus on finding success reaching consensus on that one topic.
This doesn't mean that all those other things go unaddressed –– they just don't get addressed right now. If other topics keep coming up, make a list of them and decide on a different time to address them, once you've finished this conversation. By tackling one topic at a time, you set yourselves up for being able to tackle other topics in the future.
6. Reopen lines of communication.
When anything new crops up, it's worth opening the conversation from a neutral place. For example, say, "With the holidays coming up, would you like to figure out a time we could have a discussion about how we're going to handle things?" Wait to offer your solution. Sometimes offering a solution gets heard as a demand. And that sets off the dynamic you are trying to change. Make it clear that his opinion is valid too and that you're going to talk things over and reach a solution together. You may even find that you both come up with an even better solution than the one you had planned.
If you're lost in a dispute and are desperate to find a peaceful resolution, get in touch to see if I can help. Together we'll find a kinder way out of conflict.