The Art – and Pain – of Compromise

An eloquent man of whom I’m a pretty big fan once said, “No democracy works without compromise.” When he said it, he was referring to American politics – a touchy subject that I’m not going to touch in this post with a 30-foot steel rod. But the idea of democracy, I think, can be applied to other situations in life, as can diplomacy. The life skill of “being diplomatic” was one which my grandmother prided herself on, and one she felt very important to pass on to her children and grandchildren… the art of getting along with others, even when you may not want to.

Over the last few weeks, I have been reminded of what it means to put this skill into practice. Often diplomacy and democracy take compromise. American pop culture teaches us that there is an art to compromise. Indeed, just Googling “compromise is an art” will find over 40 million results, links to articles and studies by thought leaders, research institutes, psychological experts, and even Broadway shows preaching “the art of the compromise”. But what often seems overlooked in our quest for the greater good is acknowledging that compromise can also be quite painful.

Not that it’s always bad. Sometimes we accept the pain of compromise in order to reap greater rewards. But something I’ve learned over the last couple years in studying mindfulness practices and coming to grips with my new normal has been that we sometimes must acknowledge the presence of the pain in order to move through and move on. Nowhere in my life has this been more obvious lately than the very long day that I just spent in mediation with three lawyers and a social worker trying to sort through issues pertaining to child custody.

For those that don’t know, I reopened our case almost two years ago out of concern for some things going on with my son in his relationship with his dad. Since that time, the dynamic between me and my ex-husband has been anything but civil or pleasant. He was newly remarried, which complicated the situation*. He has chosen to estrange himself from his parents, a fact that shouldn’t have had any bearing on custody or our co-parenting relationship, but it did. And in the middle of it all, there was a little boy caught in the middle who just wanted all the fighting to stop.

*See that? Saying “it’s complicated” instead of some of the honest and not-so-kind thoughts I have about my ex and his new wife… that’s diplomacy. Just like my grandma taught me. 

This isn’t our first go-round. We’ve been divorced for 9 years, apart for almost 10. During this reopening of the case, we had reached an agreement once before, only to have the Munchkin’s dad back out at the final signing meeting. He was the one who had chosen to get an attorney first, putting me out on a cliff. Thankfully, my child has grandparents who are fully invested in his safety, education, and emotional health; his grandfathers – yes, I mean both of them – pitched in and hired an attorney for me to represent the Munchkin’s interests. So finally, about two weeks ago – after countless meetings, evaluations, assessments, counseling appointments, family service specialists, one failed round of mediation, and eventually resorting to hiring very expensive attorneys – we sat down to try and come to an agreement. I have to admit, I did not walk into that meeting with a lot of expectation. But we were warned early on that the new judge we had been assigned to was a wild card, and I believe this factored into us finally reaching an agreement.

I started that morning by arriving at my attorney’s office at the same moment my ex did. I sat waiting in the parking lot in my car until they had gone in, because lately the nastiness in emails had escalated to new highs. During that very long, 9-hour day in my attorney’s small, stifling office, I almost broke down into tears more than once as my ex argued over and over again to try to restrict or block my son’s grandparents (particularly his own father) from being involved in the Munchkin’s life. But despite all this, I had gone in with goals… priorities that had been agreed upon by me, all four of Munchkin’s grandparents, and my partner. We had priorities in this fight. I knew I had people waiting in the wings who would back me up and were completely on our side. So when I had to give in on some things in order to meet those priorities, I did it with confidence.

But it still hurt. My heart ached when I finally relented in the middle of the afternoon over restricting grandparent access to school activities. I balked at not being able to reduce the summer visitation schedule the way the Munchkin had been begging for. My voice cracked when I agreed to give up Thanksgivings.

However.

By being willing to accept that pain, I walked out of that office with a little bit of my freedom back. As our court-appointed guardian-ad-litem said during the course of the day, having my ex finally be involved in parenting decisions after a 10-year-absence had devolved into a competition, and it was one in which I felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells that were laid on top of hot coals, in the middle of Times Square. Almost any mother can tell you she worries constantly that she may be making mistakes with her children… so imagine what it felt like for me to do it under a microscope for two years, with my co-parent just waiting to leap at the smallest infraction as proof of my maternal unfitness.

In the end:

  • In lieu of the 50/50 custody and eradication of my right of final decision that he was seeking:
    • He agreed to accept two more overnights per month beginning with the start of school in the fall, moving us to a 57/43 split.
    • We agreed to add a provision that we would seek the help of a counselor for decisions on which we cannot agree, and that if we are still unable to come to agreement, I would then still have the right of final decision.
      • These two items were Priority #1.
  • The Munchkin gets to stay at his new school.
    • This was Priority #2.
  • The Munchkin did not get a reduced summer visitation schedule with his father. He will spend every other week away.
  • The Munchkin’s grandparents are still allowed at school functions, but will not be permitted to join during the day (for lunches or field trips).
    • In exchange, the Munchkin’s father is not permitted to interfere with any of the grandparents exercising their rights or participating in activities during my parenting time (yes, this had been a problem).
  • We have agreed to a rotating/recurrent schedule for all holidays and school breaks for the remainder of the Munchkin’s adolescence.
    • Even though I agreed to give up every Thanksgiving, I got every Christmas in exchange.
  • The obtainment of a passport for the Munchkin – something that has been of ongoing debate (read: paperwork being held hostage) – has now been court-ordered for cooperation.

There are other details… things like college funding, tax returns, and whatnot that really aren’t essential to my child’s welfare. Those aren’t my concern here. What I want to acknowledge is how sometimes diplomacy and compromise can hurt. Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions for the good of our children. Sometimes even a decade-old divorce can still cause people pain; sometimes it’s not just the ex-spouse, but also the children, the in-laws, and the new partners who get scorched in the aftermath. In the midst of walking through this fire, I’m so grateful to have had so many people in our corner… not everyone is as blessed as I am by my village.

So will this time finally stick? Who knows. I can say that two weeks in, email exchanges have been kinder, and my child survived his first full week (the longest he has ever been with his dad without other family in his entire 12 years of life), aided by summer day camp at the Boys & Girls Club. After the shock and tension of mediation day wore off, I started feeling like I can breathe again. The Munchkin is thrilled to know he’s returning to his preferred school in the fall, where he has finally made friends and has seen significant improvement even in just the last quarter. Time will tell how the rest shakes out.

In the meantime, there are trips to take and pools to swim in and lightning bugs to chase, so we turn our lightened hearts toward summer and hope that through the art – and pain – of compromise, we have turned a corner.

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