Matters Relating to Children

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Snow Days and Marital Harmony

By Rebekah Sullivan

The Washington Post ran an article today headlined, “Repeated School Closures Test Working Parents and Sometimes Marital Harmony” available here.

The article provides an amusing yet profoundly insightful view into the juggling act of families with two working parents on days when their children’s schools or day cares are closed.  It comments on the subtle valuation of each parent’s importance to the workplace that goes into this daily negotiation.  And the article suggests that these negotiations can take a toll on marital harmony.

The article strikes close to home in my personal life – my husband and I are both lawyers with jobs that can be painfully inflexible (I litigate and my husband travels with intolerable frequency).  When our nanny is unable to get to us because of Metro closings, we pull out our smartphones and compare.   International travel beats court.  Court beats client meetings.  Client meetings beat internal deadlines.  And so on.

In addition to weighing the importance of each of us to our workplace on any given day, we weigh the ability of either of us to work from home (who forgot his laptop cord, again?) and more broadly the importance of each person’s employment to our family, both in the short term and long term.  Do these setbacks throw our days off course?  Big time.  Do these setbacks put us in bad moods?  Obviously.  But do they test our marital harmony?  Never.  We have learned that instead of negotiating against each other, we must work together to negotiate the obstacle.

Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton’s landmark negotiation book, Getting to Yes (available here) advises this as a strategy in the practice of law as well.  The book suggests sitting on the same side of the table, with an object representing the problem (a calendar, a map, a budget, etc.) sitting opposite both parties.  This is an effective strategy, and particularly applicable in family law where our issues are complicated and multi-faceted.  For example, instead of asking, “Will I pay for private school or will my ex-spouse pay for private school?” (which leads immediately to “There is no way I can afford to pay, my ex-spouse must pay!”), we should be asking, “What are our goals for our children’s education, and how can we make those goals possible?”  Now we (with attorneys) are having a completely different conversation – looking at financial aid, tuition vouchers, tax rebates, when payments are due, where budgets can be shifted, and other creative options.  Seeing the problem as the problem, instead of seeing another party as the problem, can result in solutions that work better for everyone than any solution possible in a you-give-I-take negotiation.

As lawyers, we can help our clients reframe issues to see the problem as the problem instead of another party as the problem.  It is just too bad we cannot do anything about all this snow.

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