As a family law attorney, mediator and guardian ad litem for over 30 years, I have listened to many stories. The stories come from different sources – from a parent I may be representing, from both parents when I mediate or from children directly when I am guardian ad litem investigating and reporting to a Court regarding children’s best interests.
Stories Reflect the Storyteller
Stories are one’s own “truth,” the narrative we use to describe our lives past and present, and our hopes for the future. Client stories give family law professionals a window into the lens through which clients in divorce or other family law conflicts view their current and future circumstances – how they got there, and where they want to go.
Children’s stories are often more concrete and direct than those of their parents, and while no more or less compelling than those of their parents, they nevertheless strike a chord in divorce or other family law conflicts. Children might not be at the negotiating table, but the shadowy presence of their stories as seen through the eyes of their parents can affect negotiations and outcomes.
Storytelling is, however, an evolution. As clients tell us their stories, those stories may shift or change as information is gathered, considered, evaluated, and as clients develop the autonomy to create the beginnings of their new life story as they negotiate a settlement.
I once had a mediation client who felt he was losing his “family” in divorce. His story was one of absolute loss, making it difficult for him to reach settlement. However, at the end of the mediation process he was telling a different story. He said that he finally understood that he, his wife and children were still “family” even after divorce, just a “reconstituted” family to use his word. While the family “looked” different, they still were family. The concept of a reconstituted family, and the hope and understanding he built during the mediation process to see his future life story differently, enabled him to reach resolution in his mediated divorce.
Stories connect us, they help us find commonalities among differences, resolution amidst conflict. In divorce and other family law conflicts, while each party has their own story or truth, there is always a thread that runs through those stories that binds the parties to a shared past, and the ability to create the new story of their lives through peaceful settlement negotiations and collaboration.
The New York Times “Modern Love” podcast, https://www.nytimes.com/column/modern-love, is, to use their own words, about “relationships, feelings, betrayals and revelations.” I have to admit that even though I am a divorce lawyer and mediator and one would think I hear enough stories in my practice, I often listen to the stories in the NYT Modern Love podcast. One piece that led to more reflection about the power of stories, was in 2021 and entitled “My Two-House, Duffel-Bag Life,” by 15-year-old Natalie Munoz, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/05/style/modern-love-my-two-house-duffle-bag-life.html?smid=em-share. Ms. Munoz talks from a child’s perspective about the loss of a family connection, and then finding a family connection, in the midst of divorce and beyond. She also talks about “links,” which made me think about my mediation client’s story about being a reconstituted family and how he was able to link his past and future in a way that allowed him to see he hadn’t lost his “family” and move toward a positive outcome in his divorce.
Creating New Stories
Client stories past and present need not prevent clients from imagining and creating the story of their new future life – you can keep some of the old with the new, stories overlap and connect. Brené Brown has said “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write the ending.”
Litigation does not always provide clients with the opportunity to own their stories and write the ending which forms the basis for a new beginning. Out-of-court dispute resolution processes, including mediation, settlement counsel and Collaborative Law, provide a more open and transparent environment to explore stories and their power, to build on those stories and to “write the ending”, ultimately crafting an agreement which gives the story definition, but also provides room for new growth and development. Don’t get stuck in your “story,” but rather see stories as a bridge to the creation of an agreement that does not define you, but instead is you writing the story of the ending of a relationship as a bridge to the rest of your life’s story, which is ahead.
To discuss your family law matter, please contact us.