THE BLOG

To Resolve or Manage Conflict, You Must Address the Actual Cause of the Problem

04/21/2015 02:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

I recently had the most fascinating consultation with a gentleman who was interested in the possibility of my representing him as his lawyer. The situation involved ongoing parental conflict regarding his relationship with their child. As I understood matters, their child's mother has consistently interfered with his parenting time and made his life so difficult in that regard, that many fathers might have "voluntarily" disappeared from the child's life by now. They broke up before their now teenage child was born and have been to court more times than the child's age.

Rather than get into the current state of affairs, I decided that I needed a better understanding of how their relationship ended all those years ago. The mother and her family lived in the Los Angeles area and he and his family lived outside of California. The two of them started dating and the mother eventually relocated and moved in with him. She became pregnant shortly thereafter.

Early in her pregnancy, the mother told him that she wanted to move back to Los Angeles to be closer to her family, which she did. I then asked the father whether he broke up with a pregnant woman. He responded that he did no such thing and that it was the mother who ended the relationship. I then asked him whether she had ever told him that she was breaking up with him. He thought about my question for a while and said, "No." I once again asked him if he had broken up with a pregnant woman. He then told me that he couldn't have just left his job and moved to Los Angeles. I asked the question again and he said that he hadn't been the one that ended that relationship. I asked him to think back and try and remember whether she had broken up with the venue or with him. He thought about it for a while and said, "Oh my God, she broke up with the venue, but not with me." I responded by telling him that he had, in fact, broken up with a pregnant woman.

I told him that most conflicts occur as a result of misunderstandings and that people should never assume anything. He then told me that after she moved back to Los Angeles and before giving birth, she asked him if he was going to come and see her. Since he assumed that she had ended the relationship, he never visited her. I told him that whether or not he realized it at the time, he had broken up with a pregnant woman. I then said that I had recently attended a meeting for the Family Law Section of the Pasadena Bar Association and a psychologist and child custody evaluator had mentioned what typically occurs when a man breaks up with his pregnant wife or girlfriend. Needless to say, father's experience in this case is text book. As an aside, I didn't need the psychologist to tell me this information because it is so obvious.

In any event, almost immediately after the child was born, mother asked father when he was going to come and see his child. By that point, father had already retained counsel, who was preparing a paternity action in order to obtain court-ordered visitation, among other things. Father decided not to take mother up on her offer because he had already retained counsel. I told him that he could have stopped the legal process at any time, especially since nothing had yet been filed with the court. Father looked into my eyes and said that he was much younger at the time and didn't know any better.

I then told him that he broke up with a pregnant woman who was still allowing him access to their child and he commenced legal action against her instead. Under the circumstances, I asked him if he is really surprised at what has gone on for all these years.

I then told him that he can continue with his same approach, but I just don't see how he can expect a different outcome after all these years, or he can try something different. We discussed shame, bitterness and betrayal. I also provided him a copy of my recently published article titled "Family Law Matters Must Be Handled With Care," wherein I discussed these very issues. We talked about what needs to be done in an effort to try and address those toxic emotions all these years later.

I asked him to tell me what he understands empathy to mean. He gave me his understanding, which was superficially correct. We then discussed the concept of empathy in great detail, which can be found in my article titled "The Power of Empathy." I told him that they will be parents of this child for the rest of their lives and that I only see one way of changing the dynamics of the situation. I said that he must give great thought as to how he would feel if he had been in mother's shoes under these circumstances. He then has to write her a very empathic, heartfelt letter in which he takes personal responsibility for all of his mistakes and gives a proper and sincere apology.

He responded by expressing concern that doing so might be considered stalking. I asked him if mother had a restraining order against him and he said she didn't. I then asked him how such a letter could possibly be considered stalking. I told him that I can't think of one possible downside to his writing her such a letter, and that it had the potential to possibly make a crack in the wall that mother has built up over time. I said that if he followed my advice, he might put things into motion that could change the dynamics between them. I'm afraid that you can't do that in litigation. Furthermore, I don't know of any other lawyers who would have provided him with such advice.

My client liked the idea and acknowledged that it gets to the source of the conflict, rather than just the symptoms. I strongly advised that he have me or a well-qualified mental health professional review his letter before he sends it because he only has one chance to do this right.

These and other concepts are part of a presentation I have been giving to family law litigators titled "De-Escalating Conflict Through Service Delivery." I most recently gave this program on April 15, 2015 at one of Feinberg, Mindel, Brandt & Klein, LLP's monthly lunch continuing legal education meetings at their office. I am very pleased to report that the program was very well received and that the attorneys had me cover a few other concepts, even after the one-hour time frame had lapsed. The questions and comments were very thoughtful and a number of the attorneys approached me afterwards to tell me how much they enjoyed the presentation and that they found the information very interesting and useful.

Later that evening, an intern of theirs who is currently an LLM student at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine sent me the following email: "I really enjoyed your presentation today at FMBK and wanted to thank you for taking the time to speak with me afterward. It was a pleasure to meet you and I will look forward to reading more of your work in this area." She also told me that one of her professors at the Straus Institute program provided a copy of my article titled "The Perfect Storm: Lawyer Limitations and the Adversarial Model in Family Law" to his students to read. I was absolutely thrilled to hear that, especially considering that the Straus Institute has been ranked number one in the nation by U.S. News & World Report for the 11th consecutive year. The next day, I received the following email from the Marketing Manager at Feinberg Mindel Brandt & Klein, LLP: "Thank you for such a wonderful presentation yesterday. Everyone loved what you had to say! Thanks!"

As I keep saying, you can only give what you have and teach what you know. It is very promising that some family law litigators are receptive to this type of information.