Family Mediation Center

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Are There Valid Reasons for Making  Trade-Offs?

By Allison Quattrocchi, Mediator (retired) and

Joy B. Borum,  Mediator


If you are moving in the direction of a divorce or change in your life or business, you might be considering a trade-off. A trade-off means one person, for reasons of his or her own - emotional, psychological, spiritual and others, is giving up or giving more or doing differently something that might be available under the law.  Before making any decision, but particularly a trade-off, it is critically important that you take full ownership of your decisions and understand exactly why you are making them.  

How? At the Family Mediation Center you will never be asked to make a decision until you have had sufficient information and sufficient time. I call the decisions clients make here "ones you own in your head, your heart - and because researchers now tell us there's neural tissue in the intestines, in your gut." A lawyer would call these decision "competent" decisions. Also, if there is something that would help the mediation move more easily or that would help us grasp an issue more clearly, and none of us knows (yet)...there is always some source or resource outside the room we can tap to help. If there are documents that would inform us, we all get copies so we're all "on the same page."

Because it's possible that the situation prompting consideration of a trade-off might change for the better, always allow some time to elapse before committing to a trade-off. Remorse down the road does not feel very good. Trade-offs can arise as a dynamic in any negotiation, whether you are represented by an attorney in the adversarial process, are in mediation with or without attorney support, or are doing the divorce yourself. You may not receive a lot of social or legal support for deciding to make a trade-off, but, if the trade-off is meaningful to you, it is a valid exchange...and your right.

Following are six common dynamics, alone or in combination, that might motivate a trade-off. They can arise out of power and control issues, one's own emotional and physical health, and the respective values or priorities of the parties.

  1. "I can't take it any more." aka "I'm D.O.N.E. done."
  2. Whether the legal or divorce process has exhausted you or your spouse or partner has exhausted you or both, you have gotten to the point that any "win" is not worth staying stuck in the morass. You are unable to move on with your life or focus on your work. You may continue to watch your health decline due to the stress and energy drain of the divorce or the changing situation.

    If you keep going, this is the ultimate "win-the-battle-and-lose-the-war" scenario. Weighing the pros and cons of the trade-off depends on how you define your priorities. There may be a very solid reason for saying "no more," taking less or giving more, doing "it" differently, and getting closure.

  3. "I feel guilty for wanting this divorce."
  4. Number 3 applies equally to this dynamic.

  5. "I wanted this divorce over yesterday."
  6. Feeling guilty for wanting the divorce and/or wanting it over as soon as possible are reasons why you might take less in the settlement than you might be legally entitled to. You have every right to "buy" your way out of your marriage as long as you understand and take ownership of what you are doing.

    There is nothing wrong with offering a "great deal" to get the divorce behind you quickly or to soothe your conscience. However, carefully weight the possibility of feeling angry about your decision later. "Buyer's remorse" can be a form of self-pity and will not contribute to your ability to move forward with your life. Remember, you did the best you could at the time. Had you known functionally how to do it differently, you would have done so. Give yourself credit and get on with your life.

  7. "I'm in a position to recover faster."
  8. Leaving more on the table for the other spouse is the action of a person with a generous spirit and usually arises from a strong, caring sense of the provider role. Often, there are children, the relationship is longstanding, the other person is older or a combination of some or all of these. The spouse or partner making the offer is often very secure in his or her future earning power and sees his or her needs as secondary to those of the other spouse, the children, the business or others affected by the decision(s).

    Warning: Sometimes a rescue mentality or other emotional baggage is motivating the offer. If so, be careful!

    Review your motivation. Then, if you are not currently represented by or consulting with an attorney, hire or consult with an attorney who will challenge your assumptions to make sure you are committed to your decision.

  9. "I want peace for the sake of the children, business, future...and me."
  10. This trade-off happens when one person is faced with an arbitrary demand from the other and to challenge it means a fight. The person who is considering the trade-off is less concerned about any material gain than the effect on the children, business, future of a fight, legal or otherwise. That person may also be concerned about the increased anger and resentment from the one who is making the demand, if the demand is not satisfied. Each person's priority in this case is conspicuously different. One person appears to be willing to run the adversarial gamut. The other parent closure and is anxious to protect as much as possible the children, the parenting relationship, or the business after the divorce.

    An Example of a Trade-Off for Closure:

    The husband who lived very frugally, seemingly proud of his self-denial, had issues with his wife's spending. Both spouses had equal incomes. The husband expected his wife to take responsibility for all the debt that, at the time the divorce was initiated, amounted to $20,000. The wife accepted the debt without comment. The husband saw no reason why this was not fair, even after the mediator forced the discussion of the issue and the husband acknowledged that he and the children had benefited from the expenses that had created the debt. The husband finally accepted a few thousand dollars of the debt, but that was as far as he was going to move. The wife admitted she was accepting the remaining balance of the debt "to keep the peace" and "get the divorce over with," even though she did not believe it was fair. She said she knew her husband well enough to know it was useless to keep arguing over this issue. The wife could easily have prevailed in court, but to her it was not worth the time, the money, or the potential damage to their parental relationship and the children.

  11. "I need cash flow now so I can stay home for the children."
  12. Sometimes parents do not agree on the necessity or value for one of them to stay home to care for the children or another family member, elder or incapcitated. The person preferring to stay home may then make a trade-off of the value of an asset for more or longer spousal support, which will enable postponing entering the work force outside the home.

An Example of a Trade-Off for Cash Flow:

In a marriage of four years, the wife was a stay-at-home mom for the couple's son, who is now three years old. The father' family would provide day care if the mother went to work, but the mother felt strongly about waiting until the child was five years old before seeking employment. The father had a very moderate income. The mother had a significant relationship in her life, and it was no surprise to the father when the issue of possible remarriage arose. The mother asked the father to pay spousal support for the agreed-upon term regardless of whether she remarried and traded her interest in his 401(k) Plan for that agreement.

The cash flow was more important to her than 50 percent of the 401(k) Plan even though the Plan was greater in value (if she did not liquidate it). Alternatively, had she taken her share of the Plan and liquidated it, the value would have been less than the value of the spousal support because of the tax consequences. Father was quite happy to be able to retain his entire 401(k) Plan. The mediator made very sure the mother was taking complete responsibility for that decision, reality tested all kinds of scenarios with her, and insisted the agreement be reviewed by independent counsel. The mother stood by her agreement. She, of course, had the right to make this decision.