When you negotiate or mediate divorce settlements for a living like I do, sooner or later you get to a closed door. We call that an impasse.  Both parties grit their teeth, cross their arms, and dig in their heels. Further progress seems impossible.

I don’t have dynamite or a magic wand to open that door to get past a divorce settlement impasse. But I do have a couple of tricks I learned from Alice.

“Alice: I simply must get through!
Doorknob: Sorry, you’re much too big. Simply impassible.

Alice: You mean impossible?

Doorknob: No, impassible. Nothing’s impossible.”

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Shrink the Divorce Case Impasse Down to Size

I just finished a divorce case that was too big.  There were too many issues to keep track of.  The disputes included temporary and permanent alimony, the country club membership, the house, utilities, the trust account, the IRAs, the 401(k)s, the bank accounts, the paramour, and the incomes and businesses owned by each party.  Moreover, everything was interrelated. Once you thought you had nailed down one dispute that caused an issue in another item.

How did Alice get through the impassable door that was too small for her?  She drank a potion and grew smaller.  She shrank her problem down to size.

When there are too many issues in a case, I think of Alice drinking that potion to grow smaller. I try to reduce a ten foot stack of issues to one number  — with a dollar sign in front of it.

I put everything we can agree on in the first paragraphs of the agreement. Then I put everything else in one paragraph as one number with a dollar sign in front of it. Reducing everything to one number sometimes works wonders. The parties are better able to bargain to a number they both can live with, and roll their many grievances into that one number, instead of squabbling about every slight during their marriage.

Break the Case Into Separate Pieces

Sometimes opening the door to break a divorce settlement impasse requires a different approach. My client wants custody of his children. His ex-wife wants to keep custody.  Tensions are high and this seems like an impossible impasse.

But nothing is impossible. You can eat an elephant if the pieces are small enough. I prefer the image of emptying the ocean one teaspoon at a time.

Let’s ask Alice. She finds a key on a table near the door, shrinks down to the right size, and finds that she has left the key on the table and is too small to reach it. Then she finds a cake that she eats and that causes her to grow inordinately tall.  She grabs the key and then drinks the liquid to become small again.

She has broken her problem into smaller pieces.

In the custody case, we started breaking the custody down into separate pieces like school, work, medical care, religion, homework, discipline, baby sitters, tv and video game schedules. Then we broke down the time-sharing schedule into weeks, days, hours, summers, holidays and vacations. It took a lot of time, but we were able to settle this case one piece at a time.

The next time you find yourself at an impossible door remember to ask Alice.