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How Do I Start Negotiations with My Spouse?


Pick the right momentEdit

When it comes to resolving issues like parenting arrangements, support obligations, property division, etc., negotiations give people the best chance of maintaining a functioning relationship. It's easiest to start negotiations when everyone's emotions are relatively calm.

For negotiation to work, both people must be able to listen and talk to one another with respect. Negotiations will not succeed if the wounds from the end of the relationship are still fresh. There are a few reasons for this:

  • people who are angry aren't likely to be too accommodating and generally can't see reason even when it's staring them in the face,
  • people who are upset and sad are likely to accept a bad deal, sometimes out of remorse and sometimes out of guilt, and
  • people who are too stressed out are likely to accept a bad deal just to get everything over with.

When you've got the right moment, starting the process of negotiation can be as simple as calling your ex up and inviting them out for a cup of coffee at the local Tim Hortons:

"Hey look, I think it's time that we sat down and started to talk about things. I know this has been a really hard time, and we also have some decisions to make."

Say whatever you want really, there's no perfect rule that will apply to every couple. Only you know how best to approach your ex. It might help to reassure your ex that you mean no harm:

"I don't want to stop you from being a great mother/father, and I want to make sure you're there for the kids. We just need some ground rules about when we're each with the kids."

"I'm not out to screw you over. I don't want your car or your grandmother's china collection, but we really need to talk about how we can fairly split our things up."

"I want to help you and the kids get by, I know that your job doesn't pay enough. We have to discuss how I can pay for my place and my bills and how much you need. I've had a look at the Child Support Guidelines, and they say I should pay support at $325 per month. I'll give you $350."

"This really isn't about you and it's not about me. It's about what will work best for the kids. We may not be partners anymore, but we're always going to be parents. I know that we both want what is best for the kids. With that goal in mind, I have faith that we can make it work."

Sometimes nothing seems to work. In cases like that, often all that helps is the passage of time. Some people need time to grieve and process their emotions as they move through this transition before they are ready to sit down and talk.

Starting the dialogueEdit

When you and your ex are ready to start talking, start talking! Try to make the process as cooperative as possible, which usually means not preparing a stack of calculations to hand to your ex the moment they sit down. No one likes to be bombarded by a bunch of documents as if there was a done deal. Make a list of the things you need to talk about together. Usually this includes:

  • where the children will live,
  • how decisions about the children will be made,
  • how much child support should be paid,
  • whether someone is in need of spousal support, and how much should be paid, and
  • how the family assets and debts will be divided.

Other lists will be useful as the negotiations continue:

  • which assets are the family property that needs to be divided,
  • how much that property is worth,
  • what are the family debts and how much is owing,
  • when will each parent be with the children,
  • how will holidays and other special days be shared, and
  • what additional information each of you needs to collect.

Most importantly, keep a separate written record of the things that you agree on as you agree on them. This could be an online document or a paper notepad. This will help to keep a record of the issues that have been decided, and give each of you a sense of commitment to those decisions.

As discussions go on, you might realize that you and your ex have different ideas about what the law says about an issue. This is the perfect time to take a break and arrange to meet a week later. You can tell your ex about this website and encourage them to read it to get the basic background information.

If you need more help, each of you could also meet with a lawyer to talk about things. If you decide to do this, it is important that the lawyers understand that you and your ex are negotiating these issues, not fighting about them.

Using lawyersEdit

If you find that you're getting stuck on one or more points, or if your ex is refusing to talk to you at all, it's probably time to hire a lawyer.

Hiring a lawyer doesn't mean that you're headed to court and eventually to trial. It means that you're serious about these issues and you want to move things to the next level. Most lawyers will write a letter to your ex explaining that they've been hired by you to start or continue negotiations with an eye to reaching settlement.

Lawyers often negotiate directly with the lawyer for the other person, through letters and telephone calls. Sometimes lawyers will have a meeting where everyone's there: you, your lawyer, your ex, and your ex's lawyer. These are called four-way meetings, and they can be very helpful to move discussions along. If you are able to sit down with your ex and come to agreement on some matters, but get stuck on others, often the most efficient way to resolve the remaining issues is to sit down in a meeting with your lawyers or with a mediator. Where lawyers negotiate primarily through letters rather than phone calls and face-to-face meetings, this can quickly escalate misunderstandings and get people on the defensive. (Not to mention increasing your cost!). If you and your ex are both committed to resolving the remaining issues out of court, look for lawyers whose focus is on resolving matters outside of court. Lawyers trained in and practicing in the collaborative process model are one option for finding a lawyer with such an approach.

Using mediatorsEdit

As an alternative to each of you hiring your own lawyer, you should also seriously consider hiring a professional mediator. The mediator's job is to help two people reach an agreement of their own; the mediator may direct the discussion, but the mediator isn't your ally or your ex's ally. The mediator is completely neutral.

Mediation can be very effective, and can often bring people to a settlement, even where their positions seem to be very far apart.

Before hiring a mediator, make sure you've looked into their background to make sure that the mediator has had special training as a mediator. Lawyers who have training and are accredited to mediate by the Law Society are called family law mediators, and will usually advertise themselves as such.

For more informationEdit

You can find out more about using out-of-court options in the chapter Resolving Family Law Problems out of Court.

This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Catherine Brink, May 25, 2019.

  JP Boyd on Family Law © John-Paul Boyd and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.