Book Publication: Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During a Pandemic, Tips for Families from Family Experts Around the Globe (2020)

Book Publication:
Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During a Pandemic, Tips for Families from Family Experts Around the Globe (2020)

Excerpt Chapter
Author: Louise Phipps Senft

Can’t we just get along?
When College Co-eds Flee Home during COVID 19 to a House Divided

As divorce mediators, we are well-versed with Mom’s House/Dad’s House situations and the reality of children being uprooted from having one home to now having two, even in the most amicable of divorces. A child no longer has her house or his house, and indeed children no longer refer to their houses as their homes. They say they’re going to Mom’s House or Dad’s House. When COVID 19 forced colleges and universities across the country to close their dormitories and lock the gates of their campuses, it forced a mass exodus of kids fleeing home. For a number of these college kids, they thought they were going to their Childhood home, but many instead came home to a house divided, learning for the first time their parents were divorcing.

The situations were further exacerbated if the Co-ed wasn’t an angel before they left to go away for college. There was no welcome party nor a support group for them when they arrived home. In some instances, the Co-ed’s bedroom was already being turned into a home office, in other instances, it had been dismantled. The situations became tinder when a 19 or 21-year-old, used to being on their own at college, faced new house rules: no eating in bedrooms, no walking around late at night. What is a college kid to do?

Here are some learnings for parents and college Co-eds caught in the middle of these unforeseen- sometimes heartbreaking but always illuminating- situations.

  1. Face-to-Face Dialogue is the premier way to go. It holds everyone accountable to each other when they understand the whole picture. Set a day, time, and place for the conversation, outside the earshot of younger children.
  2. Whether you use a neutral mediator to help with the conversation or not, remember the main issue is between the college Co-ed and the parent who is remaining in the house. That said, it’s a booby trap to not include both parents. These are 3-way conversations.
  3. Before your date, create a structure with Pre-Conversation Goal Setting asking each person to write out their goals. Create two columns: goals for the next few weeks or months and goals for the bigger picture. Do not hold back your honest goals including Moving your Co-ed out to auntie’s house or a hotel, Wanting cooperation, or Reducing volatility in the house. This will help your Co-ed prepare and not be caught off guard. Share these written goals a day before your conversation date. You and your soon-to-be-former spouse do not have to be on the same page.
  4. It’s likely your college Co-ed needs extra emotional support. Add to your goals, Assurance my Co-ed has resources for their mental health. Also add to your goals, To better understand the needs of my Co-ed.
  5. When you meet, commit to focusing on the quality of the interaction itself, to understand each other despite your disagreements or challenges.
  6. At your meeting, listen carefully to your Co-ed’s goals, they are often tender. They are usually new information for you too, including, If I get kicked out, I’m afraid of being lonely. I just want to do well in school. Where am I supposed to go this summer? Or next Christmas? When I get married, I want to bring my kids home and have holidays in my home.
  7. Keep in mind: these are not simple conversations. They are about much more than just a plan for a tense living situation for a few weeks or months. You have the capacity to create greater well-being in the family.

Some might say it is cruel and selfish of parents in the process of divorcing to not figure out how to get along at least temporarily during COVID 19, put out a truce flag temporarily, and allow a haven for their college-age kids. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t as others will never know the full extent of any family’s history. What we do know is that a face-to-face conversation that is focused on the quality of the dialogue with some thoughtful honest preparation ahead of time- shared ahead of time–yields swift and often compassionate outcomes. Structured relational interactions about these issues build capacity for the family. Whether it’s Mom’s House or Dad’s House, these 3-way conversations create an opening for My House, a more complete and restorative picture for the House Divided family.

Louise Phipps Senft, nationally recognized transformative family Mediator, Attorney, CEO, Baltimore Mediation, Distinguished Fellow in the International Academy of Mediators, author of Best-Seller Being Relational: The Seven Ways to Quality Interaction & Lasting Positive Change, and Co-Chair of the Relational Practices Task Force for the American Bar Association.