When my kids were very young, the ultimate put-down they could deliver to each other was “forget you”.
This came to mind when rethinking a mediation session with a high–conflict couple. One felt betrayed, the other misunderstood. The conversation I witnessed was tense, each frequently interrupting the other. Their words assaulted with contradiction, were denigrating, blaming. It was as if the others’ viewpoint had absolutely no legitimacy, their feelings no merit.
By the end of the meeting, I felt like a traffic cop, holding my hand up to silence first one and then the other, so a thought could be completed. Eventually they calmed, tired, and made an effort to comply with my no interruption rule. But by then they were dispirited and eager to leave.
As each in turn had taken control and silenced the other, the underlying message was “you don’t really matter”. Perhaps when an intimate partner has withdrawn their love, this is what we want to believe, but, of course, they do matter, to each other and to their children, the current subject of their bitter discussion.
Had I accomplished anything with my no interruption mandate? Perhaps greater efficiency in addressing the issues before us. But would this intervention actually take them to a place of better understanding? Or agreement? Not likely.
What I need to do, and will attempt when we next meet, is to somehow get them to stand in each others’ shoes, to develop some empathy for what the other is feeling, and in turn, to be understood. If I had a magic wand, this is the gift I would help them give to each other. The future benefits would be immeasurable. Even if only one of them was willing or able to take this step, there would be an important shift in the nature of their negotiation. I am quite sure of that.
The ability to empathize and thereby offer respect to a departing partner (even if continuing to disagree with their positions), and a willingness to honor their past contributions to the family (often privately acknowledged to me), call for words some conflicted partners seem unable to speak to the other. When it is possible, myriad conflicts evaporate. And it is wonderful to witness.
I plan to ask these two to speak as if they’ve exchanged identities, to tell the truth of the other as they know it. Initially it will be awkward, but if they are willing to persist, it will be revealing, even exciting.
Can I accomplish this without it seeming too contrived? Will they resist? Or will they make the effort to imagine what their partner is feeling when repeatedly criticized for past deeds? And will they then be willing to ask if they are on target, to really know the others’ misery and not just their own?
If they can do this, I think they’ll be able to move forward. If not, their children will inherit their pain and learn well from them the art of accusation and blame.