This is a story only made simple in the telling, but complex as the reality unfolds.
I met my new mediation clients as they entered the office. Their smiles were broad, no sign of the apprehension usually seen on the faces of those who arrive to unravel the fabric of their marriage.
As they became comfortable seated on opposite ends of my long couch, she said: It’s hard to believe we’re here. It was supposed to be happily ever after.
I smiled, for I too grew up loving fairy tales.
After the preliminaries, he said: We just want to be fair to each other. I want her to be financially secure and she wants me to be able to start a new career.
They glanced at each other with approval, conveying gratitude for their mutual understanding. Then they sat forward eager to begin work.
I asked her: what does financial security mean for you?
She: Well, being able to stay in the house with the kids. We both want that.
He nodded, and I asked him: Will that be possible if you leave your current job?
He: Sure. By drawing on her share of my retirement account and supplementing that with what she can earn, they’ll be able to stay put for quite a while.
She, appearing confused: Wait, that’s not my plan. That’s not fair.
He: Why not? What about being fair to me?
I’d not yet heard their full story, but I knew that another myth would soon be proved false, another fairy tale forsaken: that they would agree on what was fair.
Their plans no longer meshed. Although they shared many values, there were some they did not share. It was already clear that what one thought would be a fair outcome, was not close to being fair from the perspective of the other,
I offered my view that seeking a mutual sense of fairness when a marriage is ending is an ever-elusive goal, one best abandoned. Puzzled, they sat back, disheartened.
I wanted to reassure them but not create false expectations, so told them that I urge mediation clients to adopt a flea-market mentality. Finding an item you wish to purchase, you ask the dealer: How much?
And if told the price is twenty dollars, you don’t say: But that’s not fair.
You might offer to pay ten dollars and then settle for fifteen. The deal is not struck by arguing the fairness of the price, but by reaching an acceptable one.
Trying to convince someone to agree with your sense of fairness when their values (or perceptions) differ from your own, is futile. The key to success is to probe the positions your negotiating partner has taken and try to fully understand each others’ underlying interest in achieving a stated goal. Why is it important to her to remain in a home now too large and expensive? Why is the immediacy of his leaving his present job important? That conversation will unlock the imagination.
I know they will soon develop many options to consider.
Sooner than planned, she may seek to provide some additional income. He may postpone leaving the job, while looking for another. They may decide to sell the house after all.
When I tell this story to a friend, she chides me for being cynical.
I respond: Not cynical, but pragmatic.
She persists: Fair is when you’d call it fair if you were in the other person’s shoes. That’s achievable and worth striving for.
To yearn for fairness, that may be a good thing, if it promotes compromise. But to expect agreement on what a fair outcome would be is folly. Realistically, there is no such thing as objective fairness, except perhaps in tales from the Brothers Grimm.