Narrowing The Divide

Jack Sherman and I meet for lunch every Wednesday, a ritual of sorts, in recognition of a friendship dating back to our law school days in the 1960s. Last month, on a chilly Wednesday afternoon, we were joined by Greg Adams, another friend and colleague of many years. Yet, despite our friendship, I walked away from Greg without speaking when we met at a social event soon after the election, a lapse I wrote about in these pages almost two months ago.

The three of us sat together in a cozy booth, my political adversary and my best friend, and we recalled our many connections. We laughed in surprise when Greg pointed out that Jack had been his constitutional law professor back in the early 1970s. Tensions eased. At least mine did. The two men exhibited none at all right from the start. Denial is their friend?

I now knew, which was unexplored territory for us before the presidential election, that Greg and I lived in separate moral* worlds, a divide artfully described by Jonathan Haidt, a noted social psychologist whose work Greg and I both admire. Haidt suggests that our political positions are mostly unconscious moral intuitions that are formed by early family and life experience. Because of this we perceive very different threats to our democracy. But, unlike those who choose to avoid talking about it, we were at a turning point. We were either facing a permanent breech, a greatly diminished quality of friendship and a widening of the divide so evident across the land, or we could make the effort to reach out and develop empathy and understanding for our different views, and stop seeing each other as the enemy. (Although, I later learned that the enmity I felt, born of my fear of what the future holds, was not shared by Greg at all.)

“What do you see as the role of government?” That was my first question, and I offered my answer before he spoke. “For me, it’s an expanded sense of community, a way for all of us to take care of each other.” Greg’s response perfectly encapsulated our different perspective: “It’s human nature to want to control one’s own destiny. Government regulating our lives denies this, and at the same time is inherently inefficient.” He shared anecdotes, some quite humorous, to support his conclusion.

We touched on many issues: children living in poverty, the minimum wage, the threatened Muslim registry, broaching subjects about which I assumed we differed in important ways. My words were carefully chosen. Without any formal prior agreement we each took care not to be challenging. We listened well and responded calmly. Along the way, we all told funny stories, some with a partisan edge, and the mood remained light hearted. Time ran out with many important issues untouched.

Expressing empathy for victims of tragic events is easy. It’s far less easy when we feel personally threatened, when our moral matrix*, our belief system, is called into question by the left-right divide. Can a genuine friendship survive? But perhaps of broader importance, can our democracy survive if we can only shout at each other or remain silent?

We made a start that Wednesday afternoon. And on reflection, I realize how important that was. Since then we’ve had further conversations and plans are afoot to have others join us. Will this be a true coming together? The emergence of shared values? Perhaps some, for we have already discovered we share unequivocal support for free speech on college campuses and oppose the concept of a Muslim registry. And might we problem solve where we differ? There will be genuine appreciation for the effort, and respect. Of that I am sure. Just a beginning, but an important beginning.

And should we happen to meet informally, I will not look away.

*Terms used by Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of “The Righteous Mind”. See also TED talk interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-_Az5nZBBM.


 

 

 

 

 

At A Loss For Words

My friend was in a quandary, and when he told me what had happened, I joined him in his loss for words. For both of us, our livelihood calls upon our facility with language, but we were at sea.

The story: A few weeks ago my friend lunched with a colleague following a business meeting at which an important matter was being negotiated. No deal had yet been made.. The only woman at the table, who was participating for first time that morning, had raised serous questions about a position taken by my friend’s luncheon companion (we’ll call him Dick), and Dick’s anger, though controlled, had flared.

As they slid into the restaurant booth, Dick remarked, “these lesbians can be relentless.” His comment was made with a jocular, “if you know what I mean” grin. My friend’s response was silence. They ordered lunch and the discussion subject shifted, the derisive comment allowed to simply evaporate without rejoinder.

But my friend’s discomfort did not evaporate, for now, weeks later, we sat pondering how that remark might have been (should have been) countered. We both have friends, colleagues and family members who are gay or lesbian, and we felt offended and angered revisiting that scene. Yet, we were at a loss for the words that might have been spoken in response.

Oh, we had no trouble designing cutting insults to induce embarrassment, or to label Dick a bigot, but he was someone with whom my friend would continue to work. And even if he were not, an aggressive remark which would add to the discomfort of the moment, was not in my friend”s repertoire. Yet, by remaining silent he felt lacking in courage, defeated.

If the goal is to raise consciousness and not to simply confront or demean, which might just harden beliefs and enhance a defensive posture, another approach is needed.

I’ve taken a survey of sorts and asked some friends how they would respond to an ugly remark, a pejorative identity statement, and none had a sound rejoinder that worked, at least from my perspective. Most had experienced similar conversations and also remained silent, often walking away if the setting allowed.

After much thought and some reading (see the fine book identified below), I think I’ve come up with a sound approach.

Bigoted remarks can be addressed with a non-defensive question, simply seeking further exploration of the meaning. The question must express genuine curiosity and be non-accusatory, and asked with an open, non-critical tone, an inflection which sincerely invites a thoughtful response.

For example, “Dick, tell me why you think that’s so?”

If his response continues in the same disparaging vein, at least a conversation has begun, and the way open to a sharing of experience and knowledge. Genuine curiosity would appear to be the key.

On the other hand, Dick might simply answer, “I guess that was a pretty crude remark on my part.” Then a simple, “yes” in response might suffice for the moment, with perhaps a smile as well. That may well signal an open door for further conversation.

……………………………….

(Taking the War Out of Our Words, by Sharon Strand Ellison)


 

 

Just Mumble

Some years ago, I clipped a favorite cartoon by Koren, and I keep it on my desk. It shows two middle aged couples visiting in the living room of one of their homes, with a huge hairy monster looming behind the smiling hosts seated together on a couch. The wife addresses their friends sitting opposite, who are staring at the monster, and says: We deal with it by talking about it.

This is a concept I hold dear, the idea of coping with our demons by talking about them with those we trust, thereby lessening their power to effect our lives. Surely this is the best way to foster understanding and intimacy.

Professionally, I often urge clients to face and perhaps question their fears or concerns about the future, bring them out in the open, and share different perspectives and opinions with friends or loved ones.

So, it was with some surprise that I recently came across some opposite views that I find appealing.

I wish I could, but cannot remember the source of these words I quickly scribbled on the pad I keep by my bed: Curiously, it helped us not to talk things out. Confusion cannot be challenged if there is no finality. In a marriage there is always tomorrow, the apology, the explanation of bad behavior, the kiss.

Weeks later when I gathered up my collection of bedside notes and reread this quote, I realized more fully the wisdom it held. Those whose relationships have survived long term have all probably learned this lesson, to pick and choose which incidents, which thoughts or daydreams, which monsters need to be talked about and which are best left to confusion, to uncertainty, to apology, or just to the kiss.

And here’s another strategy.

When Colbert King, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and deputy editor of the editorial page of the Washington Post was asked about his wife of over 50 years, King commented: We have a mixed marriage, she’s a registered Republican, and I’m a Democrat.

Actually, King and his wife, Gwendolyn King, both held a number of high government positions, he as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter administration, she as a Deputy Assistant to Ronald Reagan and as Director of the Social Security Administration under George H.W. Bush.

When interviewed and asked how he handles their disagreements. King, who will soon be 76, responded that he just goes with the flow and added: You have to learn how to mumble if you’re going to keep the marriage going . . . that you don’t have arguments . . . because if you‘ve got to say it  . . . five years from now when you’re about to brush your teeth, she’s going to get the last word . . . I don’t disagree with my wife about anything, I just enjoy the moments.

So, perhaps there are times to throw a blanket over the monster, cultivate confusion, and mumble.

 


 

 

 

 

When There Is No Trust

She sat as if braced for a blow, unsmiling and on her guard. Seated at the other end of my long office couch, he was her reverse image, comfortably relaxed.

It was not until I met with her alone that she gave voice to her anxiety. In despair she said, “he wants this divorce and I don’t trust him anymore”.

Her husband, a businessman, had taken the first step and walked away from what she acknowledged was not a happy marriage. The roles they took throughout their 25 year union were well-defined, he the breadwinner and she in charge at home. They rarely crossed over into the others’ world. He knew so much more than she did about finance, about their finances. How could she possibly negotiate with him, when she felt she could no longer rely on his concern for her well-being?

Trust had been their bedrock, even as their intimacy faded. No longer.

She went on, “I do all the bill paying so he says I have a good grasp of money matters. Not so. He assures me I’ll be fine, but I no longer have confidence in what he tells me”

My response: “Why should you?”

She looked up, surprised.

I continued, “when an intimate relationship ends, trust flies out the window and anxiety sweeps in. Betrayal, broken promises or shifting moral standards, and a partner so well known becomes a stranger. The pain of loss and fear of the unknown dominates the emotional landscape. Then all that’s needed is a spark, a canceled credit card, a barbed letter from an attorney or finding out that a separate bank account has been opened. If there was any residual trust, it vanishes. Being assured that everything will be all right offers little solace”.

She listened intently and asked, “do I need to hire a more aggressive lawyer”?

My response: “that’s one option, although not one I would urge. While the family’s financial status quo is being maintained, I recommend you take this time to collect all the information you need to become stronger and wiser yourself. Then an attorney committed to settlement might well help you figure things out”.

Her eyebrows raised but she was smiling.

To those who’ve survived this early stage of divorce without declaring war and have found their way into a mediation setting, or who’ve hired lawyers who can advocate for them while seeking an equitable settlement, recognizing the need to address the interests of both parties, this is what I say: “let’s just assume that your spouse is untrustworthy. This is your current perspective. You may be wrong, but you may be right. So, why not simply accept the absence of trust, and design a settlement that doesn’t depend on faith. Assert your power to say a respectful “no” to anything that is suggested, until you are ready to say “yes”. Ask for documentation and test proposed solutions assisted by carefully selected experts, lawyers, financial planners. Decide to make no decisions until they are fully informed decisions. Let doubt serve you. No call to be accusatory or disrespectful. Just smart.”

In marriage we expect trust, assume that we’ll always be told the truth and our well-being given priority. That perfection may not always exist, but it’s a reasonable expectation.

When an intimate relationship ends, aggression is not the answer, but trust need not be assumed. Unless and until it is regained.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When an intimate relationship ends, aggression is not the answer, but trust need not be assumed. Unless and until it is regained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Life Just Happens

Too often it is only after years of sidestepping talk of discontent, that the thwarted desires of partners are openly and seriously explored. Much that might be timely addressed goes unsaid, until it is too late.

Here is the story a divorcing couple recently told. Seventeen years earlier, she’d become pregnant, they married, and she gave up her college plan. He achieved career success, making it unnecessary for her to take a job for pay. As the family grew, they moved to an upscale suburb where the children attended private schools.

Although she yearned to return to serious study, little was said of this as obligations at home and in the community filled her days. After a time he felt trapped in a career he would happily leave, but for the need to support their expensive lifestyle. The immensity and seeming impossibility of their dreams, and their discontent, was only occasionally the subject of aimless late night talks.

Now, with all passion spent, and the decision made to part, they didn’t blame each other for the disappointments they openly discussed, both suggesting: it just happened.

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to a small volume, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Life” by Alan Lakein. It’s one of many books I never finished, but the early pages contained a suggestion I took to heart.

Following the author’s instructions, each year, usually in January, I sit before a blank piece of paper and without allowing any time for rumination, spend just two minutes writing the answer to each of the following questions:

1) What do I want to accomplish over the next five years?

2) What do I want to accomplish over the next year?

3) How would I spend the next six months if I knew I had only six months to live?

I’ve kept my annual lists and from time to time, I look back. Sometimes, with pleasure, I note goals that have been met. Other times, I recognize that year after year the same objective is repeated without much forward movement. My answers to the third question are quite specific but least likely to have been implemented. Denial?

I never share my lists with anyone. But many conversations with friends and colleagues are spawned with my aspirations in mind, and projects designed. Trying to enlist my husband to join me in this specific question and answer process failed. Wasn’t his style. But over the years, my formalizing of goals, long and short term, often led to talk about our dreams and miseries. We gave each other permission and support to initiate change, and many important changes were made.

But what happened to the two people seated on my office couch who spoke of their regrets, as they made plans for lives apart? At an earlier time they felt great attraction for each other, and probably shared many values, yet they failed to seriously talk about or support each others’ longings. Their imaginings about a different way of life were defeated before they were realistically explored. What if they had asked each other how steps in new directions might have been taken over the next six months, or the next year?

Perhaps every couple, or at least one partner, should go through an annual assessment of what they wish they could do or be, to see if articulating what one hopes to achieve, might lead to important disclosures by both of them, and support for those ends. Together.


 

 

 

When Talking Is Difficult

As colder weather approaches, I a reminded of the recent winter when my car broke down, which proved to be not only a failure of the mechanism, but of my spirit, at least temporarily. For I felt ill equipped to cope with the decisions that then had to be made. This had always been Len’s domain, not mine.

I managed well enough with the help of friends, and those who towed and repaired with kind tolerance for my ineptitude, but what a stark reminder of the division of responsibility in our marriage. Although we often consulted with each other, decisions about the purchase or repair of anything with moving parts were left to him, interior design left to me. Insurance, his. Kid’s clothing and wellness care, mine. With career decisions, he made his and I made mine. But major concerns, a possible move to another city, a home purchase, a child’s blue mood, were always talked through to resolution. If memory serves me well, our shared values usually made these conversations easy. But not always.

When Len, who piloted his own small plane, began to take our young grandchildren aloft, I developed a twitching eyelid and my sleep was seriously disturbed. We tried to talk about it. He was angry and hurt that I would question his judgment and thought my fears irrational. I thought not, but even if they were, I needed to find a healthy way to cope. We knew this was an issue we had to confront and resolve, but my anxiety and his defensiveness made it a difficult conversation that went nowhere.

Eventually, we sought professional help, and along the way learned a lot about each other and ourselves. The outcome we reached was a compromise which I gratefully, and he somewhat grudgingly, accepted: he would take another pilot along when the grandchildren were passengers.

What the breakdown of my car and these meandering recollections bring to mind is how often both partners approaching divorce maintain that whenever conflict loomed, too discouraged or unable to talk it through, they were the one who abdicated the decider role and simply gave in to the other. The moments most clearly remembered were those when dreams were compromised, eroding a sense of self, thwarting authenticity.

I’m aware of this because on the first day I meet with a mediating pair, I speak with each of them privately and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. How did they negotiate? Here is the interesting twist. Often each spouse reports that they were the one who most often capitulated and accommodated to the wishes or demands of the other. Both asserted: “I just went along to get along”. As impossible as this would seem, I think the belief was sincerely voiced.

My friends whose relationships are working well readily acknowledge those areas in which they most likely have the prominent decision making role and those they are willing to leave to their partner. For them, talk is usually easy.  But in a relationship where hope for a future together is ending, self-disclosure feels risky and talking is difficult, and the yearning to better understand the other is trumped by anxiety or disappointment.

Without some intervention, preferably with an experienced counselor, dissatisfaction just grows and grows.  So, of course, the earlier the better.


 

“Forget You”

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.

 


 

To Go Slow Is To Go Fast

They had entered my office smiling, an amiable couple in their early fifties. After my introductory comments, I was told that even before deciding to mediate their divorce they had pretty much worked things out. Many agreements were already in place, and I was assured they would make quick work of the issues that remained.

Approaching the end of our second session, Dave, a successful businessman, spoke with authority as he presented the financial plan he had devised for his wife, Kate, for when she would be on her own. Apparently listening, but quiet and no longer smiling, Kate did not react or respond. I invited her comment. She just shrugged her shoulders. So I asked: need more data?

No answer. So I continued: Perhaps you’re feeling apprehensive about what the future holds?

Still no response from Kate.

Leaning forward, Dave turned to me, making no effort to hide his irritation: Wait a minute. You’re putting words in her mouth. She’s fine with this plan. We already talked it over.

At that, Kate came to life:  You don’t know how I feel! I’ll never find a job earning what you say I can earn. Now she was sobbing. Dave sat back, displeased and exasperated. He was a man on a mission who thought the end was in sight.

So, why this breakdown now?

All along I’d been aware of Kate’s struggle to fully understand Dave’s explanation of financial matters that had previously been left completely up to him. Earlier he had pointed out that it was Kate who always paid the monthly bills, suggesting she was therefore savvy about finance. But did this follow? Although her husband treated her with respect and she did not appear distrustful, her anxiety was palpable. Not an uncommon response when the reality of going forward alone is no longer inescapable. And Kate as yet had no job in sight.

Dave’s impatience would not serve him well. That day, as Kate fully revealed her fears about the future, and after some further discussion, he eventually came to realize that unless Kate felt more competent to engage and reason with him, and had employment she could count on, she would very likely turn to a surrogate power source: a lawyer, a gladiator, to do battle with her stronger opponent. That could be a very long journey.

We took time out from mediation for Kate to meet with counsel wise in the ways of settlement, and a financial planner with special knowledge of divorce consequences, to take whatever time she needed to fully understand the deal she was about to negotiate, and to become assured she could successfully manage her financial future. She would get the help she needed, but not from Dave. And the job search would proceed before finality was achieved. Kate would even research the possibility of additional coursework to enhance her employability. It meant a delay of some months while these steps were taken, but she was excited now, still wary but optimistic.

I’ve never been comfortable with the cynical comment that if both parties walk away from a negotiation equally unhappy, a good bargain has been struck. Rather, I think if both are given sufficient time to address their concerns, fully empowered, either alone or with a wise advocate at their side, sound agreements can be reached.

I was confident that before long Kate would find her own voice. And Dave, even if reluctantly, came to realize that sometimes to go slow is to go fast.

 


 

 

Apology: Remorse or Maneuver?

A mediation client recently phoned after a session and politely but firmly accused me of favoring a plan put forward by his wife, displaying a bias, not the neutrality I’d promised.

Although I thought his perception wrong, I knew I had likely contributed to this misunderstanding, so I simply apologized. That seemed to clear the air, and we were then able to listen to each others’ view of what had taken place. Defensiveness fell away, for both of us.

But it could have gone quite differently, for I almost mindlessly, and defensively, responded to him by saying: I‘m sorry you see it that way.

I didn’t do so because of my heightened awareness of other expressions of regret gone awry: a celebrity, a politician or a radio talk show host places foot squarely in mouth and indicts an ethnic group or gender, with evil or foolish intent, and when once again sober or contrite, with great apparent sincerity apologizes by saying: If my words resulted in discomfort or pain, I‘m very sorry.

Responsibility for the incident is thereby shifted away from the speaker and to the listener, who is presumed to be overly sensitive. Not really an apology at all.

Working with people who have hurt each other in egregious ways and decided to divorce, I don’t often hear an apology spoken. When the decision has been made to part, and anxiety about the future is high, perhaps this is not surprising. Yet, I regret this constraint, for expressions of remorse that take responsibility for acts or omissions, can be so healing and open the door to understanding.

Even under less stressful circumstances, in secure times, some can say they are sorry with ease, perhaps even be too apologetic, when for others, the words of regret remain unspoken.

The different ways each of us convey ideas or express feelings is dependent to some extent on ethnicity, nationality or a special dynamic in our family of origin. These are disparities that too often go unrecognized.

The apology also presents an important gender distinction.

Here’s an interesting insight from Debra Tannen, a linguist, author and professor at Georgetown University. She’s written a number of books pointing out the differences between the communication style of most men and women, differences which she observed even in nursery school age children at play. She notes how willing women often are to apologize when things have not worked out well. I’ve noticed that myself, and assumed it simply grew out of women’s greater ability to express feelings, and the reluctance of many men to display emotion. But, according to Tannen, there is more to it than that.

Tannen observes that women tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation bringing us closer or pushing us further apart? Men, on the other hand tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation putting me in a one-up or one-down position?

For women, she concludes, apologies are to be embraced because they reinforce connections, but many men are attuned to the symbolic power of an apology to advertise defeat.

I find this to be a meaningful distinction, although, to be applied fully recognizing that generalizations don’t always fit.

 


 

Anger: Serve You Well Or Do You In?

I’m uneasy in the face of anger. In my professional world, I’ve learned how to manage that of others. But, in my personal world, the anger I feel towards others, or if I am the target, can leave me a bit unhinged. But, not for long.

Therapists have helped so many to recognize and legitimize their anger. For some, depression begins to lift, a new sense of self and autonomy is achieved, all to the good. But for some, who I suspect give up the exploration of angry feelings too soon, a new found acceptance of their angry feelings is worn as a badge of courage, and it can do them in.

Consider this: Husband has been betrayed. Wife has met a new preferred partner. Husband, able to work at home, had fostered wife’s successful career, provided daytime care for the children and kept the home fires burning brightly. (For the purpose of this discussion, who did what to whom over the term of the marriage is irrelevant, for, as is almost always the case, both parties contributed to the relationship deficits.) Husband’s anger is now given free rein, and fuels his days.

In the negotiation setting, anger is frequently expressed, understandably so. This husband angrily rejects wife’s generous financial proposals, born, in part, of her remorse. My cautionary words are met with: my therapist said I have every right to express my anger.

Meeting privately with the husband, I suggest that anger expressed in a therapeutic setting, or to a friend, may well serve a valid purpose, but does not serve him well when negotiating. Whether or not one has the right to be angry is not the point. Reaching a favorable result is. So, I advise: taste the anger, but then become strategic.

My words, not surprisingly, fall on unreceptive ears. A quick turn around appears impossible. I urge a return to therapy with a focus on his immediate situation. It may take months of litigation before he is able to recognize that his angry stance is self-defeating.

On a recent morning, I was wide awake at 3:00am mentally composing a response to a letter received the day before by someone I did not even know. It was originally emailed to a friend (then forwarded to me) criticizing a public affairs event I had a part in presenting earlier in the week. It was belligerent in tone and replete with misunderstanding. I wanted my response to be perfectly stated to artfully put him in his place. But hours later, in the light of day, I decided not to devote any more precious hours to venting my anger, when nothing of any importance was to be gained. I was pleased and even a bit proud of myself to be able let the whole matter fade away.

My personal epiphany actually occurred many years ago when a book by a self-help guru got me on the right track by pointing out that holding on to anger hands tremendous power over to another. The target of anger, in a sense, takes control of your life. That was the last thing I wanted.

For me, acknowledging, but then letting go of anger, and seeking an effective solution to the issue at hand, takes back control and power.

And breathing deeply helps.


 

The Folly of Giving Advice

I’m watching a young family self-destruct. I cast caution to the wind and offer some advice. A foolish move.

The story: Two young physicians are taking part in mediation, ending their five year marriage. They have built a reservoir of misery for themselves and their child. After just one meeting, I thought I knew how they could avert disaster.

He is smart, charming and articulate, qualities that attract, no doubt attracted her. But though soft spoken, he is a very angry man. Now that their marriage is almost over, his anger has taken center stage, sometimes covert and subtle, but often sharp and direct. She says it is what has driven her away, and she sees herself as the victim in their drama.

But when his verbal saber slices the air, as he thrusts, she parries. They are frozen in this dance, and are on the brink of waging legal warfare. Their child is young, so they have many years ahead to play their parts.

My ego gets in the way of wisdom, so in private I give him advice: get therapeutic help. Seek the source of your rage, try to understand and overcome it.

My advice to her: with your ardent defensive reactions to his anger, you’re turning control of your life over to the very man you’re trying to escape. Get some help to figure out how you can change your responses. Don’t live with the hope or expectation that you can best him at this game, or that he is the one who will change.

Neither acknowledges nor attends to what I urge upon them. Just the opposite. She pays no heed and changes the subject. He’s resentful and withdraws. My advice may have been sound. Offering it was not.

I step back and examine my folly, and bring my failed experience to a thoughtful colleague. And she says: you’ve stepped across a boundary and taken on a role that is not yours to play. You can’t change their lives with motivation that is yours, not theirs.

Words I might have spoken to another, but did not speak to myself in my rush to rescue them. They had not come to me for salvation.

Good advice may be a great gift, but giving it in a constructive way is an art. My knowledge of this pair was superficial, their situation far more complex than it initially appeared. An empathic listening connection had barely begun. With meager acquaintance, one cannot know what is best for someone else.

Even with close friends or family members, unsolicited advice is usually an unwelcome intrusion into another ‘s personal life, suggesting that they are not capable of working out their own issues, a lack of due regard. In this circumstance, I should at least have asked whether my advice was wanted, and posed the question in a way that allowed for either a yes or no answer.

There are some things I can do in the role of mediator (not savior), or as a friend or family member, that might be helpful, and which I may still have the opportunity to do with my young clients. I could share my personal experiences in dealing with anger, my own and in responding to that of another, information they could choose to make use of or ignore, but which would not be a show of disrespect. And I could ask questions that would help them  explore possible options going forward and then consider the likely consequences of each path that could be taken. This could take considerable time but it would be time well spent.

In the end, wisely or not, we usually act on what we have come to believe is our best course of action, not on what someone else tells us to do. (Especially not on what a parental figure suggests!)

Best we share our own experience, give of ourselves, not advice, and offer our analytical skills. The rest is up to the listener.


 

 

Empathy Redefined

Empathy Redefined

To gain insight from experience I’ve acquired over the years and then to pass it along, that is satisfying. But, when applying such wisdom to events in my own life doesn’t work, that is sobering.

The wisdom: when another person’s point of view or behavior is problematic or upsetting, quiet the tendency to be reactive and stand in their shoes. Empathize. View the situation from their perspective. As a professional helping others, I can do this in a reasonably dispassionate way. And many times I’ve said: once you empathize, you can sympathize with their point of view.

Not always easy if I’m emotionally involved, but I thought I had even these situations figured out.

An example: My son and daughter-in-law divorced some years ago. I loved her dearly and still do. She lives far away so we only occasionally visit, but we continue to correspond and speak on the phone. Often she shares her concerns with me and our words flow easily, unless she makes a negative comment about my son. I understand, even empathize, but can simply ignore these words if they are written, or remain quiet if they are spoken, and attend to the rest of her message. She is a quick study, so takes my silence into account and we move on, each of us accepting a well-established boundary that only occasionally is crossed, but then renewed.

So empathy works, until it doesn’t.

Here’s what happened: I received an email message from a dear friend who lives some distance away, with whom I’ve maintained a close connection over the years. I consider both she and her husband intimate friends, he a former professional colleague of my husband. But now the wife wrote complaining bitterly about her husband’s behavior and attitude. The tone of her message clearly assumed my alignment with her, seeking both my sympathy and asking for my professional advice. I was upset and resented being drawn into their personal lives in this way and expected to take sides.

My initial reaction was not to respond at all, but soon I knew that totally ignoring her message would be too unkind a rejection.

After mulling it over, I shared my quandary with a trusted colleague: I could not simply accept the wife’s perception of events and offer sympathy and advice without feeling disloyal to the husband, nor was I willing to be drawn into the details of their intimate angst and make judgments about what went on.

As we talked, some new wisdom emerged: I was confusing empathy with the need to sympathize and become an actor in their play. Empathy, a willingness to understand, does not require agreement or even sympathy, only a readiness to hear and attempt to comprehend what someone has to say, not to embrace it. With that distinction clearly in mind, I was able to frame a heartfelt response that was empathic and not rejecting.

A bit wiser now, I stepped back into my own shoes. Taking care of myself, I also asked that I be seen only as a friend, which made giving professional advice to either of them untenable. An important boundary was established.

 


 

Does Love Trump Privacy?

When our youngest child grew up and moved some distance away, I claimed her room and fashioned a space all my own. It was quite small, on the second floor of our home with leafy tree branches almost touching the windows, a nest of sorts. There were times my husband came and stood at the threshold to ask me a question, but he didn’t walk in. He never entered uninvited. It was our unspoken understanding, as natural as breathing, that this was my space alone. Our separateness was respected. This personal background sets the stage for a description of a mediation session in which privacy was the issue.

The couple working with me made it clear they were not seeking therapy, not my skill, but to preserve their marriage by negotiating a specific well-defined concern: In the prior week, without consulting his wife, the husband had installed a lock on his home-office door. She was hurt and angry.

His story: When he was away from home, his wife opened mail addressed only to him. It was nothing of a highly personal nature, but in doing so she learned that his business debt was considerably greater than she had been led to believe. On discovering this, still in his absence, she looked through his desk and files, and eventually explored the content of his computer. When she confronted him upon his return about all that she had uncovered, he was outraged. That’s when the lock went on.

Her story: She firmly believed there should be no secrets between marriage partners, and that she was, therefore, perfectly justified in her actions. He was the one who had much to explain.

The response I addressed to her was spoken without hesitation, or sufficient forethought. With some fervor I said: But everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy.

This statement and my tone surprised them, and myself as well. With hindsight I regret the unprofessional manner in which I spoke. I should have posed some neutral questions to each of them, not been judgmental. Predictably, the issue did not get resolved in my office, and later, when the wife called to cancel their next scheduled appointment, I learned that after further discussion between them, her husband had removed the lock from his office door.

I recalled another client who discovered that her husband had read the journal in which she wrote each morning on waking. She was incensed, even though she’d kept it tucked in her nightstand drawer, readily accessible, and known to him. Her question: How could he not understand that it was for my eyes only?

Will such unwelcome intrusions as these continue to rankle over time? My guess is that insistence on full disclosure, and by some even a demand to know their partner’s innermost thoughts, is more likely to erode than to foster openness and harmony. Are these wounded loved ones likely to become more or less secretive?

Why is privacy so important? We speak of someone “invading” our privacy and the very use of that word suggests a violation of significance. It’s an assault on our autonomy, a piercing of that protective skin we seek to keep in tact (so many words of aggression!). Privacy keeps us safe, free of judgment until we are ready for exposure, and then, only to those we trust.


 

 

 

The Pleasure of Touch

My cat likes to have her ears pulled. Her eyes narrow, and she arches her neck with pleasure as she awaits the next gentle tug. This feline resists being picked up, but curls up in the crook of my arm when I am reading, propped up in bed. She nudges, seeking my touch, and the pressure of her warm purring body is a sweet reminder of the relaxed heft of a sleeping baby.

Some months after Leonard died, one of my younger friends took on the role of caring daughter and gave me an unusual gift, a massage by a therapist she admired. When I told her this was something I’d never done before, she said: everyone needs to be touched, and you are now alone.

I went, and continue to go every now and then, welcoming this time of complete ease and pleasure. The therapist always begins by massaging my feet, and though I only spoke this thought aloud after many months, when her skilled fingers knead these muscles: I wish I had done this for Leonard, especially in his last six months when he was in bed more hours than usual. For this man whose feet were almost always on the go, it would have been a special way to express the sweetness of old love.

It is easier to write of my cat and a masseuse than to write of the sensual pleasures of my marriage, but perhaps there is a point in doing so. For us, the promise of touch was ever present. The gentle pressure of my fingers on the back of his neck as he drove, his hands easing my tensed shoulders as I sat at my desk, holding hands in the movies or nestled together when watching TV. Intimate touching renewed our appetite for life.

Now, alone, though engaged with others during the day, my patterns and pleasures have changed. I enjoy my solitude, but it differs from a past shared with another. Evenings, I no longer watch programs or movies that I suspect will cause me to feel anxious. When we watched together, leaned into each other, no matter how fraught the media coverage, I was safe, moored. Now I check the Internet for newsworthy events the next morning, in the light of day.

Often on Sundays I spend some time rereading a few old letters. His words and his handwriting almost feel like a touch, a lingering memory of the pleasures we shared, which can quite take my breath away. Then I close that door and reenter the present with a sigh, but no anguish, and knowing I can return.

Comfort with touch is tied to family history, and there are those for whom casual touch is foreign, even uncomfortable. Mine was a family in which physical affection was open and easy. Leonard’s family was just the opposite, touching rarely seen. When we were first together, seeking physical closeness I consistently walked him off the sidewalk onto the grassy verge. A lasting joke between us that spoke volumes. I eventually converted him.

Lest this become a maudlin description of an idealized marriage, I also well remember the hours, sometimes days, when we didn’t touch, lay back to back and distant in bed, or silently left the house for a solitary walk. But being deprived of touch inevitably brought us to talking, so much was it the glue of our marriage.

So why write of this? There is wisdom to be passed along. The importance of touch if infants are to thrive is well established. Now studies are proving the same is true for adults. Breaching the chasm of being alone in one’s skin and experiencing pleasure, or giving pleasure, can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones and improve immune function.

So, a reminder for those lucky to have a loving partner at your fingertips: massage their feet.

 


 

To Go Or To Stay?

Anne rummages in her purse but then pauses, smiles, and remembers that she no longer smokes. It’s a tense moment and she wishes she still did. After a deep sigh she says: Tim tells me that he just needs some space and is suggesting we try living apart for awhile. What do you think?

For some months now, I’ve been aware that the marriage of my friends was troubled, although Anne was sure they both still valued their bond. Counseling was rejected, her husband determined to protect their privacy and insisting, not without some bitterness, that he didn’t need to “get fixed”. My cautionary words were: if respectful conversations are still possible, give it more time. Separations usually become permanent.

I realized as I spoke, that although invited to give advice, I had no sound knowledge base for my statement, no actual data to support my conclusion, so I added that caveat.

All of the evidence from my professional life was anecdotal. Those who separated and then reconciled did not end up on my office couch, so my evidence was not only imperfect but also skewed. Yet many of my divorce mediation clients reported having separated for a trial period, sometimes for as long as a year, only to later decide to end the marriage. For many, I surmise, a proposed temporary parting was often a way of letting their partner down easy, suggesting only the need for space, but knowing that their decision to end the marriage was made, and for them was the right one. For others, I believed that the motive was more sincere, a testing time. But what was being tested? Whether solitude was preferable?

I quizzed a friend who had been a Magistrate in the Domestic Relations Court and got another perspective on separations. She commented on the number of dramas that had played out informally in her courtroom where it was revealed that one spouse had asked, even demanded, that the other leave, only to later acknowledge that their real intent in suggesting a separation was to test the commitment of their partner, The departed spouse had then become happier living on their own, and declined to return. A risky request probably made impulsively at a moment of hurt or anger. I too had heard this scenario a number of times.

I shared my personal experience with my friend, for I well remember those times during my marriage when we were both unhappy, though not always at the same time. It was toughing out those difficult days, struggling to understand, and to be understood, that repeatedly brought us to a new and better place. Long walks were taken, sometimes together, sometimes alone. There were tearful but also loving times, because we had opportunities to reconnect with spontaneity. While still together we could reach out and touch, smile, or fix a favorite meal, do something to bridge the gap and then begin again to talk. But I know others within my own family who took a different path, lived apart for a time and came back together.

On balance, I’ve come to believe, even without reliable evidence, that when unhappy partners remain committed and respectful, most problems are best worked out in close proximity, ideally with professional help.

Although I know there are exceptions that prove, or probe, this rule, is it not also true that nature abhors a vacuum? How often does the intimacy vacuum created by a separation get filled with new directions, new confidants, and new connections?


 

 

 

 

 

On Being Conflict Avoidant

Why is it that being conflict avoidant works quite well for some, and spells disaster for others?

Len and I typically dealt with conflict by retreating into silence. Both of us grew up in homes in which voices were rarely raised. Perhaps intuitively we knew how threatening short-tempered or critical comments would feel. When we withdrew, I think we were able to mull over and better define what was at stake, and avoid impetuous hurtful remarks which would be difficult to forget.

Then, soon the yearning to once again be close drew us into intimate talk. Important questions were asked with each of us becoming better known to the other. Compromise, or even yielding completely, became a gift of sorts. And by the time one of us reached out with a tentative touch, the steam of resentment or anger had escaped.

But here’s the twist: With many divorcing couples, their story begins in the very same way.

On the day first day I meet with a mediating pair, I talk with each of them alone and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. Frequently both partners say that they hardly ever dealt with differences as they arose. Disputes were pushed aside and either ignored or only brought up in passing, perhaps as one or the other was walking out of a room. But for them, resentments were stored away for far too long. Important questions were not asked. The steam did not escape.

Another twist: When I press further with clients about how issues finally did get resolved, very often both parties describe themselves as always being the one to give in. In private, the thought each voices is: I just went along to get along.



How can this possibly be the reality? Yet, I think the perception is sincerely expressed. By the time they are planning a future apart and their conflicts have taken over center stage, each believes they accommodated to the others’ wishes or demands. Now they look back and regret having been submissive, not seeing this as proof of love, but as a restraint on their authenticity, their true identity. And for some, in the days, weeks or months of conflict avoidance, with only polite or mundane exchanges at home, a more sympathetic ear is found, away from home.

What of those whose childhood experiences are completely different, one raised in a home in which disputes were freely aired, the other home devoid of confrontation? Do they have a particularly difficult time reaching a level of comfort when dealing with discord? Is this something discovered before a commitment is made? Talked over? No doubt it should be.

Oddly, even in relationships that work, both partners often perceive themselves as having been the most accommodating to the others’ wishes. Are these the moments we most remember, when we submerged our own desires, forgetting when the gift of compromise or victory was received? And, when we gave in and just went along, did our loved one always know?

Many divorcing or troubled partners speak of having slowly and silently drifted apart, avoiding difficult conversations. So, it would seem conflict avoidance can be a prelude to a sweet reconnection, for those who timely attend to each others’ need to be better known, but erode such possibilities when conflicts are too long ignored.


 

An Unrealistic Expectation: Fairness

It is wonderful to engage with someone who has worked their way out of despair and become optimistic about the future.

The enthusiastic woman I met with was preparing a counter-proposal for her husband, after completing several months of obviously useful therapy. She had given up lamenting the past and was facing her impending divorce with newfound courage, determined to convince her soon-to-be former spouse to amend his most recent proposal for support.

The story: this wife had earned a library science degree a decade ago, but now that her status as the stay-at-home parent was ending, she had a new career goal, one that required a return to school. To implement this plan, her husband would need to contribute to her support for a longer period than he had offered.

Her plea to him some months ago was: before the kids were even born, we agreed that I would leave work and stay home full time, to give them a good start. Now it’s only fair for you to pay for my return to school.

His response at that time was: true, that was the agreement we made, but it was never contemplated that you would switch careers. The fair thing is for you to help bring in income now.

When fairness is the goal and each party asks the other “to be fair”, what they really are saying is: if you saw the world as I do, then you would agree with me. Since you don’t, you’re unfair.

Pleas for fairness typically fall on deaf ears. Bargaining for subjective concepts of fairness simply pushes people further apart, less likely to reach agreement. The conversation ends. So, when you know where you want to go but keep tripping up along the way, it’s time to take a different tack, to be strategic.

This newly empowered woman was no longer stuck in the fairness trap. Still legitimately negotiating to meet her self-interest, here is what she now said to her husband: would you be willing to consider this: I know I could return to work in the library, but with additional training, I could achieve a far better salary and feel a sense of real satisfaction in my work. If this is something you’d be willing to help me accomplish, I’d be willing to commit to paying a portion of the kid’s future college tuition, as you’ve been asking.

Maybe we all regress to some extent when life is turned upside down, and as a child might whine, with the stamp of a foot, insist: it’s just not fair.

But, once it is clear what it is you want and why, the strategic approach is to state what you are willing to offer in return, for example to say: if I offered you ABC, would you be willing to consider giving me XYZ? This latter approach has the added benefit of suggesting an interest in consulting on the solution, which acknowledges that the other person has a position worthy of respect. A genuine show of respect always keeps the conversation moving forward.

And a reciprocal offer trumps a plea for fairness every time.

 


 

Intimacy

We’ve all heard it, from friends, colleagues, our own inner voice. Unhappiness is so often expressed by one partner due to the lack of intimacy yearned for with the other. To be seen and deeply known and to so know the other, this is the human connection that makes livable all the inevitable ups and downs of any close relationship. Some suffer in silence, others become vocal, even demanding. Counseling with a skilled professional often seems the logical approach and some partners do agree to take that path, although if feeling blamed, one may only do so reluctantly, or even refuse.

I was anything but immune.

Years ago, my husband was quick to give me the responsibility for drawing him out when I asked for greater sharing of his feelings about whatever was going on in his life. I was urged to ask the right questions, at the right time. I tried. It didn’t work. And he was missing the point, or at least so I thought. These disclosures had to be freely given.

We were once offered some communication exercises, basically told to repeat what the other had said so as to assure that each of us had indeed been heard. That lasted less than a week.

Here is what did actually work. Not revolutionary, and just one possible approach, but for us a definite change for the better. When I asked a question to elicit feelings about one thing or another, I chose a time when there were no obvious distractions and there was enough time to talk for a while. TV commercial breaks won’t work, half-time maybe. The best time for us was sitting opposite each other at breakfast out at a restaurant or traveling in a car in light traffic. He couldn’t get up and drift away, start identifying the birds on the feeder or cross the room to answer the phone (before the ubiquitous cell phones of today).

But most important, I learned that once my question was in the air, I needed to stop talking. Not ask another question. That was the key. So many women, hungry for intimacy (and in my experience it seems to be mostly women), don’t wait long enough for a response. Some men, I suspect many, need to formulate their thoughts before they speak, unlike many women for whom the thought and the spoken word are almost simultaneous.

Psychological and even evolutionary theories abound about why some derive satisfaction and pleasure from being self-disclosing while others find such exposure uncomfortable or even threatening to their sense of well being.

But whatever the gender of the intimacy seeker, experience taught me to carefully pick the time, ask the question, and then remain calm in the quiet. The reward for patience was a thoughtful response.

 


 

When Speaking of Love

A phone conversation ends in my presence. The final words spoken: I love you.

These three words have become a ubiquitous sign-off, often to a child, or a spouse or a partner. There must be a generational divide, for such farewells (except possibly when whispered) were rarely heard in my youth, or even in my middle years. And they leave me feeling somewhat disquieted, uneasy.

And then I silently chastise myself for my cynicism. I even wonder at my own awkwardness when I sense I’m expected to echo these parting words from a dear friend, and I remain mute.

But here is my quandary: Doesn’t saying the words: I love you make you feel a little crazy if just hours earlier you were greatly annoyed because once again your spouse failed to meet you on time, or if moments after you speak the words to a child, you display what seems like irrational anger at a disrespectful remark?

The actor and playwright, Wallace Shawn, spoke for me when he said: The difficulty of saying “I love you” is that it presupposes that you know who “I” is and that you know who “you” is.

Exactly my point. The scenarios are infinite. Who “I” am keeps shifting and who “he” or “she” is does as well. Which is the real “you”? Which are the true feelings? Isn’t it safer to avoid the routine sign-off so as not to later meet ambivalence head on?

But now at long last, I’ve gained a new slant on these three oft spoken words of parting. I chanced upon an interview of Matthew Crawford, author of a new book: “The World Beyond Your Head”. I must paraphrase his comments as best I remember them: Consider someone who is suffering from sadness, discontent, boredom or annoyance, say she is a wife who is feeling this way about her husband. Yet she says “I love you ”on retiring every night. She does not say this as a report on her feelings. It is not sincere, but nether is it a lie. What it is, is a kind of prayer.

This really helps me. If it is a ritual which allows one to act as if some state of affairs were true, even though the words spoken at that moment are without authenticity, and the words are an expression of a hoped for reality, I can buy that.

These three words are rarely spoken by me in an offhanded way, although sometimes they are written, and then meant most sincerely. I, after all, was married to a man named Larsen, whose ancestors came from a northern land of short days and long winter nights. I fondly recall the day he turned to me with a wry smile and asked if I’d heard the one about the Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much, he almost told her.


 

Just Don’t Ask

There are times when personal experience informs the professional practice. This is the story of one of those times.

My husband was of Norwegian descent. He wrote with eloquence, but except when teaching or working with his students, he was a man of few words who could comfortably go for long periods without speaking at all. In the early years of our marriage, I was often unsure whether his silence conveyed unhappiness. So I would probe, ask a question, and then another, but at these times his sparse responses served to close not open the door to understanding.

I talked of this with a psychologist friend. Her response: you need to learn some new dance steps. Stop asking questions. Just tell him something about yourself, only a few sentences, and make no accusations. See what happens.

It worked. A brief back and forth began and he shared a few important words. The next day, my new steps were repeated and a bit more disclosure followed, and we both were more at ease.

Recently the occasion arose to offer this wisdom to another.

The newly separated father and mother seated on my office couch came in to address his accusation that their seven-year-old daughter was being turned against him. Despite his efforts to engage her in conversation, she was unwilling to talk with him in any meaningful way. He believed this was all his wife’s doing.

First we deconstructed the usual conversation father and daughter had as she climbed into his car when he picked her up at school at the start of his assigned weekend.

He: Hi sweetie, how was your day?
She: Fine
He: Learn anything new?
She: Not much.
He: Any good friends in your class?
She: Um hum.
He: So, play with them today?
She: Yes.
He: What sort of games?
She: Oh, just stuff.

Now frustrated, he would shut down, angry and hurt, and they rode along in silence until reaching his home where his daughter would shower affection on the dog, turn on the TV and cuddle with her pet. He felt the outsider. This conversation dance would repeat many times during the visit.

Bringing to mind my past experience with a sometimes silent partner, I suggested: Try this: Stop asking questions. Just talk about yourself, nothing too profound and not accusing or in any way critical. Maybe talk about what happened to you earlier in the day. But no questions.

He was smiling upon return for their next visit to my office and reported: Amazing! Picked her up at school. No questions. Told her about the pizza I had for lunch, made with anchovies, which I hate, and what a time I had dislodging them from the layers of cheese. She told me about the yucky salmon patties served in the school cafeteria and how one of the boys started tossing them around and got into trouble and that she knew his older sister who was stuck up. So, I told her about a woman in my office who was stuck up, and she asked why I thought people got that way. We had a great talk.

Hard to know what this youngster’s feelings were when she left school with her father instead of returning to the parent with whom she was perhaps more comfortable. What subliminal message did she carry from her mother? Did his being the one who left their home feel like abandonment? Did she wonder if she was at fault for what had happened between her parents? No easy way for a seven-year-old to address these issues, even for herself. Was closing the door on his questions a perfect defense against revealing a confusion of emotion?

No monumental disclosures were made, but tensions eased and the possibility for real talk was there again.

So, refraining from asking questions of those who are withdrawn, young and old alike, and telling your own story, may be the best step to take.

 


 

The Throwaway Line

I did not realize anger was in the room until they were walking out the door. A step ahead of her, looking away and with an edge to his voice, he said: It’s time for you to just get out.

Was I meant to overhear these words? I wasn’t sure, but they surprised me. Only moments before, as their first mediation session ended, they had reached an agreement to postpone the decision about which parent would remain living with the children in the marital residence. In my presence, they concurred that for the time being they would both remain under the same roof.

For fifteen years these marriage partners had struggled to draw closer. Now, the husband’s unrelenting bout with depression tipped the balance and appeared to be the catalyst for their mutual decision to end the relationship.

During the first hour we all met together, and they were amiable and calm, nodding and smiling in affirmation as each spoke. This negotiation would go smoothly, or so I thought.

Then I met alone with each of them during our second hour. With chagrin, the husband revealed that over the past year his wife had literally turned her back on him, even cringing at his touch. He knew it was time to move on. I asked about counseling, but although he’d sought treatment for depression, now they both rejected that path. He was sure that with autonomy would come the return of his emotional equilibrium.

The wife’s immediate concern, spoken in confidence, was her husband’s outbursts aimed at their troubled adolescent son. She feared that when she was no longer present to step between them, their belligerent exchanges would escalate.

The comment he made as they left my office, almost as an aside, confused me. On its face it made no sense, a perplexing contradiction of how they had presented earlier. The situation was not as it seemed, both of them on their good behavior, but in turmoil just below the surface.

I’m no stranger to an apparently casual but cryptic message that actually carries import. My husband’s oft spoken throwaway line was usually addressed to my back as I worked in the kitchen or sat at my desk: I’m going for a walk.

Was that an announcement or an invitation? Unable to read his mind, I would nod, silent but hurt, feeling excluded. Over time and after some difficult conversations, I learned to ask: On your own or do you want company?

He usually did. But not always. When he returned from a solitary time away, he was often ready, even eager, to talk things over. His earlier statement, as he turned to leave, was more than a casual aside. Obliquely it let me know that either companionship was being sought or that he needed to mull over an as yet unspoken concern. An important though unclear message when, for whatever reason, more direct communication was difficult. For the two of us, ever seeking a balance between connection and autonomy, this somehow worked.

My clients are not seeking a way to come together but a way to part. When they returned a week later, I asked the husband to clear up the meaning of his hostile parting words. It opened the door to important stories and even provided an opportunity for each of them to empathize with the depth of the others’ disappointment.

Throwaway lines. Spoken into the air as someone is walking away, offhanded and ambiguous. Attention should be paid.

 


 

Going Along To Get Along

How many of us deal with conflict by avoiding it? To protect the delicate balance of a valued relationship, we may forgo the challenge and hope that by morning all will be well. Many times avoidance worked for me, and soon harmony became the new reality. Pretending can make it so, especially if there is other glue to hold things together, perhaps a caress, or the distraction of a child’s laughter or tears.

To some extent, we all play this game. Until the rules of the game change.

When apart, divorcing partners often both sing the very same tune about how they managed past disputes: I just went along to get along.

With complete sincerity, each sees themselves as the one who regularly gave in. But now, when the ties that bound them to seek accommodation are broken, the greater need is for authenticity, autonomy and respect for their new role, no longer a partner but standing alone.

Picture this scene: a mediation session in which a mother and father of a young girl are in conflict over how they will share her time when living in separate homes. In the interest of what the mother deems “stability,” she wants the child in her home most of the time. Father is equally determined to have his daughter with him at least half the time. This is a classic stalemate.

I will shift the discussion away from the immediate issue at hand and ask: Are there other concerns you can identify?

There are many. Some examples:
Mother: He never helps out with her homework. And never brings her home on time.
Father: I’m never told about teacher conferences until after they are over.

Mother: When I phone to talk to my daughter, I’m told she’s not available.
Father: When I have to travel on business, I miss out on the time I’m entitled to.
Mother: He signed her up for soccer without ever telling me.

           

Actually, in some ways the longer the list of grievances, the better. Grist for the negotiation mill.
I send them off to each develop answers to these two questions:

What options can I offer to him/her to get him/her to accept my proposal?
What conditions do I require before agreeing to what is proposed?

With luck, they will return with many answers. Perhaps in anger they will be stated as demands, but as small agreements fall into place, and they begin to trust that compromise is possible, demands may be presented as requests.

Perhaps, even those still nurturing a harmonious relationship can learn to risk conflict, can lift the rug under which differences have been hidden and bring them out into the open, to play the game of: let’s make a deal.


 

The Dream Divorce

They were both smiling when they walked into my office. As mediation began, each echoed the others’ commitment to be fair and amiable throughout the process.

Fantasy

After months of anguished talk, tears, recrimination, and efforts to be forgiving, they made the decision to end their marriage. When together the night before, they told  their children. The kids said little but both parents thought it had gone pretty well.

Maybe

Using similar phrases, they described a new found sense of well-being. The scariest of demons had now been confronted. Facades maintained at great personal cost could be dropped. There was nothing more to lose.

Surrender

I was reluctant to bring them down, but I knew the crazy-making days were not over. Difficult issues were bound to arise. The standards of fairness to which each of them aspired would diverge, even clash.

Reality

As the weeks passed and their negotiations continued, they were able to agree in almost every respect about how they would share time with and take responsibility for their children, proving my predictions flawed. But then the issue of support arose. How would he provide for her from his considerable income, and for how long? Lips tightened and faces grew grim. We shifted the discussion to the  preparation of budgets, looking to the future. He, who had rarely shopped for groceries and never for children’s clothing, scrutinized her figures and saw ways that she could cut back. Her response: “you’ve got to be kidding!” His response: “get a job!”

Anger

I knew they would work through this difficult phase and told them so, but it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. They were moving into their separate lives. He needed to give up his past ability to influence her spending and be realistic about her earning potential. She needed to give up her determination to maintain her financial status quo without reentering the market place.

Autonomy

Now they faced the reality of their contrasting values and plans. Multiple options were proposed and discussed, signifying greater understanding, although sometimes still tinged with anger. Slowly they moved towards compromise.

Bargaining

Then one relatively insignificant but seemingly insoluble issue raised their ire, and blocked completion of their task: pending sale, who would maintain the monthly fee for the time share neither now wanted.

Impasse

Experts describe this sort of clash over a minor point as the decision making process is drawing to a close, as an attempt by one or both to actually put off ending the relationship. The devil you know may be better than the devil you don’t know.

Hesitation

Anxiety about the future was real. Would she find a meaningful job? Would either ever find love again? When their children were absent, would loneliness pervade their lives? Their dream divorce really was a dream. But when they woke up, they moved on.

Acceptance

And in their waking world, she found a part-time job and returned to school. He postponed golf and is leaning to cook. They will visit their children’s teachers together.

Courage

 


 

Sponging

He said: So, I hear you got the promotion. Another woman sleeps her way to the top.

Silent at first, unnerved by this sarcastic taunt, she took a moment to consider her response and then said: You think that’s what folks in the office believe? Can you help me track that rumor down?

Surprising. Not even a hint of a defensive reaction. That’s because she was sponging, a technique I learned some years ago from Deborah Pearce, a teacher, coach and master of the art of communication.

The concept of sponging is so valuable, I eagerly describe it to colleagues, friends, mediation clients and anyone else who will listen. It’s a way of responding when verbally attacked that turns a conversation in a positive direction instead of allowing it to spiral into negativity.

To experiment with this approach, this is the mindful direction that is called for: When confronted with a hostile remark, or an insult, even veiled sarcasm, avoid an immediate response. Instead, consciously absorb the belief of the speaker, soak it up like a sponge. Frame your answer from that vantage point, and watch the wind empty from your rival’s sails.

Some examples:

Divorced mother to her former spouse: When the kids leave your house for school, they look like they got dressed in the dark or slept in their clothes.

Father’s likely automatic response: I haven’t noticed them looking so great when they come over here from your place.

But father when sponging: It’s a problem. By the time they get to breakfast, it’s too late to make them change. How do you handle it?

Divorce lawyer who represents a husband anticipating a sharp decline in income conveys this information to his counterpart. Wife’s lawyer’s likely automatic response: Give me a break. That’s what they all say.

But when sponging, she says: Of course he’s anxious about paying support. Who wouldn’t be? Show me how he has documented his income projections.

Wife to husband taking part in mediation: For years you never had time for the kids. Now you’re Mr. Mom.

Husband’s likely automatic reply: When’s the last time you actually cooked them a meal?

But when sponging, he says: You’re right. I relied on you more than I had any right to. I’m going to need your help learning the ropes with the kids.

Caustic remarks raise the temperature of any discussion and once a defensive response is made, antagonism escalates and little gets accomplished. Conflict needs to be diffused, not escalated. But this takes practice, hence the need for a critical pause in order to remember to bring the technique to mind when emotions are stirred, for responding self-protectively, even aggressively for most of us, is still the first line of defense.

I recently received an email from a disgruntled mediation client suggesting that he was wasting his time and money in our sessions, as few agreements had been reached. My initial reaction was resentment at being devalued, and I wanted to point out his negative contributions to the experience so far. But, after a pause, I sponged and acknowledged his frustration, and the difficult emotional climate, only then offering some suggestions for progress. He expressed gratitude and eagerness to continue.

In all of the examples above, exchanges that actually took place, a useful, calm discussion followed. Skilled negotiators work to set a positive emotional tone. Yet discord often seeps into even the best planned conversations.

The next time, if the goal is understanding and agreement, pause, and visualize a sponge.

 


 

Fingers Crossed

She said: How can I negotiate with someone I no longer trust?

For many, when an intimate relationship ends, trust flies out the window and anxiety sweeps in. Someone so well known becomes a stranger, and the resulting pain dominates the emotional landscape. Often, for one partner the focus is the misdeeds of the other: a betrayal, a failed promise. The other then centers on the unfairness of the blame. Both become defensive. Then all that is needed is a spark, a canceled credit card, the closing of a joint account, or a barbed letter from an attorney, and if there was any residual trust, it quickly fades away.

How can these two people who are now on their guard have any hope that if even the least concession is made by one, the other will reciprocate? Positions harden.

Consider my response to this concern in mediation: In marriage or a committed relationship, we expect to be told the truth and supported emotionally. It may be a dream and not always the reality, but perhaps is not an unreasonable expectation. When parting, it may be a premise that has to be given up. A trusting relationship may later be reestablished, incrementally, but until it is, a “show me” attitude is completely appropriate. So, without giving voice to accusation, just assume your spouse or partner is untrustworthy. You may be wrong but you may be right. So, why not simply design a settlement that doesn’t depend on trust. Require documentation for the facts alleged and if need be, test conclusions with the involvement of counsel and other experts. Make no decisions until they are fully informed decisions.

But does this reasoning apply when the issues are not financial, and children are caught in the middle between parents with unforgiven grievances? It does not. Just the opposite is true.

Not long ago I worked with parents of an 8-year-old, both highly educated professionals. They continued to litigate parenting issues year after year. Four years post-divorce, the Court required they re-enter mediation before filing the additional motions both now threatened. At every turn they frustrated each others’ efforts to develop a sense of ease and predictability in their relationship with their young son. Everyone paid a high price. But when their son began to exhibit physical symptoms believed to have a psychological component, they could no longer deny that their continued mistrust and blaming ways threatened the health of the child they both loved dearly.

I consulted with a psychologist friend, unable to fathom these parent’s behaviors. His professional conjecture was that some parents are unable to individuate. They see every slight they have suffered as also experienced by their child. If rejected by a spouse, they transfer the sense of betrayal to their child. If denied love or respect, in their view, so is their child. They are simply unable to step back and see their child as a person with needs different from their own.

And social psychologists argue that normal people can do terrible things when put in a terrible situation, but that amazing things can happen when the focus is not on altering the others’ character, or punishing another for a breach of trust, but on creating settings in which people’s better selves can flourish. Could I create such a setting?

I told this father and mother that I believed each of their stories had some validity, were part of the truth. They visibly relaxed. Then I mandated that our sole focus be on measures each could take to enhance their son’s well-being. Trust issues not only had to be set aside, but they had to offer each other the benefit of the doubt, a measure of trust, and not assume the worst of the other when things went wrong. No easy task. They could ignore my mandate. But the stakes, their child’s health, were high and impossible to ignore.

Each was asked to make new requests for changed behaviors on the part of the other, small steps, readily achieved and committed to writing: Be on time. Call well in advance of a need for a change of plans. When things go awry, don’t accuse. Refrain from: how could you be so  . . . Instead, ask: what happened? And listen.

Reciprocity became the byword. Eventually settlement options were developed and accepted, if somewhat grudgingly. Both were satisfied, not perfectly, but well enough.

I’ve not heard from this pair for almost a year. Fingers crossed.

A Bittersweet Gift

The room was crowded. We’d never met before, but when she learned about my work with divorcing couples, she made her way to where I stood, and after a brief introduction, in a derisive tone she said: I think divorce is far too easy these days. People are so self-centered they don’t even give a second thought to destroying a family.

Her words suggested a bitter personal history. I opted not to respond to the challenge and moved off, ending a conversation that had hardly begun. Perhaps I should have stayed to talk, for my experience belies her remark. I know well that the decision to end an intimate relationship is always complex and emotionally wrenching, especially when children will have their lives turned upside down.

Many ponder, sometimes for years, whether they should stay together for the sake of their children. Some, of course, do, and may successfully weather a difficult time, or simply accept a life lived without a loving intimate relationship. Others, often after seeking professional help, reach a different conclusion.

A question, usually asked by the partner for whom the decision has already been made, is: what example am I setting for my children if they rarely witness any expression of love or affection between parents living in a sea of unhappiness? Or worse, living with pervasive conflict, a child’s loyalty repeatedly, if tacitly, sought.

I recently completed mediation sessions with an emotionally mature couple who, after counseling and much thought, decided to end their marriage. It was a melancholy time, particularly for the partner less ready to move on and away, but both struggled to keep their focus on the stability they hoped to provide for their children amidst the sea change in their lives. As they negotiated, they compromised on some significant financial issues, avoiding what might otherwise have taken months, or even years, to resolve at the courthouse.

They were still living under the same roof, and tension had been high in their home, with none of the mending moments of intimacy enjoyed in the past. Yet, most of the time they managed to maintain civility and respect, particularly in the presence of their children. Early on in the mediation process, they’d consulted with a psychologist to devise the best plan for telling the children about their decision, and devise ways to help them adjust to the changes to come.

As we prepared to part at the end of their final hour with me, I commended them for their efforts and said: In today’s world, the likelihood is great that when your children are older, they’ll engage in a number of loving committed relationships before they decide to marry, perhaps some of lengthy duration. A marriage may later fail. You have modeled for them how an intimate partnership can end with caring and dignity, and how parents can continue to provide loving protection for their children. One day yours will be able to bond with another with added courage to be true to themselves, with security born of knowing that their parents worked through the most difficult time of their lives taking good care of the ones they continued to love, and even each other. Saddened, but not destroyed. What a wonderful, if bittersweet, gift you’ve given them.

They left with somber smiles and tears in their eyes.


 

 

Marital Espionage

The very air is replete with news of computer hacking, some massive in scope sending everyone to check their account balances, and other invasions equally upsetting to those whose intimate lives are exposed. It’s impossible not to be ever more aware that our personal zone of privacy may be compromised. I resist becoming hyper-vigilant, but know there are times to be wary. And one of those times is when a personal relationship is crumbling.

The story: My mediation client, John, had been betrayed by his wife. Yet, he sat before me smiling, eager to tell me that he now knew that Jan, his wife, had bought a plane ticket and would soon travel to Texas to meet her childhood sweetheart. Had she told him this? No. But he knew.

John worked as an I.T. specialist. After Jan moved out of the family residence, he’d obtained software originally designed for parents to keep tabs on their children’s internet explorations, and used it to surreptitiously tap (hack) into her email. Upon making this disclosure, he quickly reminded me that he was revealing it to me in confidence, as promised by our mediation contract. It put me on high alert.

I said: You’d best consult with your attorney, John. You may be committing a crime.

His smile faded, and I knew he would follow my advice.

This seventeen-year marriage had unraveled. Although John earned far more that Jan did as a preschool teacher, he thought he now had found the ammunition he needed to avoid paying alimony. He would soon learn that his premise was flawed, but more importantly at that moment, the way he’d been collecting his information was a time bomb, for him, and possibly for me. In some circumstances, it is also a crime not to report a crime.

When John returned for our next session, he asked to meet with me privately and soberly divulged that indeed, according to his lawyer, it could well be that his past actions were criminal. Chastened, he assured me that his sleuthing was over, that he would no longer read Jan’s email. But how could I be sure? He might in this way even invade the privileged relationship between his wife and her attorney, if email was how they were communicating, and likely it was.

Perhaps I should have taken more time to think things through, but on the spot I told John that unless he disclosed his breach of her email account to Jan in my presence, so she could take protective steps, mediation would end.

His immediate response: No way.

He feared his now estranged and angry wife would seek revenge by reporting him, or use the threat of disclosure as a bargaining tool. These were reasonable concerns and I could not mandate his confession. So, I decided to terminate our mediation sessions.

With Jan back in the room, I told them both that I didn’t think their support issues would best be addressed in mediation. Jan was compliant. I assured them I would call both of their attorneys and describe the agreements they had already made for the design of their parenting plan, and ask their counsel to manage settlement discussions regarding support.

John’s attorney already knew the score about what had taken place. Jan’s did not, and I was not free to be explicit with him. When we spoke the next day, I decided to weave into our conversation that I’d recently spoken with an attorney who urged all of her divorcing clients to change their email address and password and that I thought this a reasonable precaution. Silently I hoped that he would advise Jan to do the same. I needed to walk a fine line, wanting to say just enough to protect Jan’s privacy, while upholding my contractual and legal obligation to maintain John’s confidentiality.

Far from a perfect solution.

For those of us who’ve picked up computer skills only as-needed, but have no advanced literacy in this new language which daily becomes more essential to the business of life, legal and ethical challenges emerge like the tips of icebergs in uncharted waters. It is chilling.


 

 

A Fairy Tale

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.

I’m unconvinced.

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.


 

The Thoughtful Question

I often share meals with close friends. The talk is our sustenance, the food incidental. And the conversation flows, unguarded. We are skilled players of the verbal ping-pong that carries us forward, inquiring and learning about the other, disclosing what is important about our lives at that moment, Ours is a dance with the steps so practiced, there is no need to be mindful about the questions we pose. We risk little, even with a misstep.

But consider different settings where this is not so, when a question asked without sufficient forethought turns a conversation awry:

The cardinal rule taught in law school is to never interrogate a witness in a courtroom without knowing the answer in advance. The temptation can be so great. One last probe to emphasize the essential winning point: “And why is that Mrs. Jones?” Then a response issues that surprises and wipes out earlier testimony.

But that is the courtroom where the choreography of words spoken is critical. Need this be so in our personal lives? In our professional lives? Is the art of asking questions so important? In mediation sessions, as I observe the impact of the questions the parties ask each other, and the responses to those that I pose, I’ve come to think it is.

When negotiating, or even just conversing with a loved one, a question can either bring someone to a desired destination or evoke a defensive response that creates a barrier, sets the players apart, and prevents, or at least postpones, a positive outcome. And mindfulness is especially called for when there is tension in the air. Is the inquiry, the tone of voice, even the quality of eye contact, free of criticism or judgment? Experience has taught me that when I’m simply reacting without much thought, without consideration of the goal I’m seeking, opportunity for agreement, or an intimate connection, is often lost.

The distinctions can be subtle. Here are some suggestions:

Ask: Can you tell me more about that? (open, accepting)
Not: Do you really believe that? (veiled belligerence)

Ask: Would it be helpful for me to explain my reasoning? (respect, consultation)
Not: Do you understand my point? (intelligence called into question)

Or in a more personal vein:

Ask: Feel like talking about what happened last night? (an invitation)
Not: Isn’t it high time we talked about what happened last night? (command performance)

If a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue avoided, — either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty — consider first saying: we need to have a difficult conversation.

The respect shown by not taking another unaware, offering even just a moment to prepare, may set the stage for willing consideration of the issue at hand, There are times when both conversation partners will be off balance. Just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.

And here is another rule it might be sound to consider: Some questions are best left unasked.

Do you think these pants are too tight?
How many calories in this banana cream pie?
Do you still love me?


 

Pass The Salt

As our mediation session ended and he rose to leave, Mark turned to me and asked: So, can we now tell our daughter what we’ve decided?

I mirrored his smile, recognizing the relief he felt following a tense hour of talk, and his wish to cement the agreement he and his wife, Ginny, had just made about how they would share time with their daughter once they separated.

I said: Sure, but remember you’re telling her, not asking.

Unlike in years long past when most mothers were full-time parents, and fathers relatively uninvolved, these two were fully engaged in their careers, and both played an active role in the life of their ten-year-old daughter. They were of one mind about the wisdom of ending what had been an unhappy marriage, but both feared a loosening of the bond with their child that sharing time might bring.

Mark had suggested that they simply ask their daughter to choose a plan. Ginny, wisely in my view, argued against this. Although to many parents this seems a sound approach, a few present the question to their child purposely seeking to undermine the other parent, anger winning out over reason. Then the child’s response in their favor is proudly presented, even quoting the specific language used, and conflict is fueled as the other parent cringes at the hurtful phrases attributed to their son or daughter. For example:

“She says she’d be scared to stay with you and won’t be able to get to sleep.”                   “He told me that he would much rather just stay at my house all the time.”

When I hear such taunts, I quickly interject: Best take those comments with a grain of salt.

But most parents ask with good intention. Then they are comforted by an apparent special alliance sought by the child. A neutral listener would readily recognize the child’s need to please each parent, if indeed the quoted remark is even accurate. Very likely it is not.

During mediation with Mark and Ginny, I told them about research findings reported some years ago in The Journal of Experimental Psychology. The conclusion: that adults are likely to remember incorrectly whether information was offered spontaneously by a child, or elicited through questions. And perhaps even more telling, adults are likely to confuse specific statements they made themselves, with statements made by the child.

Dr. Maggie Bruck, a psychologist and McGill University professor, had 24 mothers with preschool children take part in a study in which the children spent 20 minutes playing in a room without their mothers present. Then the mothers were taped interviewing their children about their play.

Half the mothers had been told the research was focused on mother-child conversations. The other half was told they were participating in a memory experiment and should try to remember the conversation with their child as accurately as possible. Three days later all the mothers were tested.

Even the mothers who were warned ahead of time, often incorrectly attributed statements they had made themselves, to their children. And all were unaware of how many questions they had asked to elicit information. Repeated questions, even to an older child, suggest, and often evoke, a sought after response.

I don’t assume malevolent motives. To some extent we all hear or elicit from children what we want to hear. But healthy skepticism is particularly warranted about the reported words of children caught in the middle of parental conflict. Pass the salt.


 

Threatened By Fantasy

I wish I could think and write more intelligently about adult pornography. The very word pornography looms large on the page or when spoken, and is rarely mentioned in mixed company, even among good friends. I’ve read position papers by some well known academics, women for whom it is an unmitigated evil, but the very existence of an industry that draws in many billions of dollars a year reflects a demand these authors do not address, except to seek censorship. Does prohibition ever work?

Admittedly, my vantage point is narrow. The few films I’ve actually seen, I found seriously wanting, without a context that would provide women, at least, with any sustainable interest.

In the 1970s, my public defender years, the Courthouse was my bailiwick. From the sidelines I followed the criminal trials of the producers of pornographic films (after all, we do know it when we see it), some notorious. Eventually, as juries began to return not-guilty verdicts, prosecutions dwindled, and in 1975, the VCR arrived in the market place and theatergoers retreated into the seclusion of their homes.

The shift to the internet offers viewers even greater privacy, until discovered.

Pornography enters my present world when it is seen as a factor contributing to the disintegration of a marriage. But as a cause or an effect? Listening to the stories some wives in mediation tell about their husband’s internet exploration, I still don’t know.

What is clear is that for some women it becomes a defining issue, convinced that their partner’s vivid fantasy life weakens the marriage bond, and believing that their own desirability is called into question. Unable to talk of this together, the intimate dance that brought them together is now in reverse, and she withdraws to a self-imposed isolation. Had he reassured her, would the outcome have been different?

Not for some, for whom the issue is a moral one. Their upbringing or religious belief affords them absolute clarity of judgment, allowing for no accommodation, a position that must be respected, even when not shared. But for many, their partner’s clandestine and solitary involvement, evokes concern that what is viewed creates a yearning that erodes commitment. Is that true? Is that inevitable?

Because open discussion of this taboo subject is rare, I have little knowledge of those couples who successfully address the issue with a counselor, or those where the viewer’s interest is not condemned, may even be joined, or simply treated lightly, tolerated, or just ignored.

The conversations I have with the husbands in mediation, the accused watchers, are typically brief and superficial. They’ve been “outed”, are somewhat embarrassed, but neither deny their interest nor make excuses, unwilling to submit to an inheritance of guilt. In all respects known to me, they are honorable and healthy men, supporting their families, devoted to their children. Their exterior life in the community is openly on display. But their interior fantasy life allows them to secretly travel wherever they wish, until now, when they are met with rage or sullen silence, accusations of perversity, and find their family falling apart.

About more familiar fantasies, I can think and write intelligently. There is probably not a married person alive who has not, in their interior life at least, envisioned the “what ifs?” What if I’d married someone else? What if we separated or divorced? What if in ten years I live with regret for having missed important opportunities? What if I seek some major changes in my life right now, and give them primacy over the accepted patterns that have developed in my marriage?

I remember some of those times when the “what ifs?” were on my mind, and times I imagined my husband asking himself similar questions. Some of those moments were scary.

But those daydreams turned out to be healthy, even if unsettling. For eventually we talked. They provoked change, small steps that gently shifted established ways, or even major moves that altered life’s course.

These are speculations we can honor, whether enticing or frightening, whether about intimacy, a job change or even global disaster, and when one day comfortable doing so, a conversation can begin. Is that also possible in the realm of explicit, deceptively idealized sexuality?

Is porn inevitably a destructive force? May it also bring important questions into the open? If, rather than unwavering judgment, a more nuanced discussion could be had, without blame assigned, might changes then be made to improve upon the reality, the fantasy world accepted as just that?

Or is that a fantasy?


 

Fathers Past And Present

I’m sure it’s true for all of us: Our personal past informs our professional present.

The father seated in my office weeps without shame. He and his wife have not yet told their 11-year-old daughter that their marriage is ending. For both of them this looms as a painful task, but he is the parent who feels most at risk of losing or diminishing the precious connection to this child. Although much more involved than fathers in years past, because of his work commitments his wife assumed the primary parenting role. Would he continue to have a secure place in his daughter’s life when living on his own and no longer with her for part of every day? He fears he will not. I empathize and want to reassure him, but how?

Later, I search for childhood memories of my own father and realize that, except for his place at Sunday dinners, I have few, for he was usually absent as I was growing up. To keep bread on the table during the Depression years, my father left home before I woke and returned after dark. Then, as our financial fortunes began to ease, came the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, my older brother’s entry into the army, and the detonation of atomic bombs.  These are the events that I remember commanded our attention when the family was together during my teen years. I left home for college just after the war ended, to return only for brief visits.

Yet, some personal memories remain vivid. One comes to mind. When 11 years old, I cut my own hair, snipping off long locks to create bangs. My mother did not hide her utter dismay. But when my father came home and was brought to view the damage, even in the face of my mother’s frowning disapproval, he said: I like it very much. She’s very pretty.

My spirits soared.

An important moment for me, if remembered so many decades later.

The perhaps idealized memory I hold of my father is of a quiet kind man, always with a newspaper in hand, who seemed pleased whenever he saw me. I grew up believing he loved and approved of me unconditionally, a gift fully appreciated only much later in life as I witnessed the struggle of a close friend whose abiding memory is of her father’s relentless disapproval.

I told my client this story in a private moment when next we met, and suggested that his daughter will never forget the important kindnesses he has shown her in the past and will in the future. Though no longer a constant presence in her life, there will now be moments just the two of them will share. Some will be memorable. He smiles but retreats into silence.

The other father I have known well is the man I married. Len strove to be a father like my own, and mostly he was, until he wasn’t. In the early 1970s, as the Viet Nam war raged, the conversation at our dinner table, and on the campus at which he taught, roiled with dissent. The sexual revolution was in full sway just as our teenagers came of age. As parents we sought to a adjust to the swiftly changing times, but were in turmoil, trying to understand but still hold to the standards we then thought sound.

When Len came home one day and found one of our sons upstairs with a girlfriend, in anger he told him it must never happen again, or he must leave. It was our house, so our rules. I silently acquiesced to his edict, agreeing with his reasons, if less sure about the threat, but alert to the anger with which his quick decision was made, knowing some but not all of the sources.

Unwilling to agree, our son moved to a tiny apartment (guess who paid the rent?) until he left for college some months later. But the child grown to maturity learns to place parents in the context of their times and unique personal history. In the years that followed, apologizes were spoken, and the relationship became relaxed and loving once again. I share this story with my client as well. Our missteps can repair.

And what is the message from fathers today: anything goes, just stay safe?


 

Unrealistic Expectations

It was clear to her the marriage should end. He disagreed, but reluctantly he acquiesced, and they entered mediation.

Oddly, when describing the nature of their day-to-day lives, he and she did not differ. I puzzled over how they could portray even the details of their circumstances in the very same way, yet reach such different conclusions.

They have two youngsters. That was reason enough for me to probe, to question whether another direction might still be taken. Perhaps they’d be open to working with a counselor.
I first met alone with the husband. He acknowledged there had been some rough times and told me, without any obvious emotion, that there had been no physical intimacy for well over a year. He reported that they talked little, but that they seldom fought and rarely were at odds about the children. In a somber tone, he said: so, it isn’t all that bad.

I shared this view with his wife when next we met privately. Her response was immediate and animated. She told me that his parents remained married, although the entire family knew they were miserable with each other and had been for years, sleep in separate bedrooms, and hardly speak. She said: that’s their life, but not the life I intend to live.

I asked about her own parent’s marriage. She smiled and sat back, her taut body relaxing, and described it as comfortable and loving, telling of tender moments between them she often witnessed as a child.

These partners who had reached such opposite conclusions about the viability of their relationship, brought the marriage in which they had grown up into their own.  Now it was not hard to understand why their present situation was assessed so differently.

Marriages fail for varied and complex reasons. Here, neither was willing, or able, to perceive and come to appreciate the other’s view of what a marriage should be. We see the world through our own lens and only with deliberate effort look through the lens of another. Would things have been otherwise if they had sought help early on and come to recognize the importance of their unique family histories, and with that understanding then made the effort to recapture and build upon what had initially drawn them together? Impossible to know. Perhaps theirs is an extreme example of what everyone making a commitment to another faces, whether aware of it or not: the model of marriage that seeped into their partner’s consciousness when young.

Here’s something to consider when a loved one communicates disapproval or unhappiness. Before disappointment ripens into disdain, with genuine interest (free of sarcasm), ask: tell me what you expected.

And really listen to the answer. Let it be the basis for self-disclosing conversations, talk of what was hoped for, and what accommodations might be made once the other’s outlook is understood. Or perhaps make a well-considered decision not to accommodate, but to simply learn how to live with differences.

It is said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. More likely it is paved with unrealistic expectations, never explored until it is too late.


 

A Failed Effort

My professional failures stay with me. Wakeful at 4 a.m., I conduct the postmortem.

The case began when a mother petitioned the Court to terminate the Plan she and her former husband had been following as they shared the task of raising their 8-year-old daughter. For years these parents had been working well together and their daughter was flourishing.

Then a disturbing event tipped the balance.

The father had remarried. His daughter and new wife gradually became acquainted and formed a comfortable bond. But, one evening there was a troubling exchange between his wife and daughter. He promptly phoned the child’s mother and asked her to come promptly and get their daughter. In haste, the mother drove over and picked up the frightened youngster. On the trip home, she heard a tearful story: the step-mother had been drinking and when a glass of milk was spilled at dinner, she’d lashed out at the child, verbally, but excessively.

The next morning the mother shared this story with members of her family. She was strongly urged by her sister and her own mother to immediately call her lawyer and do whatever was necessary to prevent such an event from ever happening again. Days later, she did just that. Soon after her motion seeking sole custody was filed with the Court, both parents were referred to mediation, and a week later they arrived in my office.

Now more calm, and in a problem solving mode, the mother knew well that even if she were awarded sole custody, her daughter’s visits with her father, although lessened, would continue. The child’s exposure to his new wife would not end. Father, in turn, offered evidence that both he and his wife took this lapse very seriously. She had reentered a counseling program, had apologized to the child and expressed sincere regret. In the weeks that followed, there had been no further incidents, and the youngster seemed relaxed, as eager as ever to spend time in her father’s home.

When the mother and I talked privately, another reality also became clear. Her greatest assurance that her daughter would be protected in the future, was her former husband’s earlier decision, reacting so quickly to call and seek her help. Should there be another troubling event, would he likely turn first to her again if she went forward with Court action seeking to deprive him of his status as a joint custodian?

Our discussion in mediation continued and both parents explored additional ways to enhance their daughter’s future well-being. The father had already scheduled a family therapy session. He talked of how hurtful it would be to feel disenfranchised as a parent. The mother was understanding and seemed to recognize the damage likely to be done to their parenting relationship if she entered a public arena with allegations of fault and poor character. There was even tentative talk about the mother and step-mother taking steps to become better acquainted.

So, was the custody litigation dismissed? It was not. I urged a return to mediation but it was refused.

The mother’s family maintained their pressure on her to proceed with Court action, calling into question her devotion to her daughter if she did not, and her need to meet the expectations and approval of her own family won out.

No one makes decisions in a vacuum. We seek the support and acceptance of our “constituency”, friends and family. Agreements need to be developed with this in mind, and in this instance I had not given that enough consideration. Although aware of her family’s initial involvement in her decision to seek legal redress, I had not focused on helping the mother develop strategies for sensitizing her family to the likely consequences of bitter and prolonged litigation. Now everyone was poised for combat. The youngster was even to meet with the Judge in chambers.

It is so easy for extended family and friends to hold onto a winner/loser mentality without fully understanding the ramifications of parents undermining each other publicly, and in the eyes of their child.

I chalk up this experience for future use. But it still feels like my failure.


 

Suffer The Silence

How readily we blame others when our conversational styles don’t match. I used to be a master at this.

For me, thoughts translate into speech with virtually no time delay. But when I talked with my husband, especially if saying something I thought important, frequently I was met with silence.

Then it took me but a nano-second to question the reason for his lack of an immediate response. Was it anger, or boredom, or even worse, disdain? And in the instant it took me to speculate about his possible motives, there seemed a purposeful lack of eye contact as well. So, need I even say, I faulted him for this communication impasse?

I learned early in life, by observing my mother, to respond to rejection (for this was how it felt) by receding into silence. My loved one had also learned well how to protect himself at such times. In response to my pointed withdrawal, he might studiously refocus on something he was reading, or quickly react to a welcomed interruption, the phone, a child, birds on the feeder.

And all of this avoidance, our disconnect, could be complete in less than a minute.

It took me about twenty-five of my married years, and a bit of professional help, to figure a way out of this communication quandary. Happily, in other respects we were doing well.

The problem that actually drew us into counseling was my insomnia (and a twitching eyelid), when Len began taking our young grandchildren flying with him in the small plane he piloted. My speculations ran wild, vividly picturing emergencies that could befall them high in the sky. Attempts to talk about this failed miserably.

Here is what I later learned: Some people, and clearly Len was one, seek more time than others to process their thoughts before committing them to speech. Perhaps some day scientists will identify the very neural connections that govern such differences, but for whatever reason, whether innate, cultural or simply due to parental modeling, it’s important to recognize and honor the reality that there are many different communication styles. The blameworthy motivations I had long been assigning made no sense.

With this new understanding, I would still carefully choose my times for significant conversations, when there were no obvious distractions and we could talk for a while. The best time for us was breakfast at a restaurant or traveling in a car in easy traffic. When I started an exchange of importance to me, after speaking, I simply remained quiet. I no longer asked rapid follow up questions in pursuit of an immediate reply. Nor did I pout. Several moments might pass, sometimes even an intervening comment made (by him) about something appearing on the landscape. But, I still waited.

A meaningful answer always came.

The lesson was eventually well learned: suffer the silence.
. . . . . . . . . .
Note: Len agreed to take a pilot friend along when flying with the grandchildren.


 

Taking The First Step

She sits on my office couch and speaks as if she is not even a participant in this drama, weeping and angry: This divorce is his idea, not mine.

I understand her tears. Her marriage has fallen apart, and facing that reality is bleak. But this is our second mediation session, and I must swallow my impatience as she resists my efforts to move her past this focus on her misery, and talk of a plan for the future. Although reluctant to indulge her mood, I know she needs more time, so I continue to listen, and I hear:

If only he would be reasonable . . . .

Somehow I need to make him see . . .

I never wanted this, so it’s up to him to . . .

I want to tell her to stop howling at the moon, but remain silent.

Her words are like those often spoken by people whose lives have been tipped off balance, and are desperately seeking to regain equilibrium. The words are actually a plea for change. But it is the other who is expected to alter their ways.

So, is it possible to shift, even reverse, another’s point of view? Maybe so.

Here is her story which illustrates the point:

This divorcing husband and wife were negotiating financial issues. He was adamant about only paying support in the amount his attorney told him a Court would likely order, not a penny more. She insisted, and probably rightly so, that he could well afford to provide a greater sum, which would allow her and the children to remain living in their current home.

On the other hand, awash in her own misery, the wife had made no effort to shield their teenagers from the conflict in which she and her husband were engaged, and had portrayed their father as the bad guy who was forcing them to move. Not surprisingly, his relationship with the children was seriously eroded. He was hurt and incensed and blamed her for their alienation.

They were at an impasse, and at the end of our last session, both walked off in a storm of irritation.

The next morning, when I returned a call from the wife, she reverted to her now familiar refrain: if only he would be reasonable and provide enough for us to stay here just for the next four years, the kids wouldn’t resent him so.

This time, wanting to keep her engaged, but moving forward, I asked for and received her permission to offer some advice: Sometimes when parties are deadlocked, if one person acts, unilaterally, takes even a small positive step, it can cause an important shift in the relationship. Can you think of something you might do to break this logjam?

Her silence suggested she was finally ready and had heard me.

The next weekend, without requesting anything in return, she invited the husband to dinner with the children, and in their presence she apologized for having unwisely and thoughtlessly placed them in the middle of their parent’s conflict. She said she and their father were both struggling to create good outcomes. He relaxed his stiff posture and by the time dessert was served, tensions visibly eased.

Will this magically bring about the hoped for solution? Hard to say. But there will be an important change in the nature of their conversation, of that I’m sure. There are many bargaining chips still on the table. Talk will recommence. Impasse is averted.

Giving up on trying to persuade another to change, when a dialog has broken down, and taking a relatively small forward step oneself, without requiring anything in return, often generates a positive shift in another’s perspective, and a new conversation can begin.


 

 

Don’t Assume, Ask

Too often I’ve assumed others shared my point of view, only to later learn how wrong I was.

Why does it matter?

If communication is the heart of a good relationship, and our perception about how another is thinking or feeling is “off”, and we don’t know it (or choose to avoid knowing it), we’re starting the slide into misunderstanding, away from intimacy.

An almost comical (if not so poignant) example often comes to my mind. In 2000, my husband and I sold the home in which we’d lived for over 40 years, and where we raised our family. Len had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years earlier, and although his symptoms were still mild, he was finding climbing stairs ever more arduous. Hence the decision to move.

Our great good fortune was to find a sunny apartment rental with a river view, a parking garage and no stairs. Our house sold quickly, we simplified life by downsizing our possessions, and both of us felt lighthearted to be leaving so much responsibility behind.

For me, raised in and around New York City, the return to apartment life was like putting on a pair of comfortable old shoes. For Len, although he had grown up roaming the open prairies of Illinois, for five years soon after we married, we had lived in one flat or another when he attended Columbia University. And he’d relished city life.

So, we happily settled into our new seventh floor home, only ourselves to please in this latest phase of our lives, quite unencumbered but for our cat, Eleanor. Hers was the major adjustment, for she went from being an outdoor wanderer and hunter, to a life completely circumscribed by the apartment walls and our small balcony.

When our first visitors inquired about how we enjoyed our new living quarters, I readily answered for both of us that it was all quite wonderful. Len just smiled. Then Eleanor padded into the room, and they asked how she was adjusting to being an indoor cat.

“She loves it,” I said.

“She hates it,” Len offered on the heels of my comment. “She feels trapped and confined.”

I was shocked. We had both projected onto our inscrutable cat, how each of us was actually feeling. Quite unconsciously, I’d attributed to my emotional state an objective reality we shared, when that was anything but the case. My comfort and delight with our new surroundings was in no way matched by Len’s unspoken despair, in a world that continued to narrow as his physical limitations advanced.

I should have asked, instead of assuming he experienced my positive response to our move.

Ironically, openly assigning our feelings to our furry pet launched important conversations. I needed to face what he, until that moment, had hidden, and what I’d preferred not to know.

Intimacy was renewed.


 

Look For The Longing

They were seated on opposite ends of the long couch in my office. He spoke forcefully, complaining, critical of some recent choices she’d made for their children. Divorced for a number of years now, she listened with an air of detachment. Occasionally she met his angry gaze with a gentle smile, as if drawing a protective cloak about her, immune to his verbal assault. Her calm presence denied, or at least refused to attend to his emotional state.
 In the face of his fervor, she appeared to have the upper hand, but neither was winning.

Since their marriage ended, these parents worked reasonably well together, but from time to time tensions built, and they sought help in the neutral space of my office.

On this day, they identified multiple issues for discussion, and in doing so made obvious their mutual need for cooperation and accommodation. But what energized this father’s current lament was not even put on the list. He bemoaned losing the close connection he’d had with their youngest daughter. She was entering adolescence and lately was making excuses to avoid spending time with him. As he spoke, his words gained momentum and he became accusatory, blaming. His language escalated: alienation, conspiracy.

These are two intelligent and caring parents, and if viewed with another’s eyes, they are doing a fine job raising their children who are well loved. Their parenting styles, and some of the values they seek to instill, differ, as is often true in intact families. Until recently they’ve adjusted to each other’s requests in an easy manner.

I tried to bring him back to their agenda, and asked them to design some new options, suggesting a need for the give and take and understanding they’d offered each other in the past. He ignored me, too upset to pay heed. The session drew to a close and he left, angry and in haste.

I could not put him out of mind. At some level I was sure he knew that his badgering and accusing would accomplish nothing. What was going on in his life, professionally, or personally, that caused this train wreck of a conversation? Did his anger serve to suppress his tears?

If I had a magic wand, on return he would give voice to his worries, without criticizing and blaming his parenting partner, which simply aroused her opposition and resistance. Under my spell he would request her help, and give sincere consideration to what she was seeking.

And she would look for the longing behind his complaints.

Then, in an ideal world, they would express appreciation for the many good things both are doing for their children.

We will meet again. Lacking magical powers, I will offer them this advice, but with humility, for I know that I have seen only the tip of the iceberg which is their relationship, and much remains unknown to me.

Yet, no matter how complex the dynamics of any alliance: to voice complaints without criticizing the other, and to look for the longing behind a complaint, is bound to further good outcomes.


 

Soul Mates: Myth or Reality?

I shared dinner at my home with a friend I’ve become close to in the years since the death of my husband. She never knew him, but I often spoke to her about him, about us.

On this evening, I showed her a collage of photos taken at different stages of our marriage: in our college years, with small ones on our laps, family vacations, and after our children were grown and we were once again on our own. As with most family photos on display, they show us smiling, attractive children, arms entwined, all of us happy together.

She commented: You two were soul mates, weren’t you?

I was surprised by this, and don’t remember my response, probably just a somewhat hesitant nod. We had also been talking about her marriage, which seemed fine overall, but on this night her words were tinged with disappointment.

Weeks went by before we met again. In the interim, I thought often about her use of the term “soul mates,” and was troubled. Not a phrase I would ever have used.

For over fifty years, Len and I were loved well by each other, most of the time. But we were not soul mates, as I understand the meaning of this new age term: being the totally compatible perfect other half, fated to be together, intimates speaking the same language.That was not our reality.

In his absence, and missing him so, it is the better times that are most often brought back to mind and talked about. But I didn’t want my friend to look to us as an ideal for comparison, against which she might find cause to be discouraged about her own marriage when they were cycling through a trying time.

I needed to tell her that the ideal is a fiction.

Michelle Obama has done this well. Untold articles are written about the Obama marriage. Pictures of them holding hands and smiling are beamed to every corner of the globe. How my admiration for her grew on reading a 2010 NYTimes Magazine article in which both she and the President were candid about unhappy interludes: “The image of a flawless relationship is ‘the last thing that we want to project,’ she said. ‘It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.’ ”

As the years went by, Len and I came to accept that many of our interests were not shared. We set aside the romantic dream that somehow we could be all things to each other. Over time we became more autonomous as we alternately fostered each other’s careers and longings. Our mutual attraction, respect, and our growing family, this was the glue that carried us through the difficult days.

Most often when we were out of sync, we muddled through on our own, all the while struggling with very different communication styles (a special debt of gratitude is owed to Professor Deborah Tannen for writing “You Just Don’t Understand”). But occasionally, a therapist was enlisted to offer a different lens, a new perspective. Invariably, confronting unhappiness brought us closer.

Now, looking back, it’s tempting to generalize from our personal experience when friends comment on or ask about our long successful marriage. But respecting the unique personalities and circumstances of others, I desist. It suffices to say we were lucky to have met, to have shared a determination to problem solve, and to have had a love that carried us through the scary times.

But we were never soul mates.


 

The Evil Twin

She called to apologize and left me this message: Forgive my miserable behavior. It was my evil twin, Skippy, talking.

I smiled, remembering a bit of wisdom often spoken by my husband: No one ever sees themselves as evil.

Earlier that day, Jenny, a mediation client, had unleashed angry accusations at her partner. Now, on reflection, she assigned them to her imaginary evil twin, Skippy.

Jenny and Bruce had lived together for ten years and then, sad but amiable, decided to go their separate ways. Both were previously divorced and were raising teenagers when they first came together and blended their families. They’d come to mediation to design an agreement for an equitable parting.

Legal ramifications of their decision were few, for despite large numbers of couples living together today, unmarried, few laws govern their separations. They spoke of honoring their past contributions to the years spent together, and hoped to maintain the close parental relationships each had formed with the other’s children, now grown.

Not surprisingly, as their negotiation began they soon discovered they had begun mediation with different expectations. Although they shared the goal of seeking a fair outcome, each defined “fair” in accord with standards they did not share.

Both had been salaried employees when they first got together. Bruce, with a far greater income, paid the mortgage and most of the day-to-day household expenses. Jenny, subsidized by Bruce’s steady support, decided to start her own business, which over time became a consuming passion.

The early years were lean, but Bruce’s generous loan of $50,000 for the capital to get her started had since been fully repaid. Now her earnings were significantly greater than his. Six employees had been hired, and overtures were being made for purchase of the company.

The matter under discussion when the evil twin, Skippy, intervened, was Bruce’s belief that he should share in the present value or receive an ownership interest in Jenny’s business. He maintained that his emotional support, financial investment and advice had been crucial to her success. Shocked by this request, Jenny disparaged the worth of his contribution. Their discussion became heated, Jenny accusatory. In essence:

Jenny:This is sheer greed on your part!

Bruce: But for me, you would never have made it.

And on and on. They left my office angry and upset.

I returned Jenny’s earlier phone call. Calmer now, she again expressed regret. I asked if she could consider that Bruce did not speak as a greedy evildoer, but from good intention, even if from her perspective, mistaken?  Could she quell her anxiety about the perceived assault on her venture, her very independence?

She told me she was aware that if they had married, Bruce’s entitlement to share in the value of her business would have been his legal right. So, I posed: was that a public policy worth taking into account, even if she was not legally bound to do so? And most important, what actions would best meet their shared long-term goal of continued family friendships?

Accepting that no one perceives themselves as evil, calls for an important shift in perspective, the offer of a measure of respect for the other’s point of view. While this won’t present immediate solutions, the development of settlement options becomes possible.

If Skippy can be kept at bay.


 

How Dare You Ask!

A fable: On a lovely fall day, they drove away from the city, admiring the leaves turned crimson and gold. But the thoughts of our players were on a soon to be enjoyed romantic interlude at the Cozy Country Inn. Jan and Joe had been seeing each other for a few weeks, and the time seemed right for greater intimacy.
Their instincts were true. Their liaison was passionate and satisfying.
The next morning, they entered the dining room feeling optimistic about their future, born of their new closeness. Over blueberry waffles they talked:
Jan: So, tell me more about your job.
Joe: You mean what do I do, day to day?
Jan: Well, what do you earn?
Joe was silent and raised his hands to his chest, palms outward in the universal gesture of: back off.
 They traveled home in silence.
An exaggeration? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
Why is it so difficult, even with an intimate, to talk about money?
Except for close family, I have few friends with whom I talk freely about our finances, what we each earn and what we have accumulated. I’ve inquired of others and learned that most have even fewer confidants for such talk, some not any. Even family members are often kept essentially in the dark, and know better than to ask. And if someone does pose a question, doubts arise.
What is the questioner’s motive?
Will I be judged inadequate, unworthy?
Will I build a false expectation of largess?
If she earns more than I do, will I be diminished in her eyes?
We comfortably talk about the money of others, often scoffing at those who’ve accumulated millions and continue to relentlessly strive for more. We ask: when is enough enough? Money doesn’t buy happiness, or so we reassure each other. But we do not turn to our conversation partner and ask about their finances, unwilling to risk undermining an ego, theirs or our own. Personal talk about money is the ultimate taboo.
Does what we earn or own define our intrinsic worth in the eyes of others? Is that the essential fear? 
It is easier to share in the exquisite privacy of the sexual realm, and reassure both ourselves and our partner of the potential for mutuality, and of our value to the other, than to expose our ability to compete for dollars, judged by the external standards of society. Then our ego strength is in the hands of others, the fickle marketplace. So we hide?
The moral of the fable: The one gleefully stripped bare in the bedroom, in the counting room must be afforded ample cover.


 

When Argument Is Futile

Although Dave and Jayne mutually decided they needed the intervention of a mediator, once seated in my office they ignored my presence. Their conversation quickly became an argument, their voices raised and strident. After a time I interrupted and asked: has this worked for you in the past? Do you manage to change each other’s minds?

They responded in unison: never!

As their marriage crumbled over recent months, their lives had spiraled out of control, their teenage son a reluctant bystander. Now his grades were in free fall.

A friend had referred Jayne to a doctor who diagnosed their son as having attention deficit disorder and prescribed medication. But Dave had grown up with an aversion to the use of any drugs, particularly those he saw as “fooling with the brain”. He believed the problem was psychological, and he urged that all three of them enter family therapy, or at least have their son work with a psychologist.

Jayne had no faith in Dave’s approach, and was derisive about talk therapy and’”shrinks”. She trusted the doctor who made the ADD diagnosis, and had spoken with other parents who described their child’s miraculous turnaround on medication.

When I asked, both acknowledged that they were echoing beliefs held by the family in which they had grown up, although on this day they were armed with internet research supporting their divergent views. Neither gave the other’s data even cursory attention.

The question: would they be able to give up their determination to change the mind of the other and agree on a plan to rescue their son? If not, would they have to let a judge decide? This was a path dreaded equally by both.

Although we may reject some of our parent’s convictions, how often do we discard the viewpoints we adopted when young, in light of later life experience? Do we discount as exceptional the evidence that doesn’t fit with our basic assumptions? Often, I think we do.
We took a break for coffee, and when calm they agreed to try a more pragmatic approach:

First we reviewed their present circumstances. Even if restating the obvious, this placed them firmly in the here and now. I said:
You’re both still hurt and angry, just beginning to heal.
-Your son is struggling to keep his head above water in school.
– So far, you can’t agree on a plan, but you’ve each developed some possible strategies.
– And you’ve decided not to turn the decision over to the Court.

Next we considered their choices and the possible consequences. The discussion that followed was less blaming and with fewer references to the past. Eventually they developed these options:
– Dave agreed to meet with the doctor Jayne had chosen, if she would join him to talk with a psychologist he selected. She consented.
– Jayne suggested a joint meeting with their pediatrician, always trusted in the past. Dave agreed.
– Jayne had already met with their son’s teachers but offered to go again, with Dave.

We talked about where these steps could lead if both were committed to listen with an open mind. Either might change their view and proceed with the choice of the other, or not. But in any case, they would have more data, have heard it together, and been able to ask questions of the “experts”.

So, a plan was in place.

The actual solution: Jayne decided to avoid the delay needed to schedule and keep all these appointments, and agreed to start family counseling right away, and Dave agreed that if after three months their son was still struggling with school, medication would be given a try. After family counseling began, they met with the doctor Jayne had seen, and with their pediatrician.

Conclusion: Once recrimination about the past is set aside and the futility of argument is recognized, this process can work for many:
– clearly state the current circumstances which must be faced
– develop possible choices for moving forward
– analyze the likely consequences of each choice

Sometimes, as with Dave and Jayne, just going through these steps can cause a shift from impasse to movement.


 

Fear That Does Not Fade

When I decide to write about violence between intimate partners, my heartbeat quickens and I am tempted to stop. I’ve never been subjected to physical intimidation, so don’t fully understand why I so readily insert myself into the picture painted for me by others.

As a mediator I have to provide a safe setting, one in which both parties feel empowered and able to speak freely. To assure this design, I always talk with each person alone on the day of our first meeting. One question I ask is a veiled one: How did you resolve disputes during your marriage? The most common response: I just went along to get along.

Not often, but on occasion, grievous assaults are disclosed.

My initial thought, which I never speak, is: if this was happening to you, why didn’t you leave? Many others must actually have posed this question, for without prompting, excuses often follow:

I knew I could handle it.
The children needed their father.
He would have lost his job.
I didn’t want anyone to know.
He was going through a bad time and promised it would never happen again.

Oddly enough, the speaker of the unspeakable remains calm. Practiced? I too appear composed, and am actually relieved and ready to accept these reassurances so as to end this discussion and move on. In fact, over the years I have successfully concluded a number of cases in which threats and rough treatment were reported. I took at face value that the past could be set aside, perhaps not forgiven, but forgotten.

Now, I know better, and I ask myself how many of those prior agreements were motivated by fear?

For today, I am better schooled and wiser about the lasting impact of being the target of purposely inflicted pain, of living in fear of an intimate partner. Now I know I must look behind the superficial responses, and when I do, the anxiety, theirs and mine, appears anew. I no longer listen passively to the rote explanations, but press for details and this is what I hear:

We were on a Sunday drive on a winding road and I asked him to slow down. His arm swept across the space between us and he broke my nose.
We were in the cellar examining the furnace which had gone cold. I checked the sticker and noted the inspection was overdue. He broke my arm.
After crushing my cell phone underfoot, he stood in the doorway and wouldn’t let me leave the room.
He hasn’t struck me in years, but the day after I told him about my promotion, he attempted suicide.

Now I probe: are you still afraid? Do your friends know? Are you in counseling?

In almost every instance, residual fright is admitted and tears flow. And except in rare cases where significant therapy and the passage of time have provided new strengths, my skill as a mediator cannot overcome the power imbalance generated by enduring fear.

Mediation must end.

I’m told those who grow up in a home where there is raging and coercion, often seek to connect with a controlling partner. Perhaps this is so. But when they are finally ready to leave, there must be an advocate present to assure a safe escape and a well reasoned settlement, forged in a secure setting, free of fear.


 

Secrets Are For Telling

” Secrets are never kept. Everything eventually becomes known.”

These words surprised me. They were spoken by an old friend to whom I’d been describing the plight of a family I’m close to, in which secrets are eroding the relationship of mother, father and adult daughter.

The couple I spoke of was ending their unhappy marriage. Their adult children had been told, and although disheartened, they were buoyed by the caring, respectful, even loving way their parents were making plans to keep the family well connected. While they each moved on to separate lives, they voiced no recrimination or placing of blame. Protective of their privacy, friends and family were simply told, ” we’ve just grown apart”.

Late one evening the husband wrote an e-mail to his wife detailing his distress about her infidelities over the years, kept as a secret just between them. His message contained no rancor, just disappointment and sadness, while remembering things he continued to value about their past.

She sent a reply e-mail, expressing remorse for having hurt him, and told of her sadness.

Some days later, their out-of-town daughter arrived for a visit. Before leaving the house to pick up some groceries, her mother asked her to access a neighbor’s recipe sent by e-mail that morning. Directed to her mother’s computer, the daughter found not only the recipe but opened the e-mail messages her parents had exchanged days before. These secrets were out. But later, rejoining her mother, she said nothing about this breach of her parent’s trust.

That evening, she told her father about her discovery, and made known her anger and disillusionment with her mother. But she committed him to keep her confidence, adamant that her new knowledge not be divulged, fearing her mother’s reaction.

The family, already in a delicate balance, now seemed poised for disaster, privacy boundaries crossed, their previously presumed open communication with each other shut down. A hidden bond between two family members excludes and distances others. And in order to maintain secrecy, the truth has to be distorted.

Did the husband’s initial e-mail, by its very writing, suggest some intent to reveal the previously undisclosed reason for the divorce? Was the daughter’s detection, when sent by her mother to access the recipe on her computer, accidental? My friend thought not, and confirming his point said, “secrets are for the telling”.

I questioned that judgment, as we talked about what had been concealed in our own families. I told him that I often write in a journal, especially when troubled. Writing helps me sort things out. But, I insisted that what I write is private, without any covert plan for disclosure. His response, “Oh, really, and then do you destroy or save what you have written?”

I save. Never consciously thinking about future discovery.

High profile politicians most visibly prove the point, leave a letter to a new soul mate where a wife can find it, pay for furtive sex with a check or traceable bank transfer, meet for an assignation with the press hard on their heels. Believing themselves to be invincible, or an invitation to exposure?

We keep some secrets in the sincere belief that others will be hurt more than ourselves in the telling, to the benefit of no one. But by turning a truth into a secret, is it always a truth we wish could be known? Is it only if we are known, secrets and all, and then accepted, or forgiven, that we feel loved for who we really are, or were?

Do we hide, all the while wishing we could pop-out like a jack-in-the-box and be greeted with approval, no longer keeping the lid on?

So, if the box is wound, the music plays and the catch is released, well, accidents happen. Right?


 

Mindfull Questions

When I talk with a close friend or a colleague, our conversation flows unguarded. We are skilled players of the verbal interchange that carries us forward, asking questions, learning about the other, disclosing what is important about our lives or work at that moment. Ours is a dance with the steps so practiced, there is no need to be mindful about the questions we pose. We risk little, even with a misstep.

But consider different settings.

The cardinal rule taught in law school: never interrogate a courtroom witness without knowing in advance what the answer will be. The temptation is there. One last probe to emphasize the essential winning point: And why is that Mrs. Jones? Then a response that surprises and wipes out gains earlier made.

But, if on the courtroom stage the choreography of words spoken is critical, need this be so in our personal or professional lives? Is the art of asking questions so important, requiring us to be mindful and deliberate?

Often it is. The manner in which a question is posed can evoke a positive emotional response, an opening up, or just the opposite, a resentful apprehension. Here are some of my hard learned lessons, which often I must relearn.

When negotiating, seeking to bring someone toward a desired destination and avoid a defensive response that prevents, or at least postpones agreement, the tone of voice of the inquiry, even the quality of eye contact needs to be free of all criticism or judgment. The distinctions can be subtle.

Ask: Tell me about that (open,accepting). Not: Do you really believe that (veiled belligerence)? Ask: Would it be useful for me to explain my reasoning (respect, consultation)? Not: Do you understand my point (intelligence called into question)?

When a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue has been too long avoided, either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty, before the question is asked, consider saying: we need to have a difficult conversation.

Offering another even just a moment to prepare, the respect shown by not taking one unaware may set the stage for willing consideration of the concern at hand. For those times when both conversation partners may be off balance, just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.

A new addition to my repertoire is a question I pose to myself. If a particular event triggers anxiety and disturbing thoughts flood my brain with a prediction of fearful outcomes, I ask myself, and take the time to slowly ponder: what would I say to a trusted friend who told me the very story in which I am actually the star player? Switching to this role of advisor, I find that I can offer a useful perspective (to myself). I do not dismiss the concern, but test my imaginary friend’s reality by seeking specific evidence for the fears that have been aroused, and then speculate whether a distorted thought process evoked what may well be erroneous conclusions. Reason is restored.

And here’s another rule it might be sound to consider: Some questions are best left unasked:
Is this dress becoming?
Think I’ve put on weight?
Do you still love me?


 

Who Else Is In Bed?

Many moons ago, I read a clever observation by a psychologist, that there are always six people in every marriage bed: husband, wife and both sets of parents. A recent experience reminded me that we never travel down the path to any decision truly alone.

The story: A young couple was slowly working their way through all of the trauma and difficult choices for planning their lives as parents when no longer married. Their very young child seemed to be adapting to the sea change in their lives with greater ease than either of them, they so much more aware and worried about life without love, and with financial hardship.

Although divided about many things, from the outset of mediation they were completely in sync about their goals for their child, and even for promoting each other’s chances for future well-being. Splitting up their accumulated assets was easy, coping with their high mortgage payments less so. Yet, some decisions for the short term were possible, because for a few years the husband, a medical researcher, was willing to contribute the lion share of his income to retain the marital residence for the sake of stability, and to avoid a fire sale in a weak housing market. And as their child was so young, he readily agreed that his wife should not seek a job until their daughter was school age. He would rent a small apartment nearby and live frugally. The chips were all falling into place.

And then they weren’t.

His lawyer strongly objected to the level of support he proposed to contribute for the next two years, saying: No court would ever make you pay so much. She’s bleeding you dry. She needs to get a job and help with the mortgage, or sell the house. I can’t let you do this.

On their return to mediation he announced he had changed his mind, and his wife was soon in tears. He asked to speak with me alone.

His words: It isn’t just my lawyer, although she says I’m being a fool, but it’s everyone else too. Since I’m the one who’s leaving, I’m made out to be the bad guy. But trust me, we’ve both been miserable for a long time. My friends, and even my parents, say I’m crazy, letting my guilt get ahead of my reason. I want her to keep the house, and be a full-time mom, but maybe it’s just not possible.

I took note of his use of the word maybe, recognizing the pull between where his heart led him, and the dictates of his lawyer, and his need to seem forceful in the eyes of those in his camp. These bystanders, who likely saw themselves as fulfilling their role as advocates and as loyal supporters, fueled an anger and resentment he’d not previously expressed.

Ironically, selling the house now, likely at a loss, might well leave them less financially secure. Could his wife, a graphic artist, find a job earning enough to even meet the cost of their child’s day care?  And most important, what would happen to the ease that had evolved as he and his wife related as parents? He nodded his understanding when these questions were raised, but said only that he needed more time to think it over.

Would he be strong enough to withstand the judgment of others, who portrayed him as impotent and his wife as domineering?

His compatriots, invisible contributors to the decisions he faced when negotiating in my office, were sabotaging his better judgment. A group decision was being made. Could he pull himself away and stand alone?

His wife was out of the marriage bed, but many others had climbed in.


 

 

 

 

 

Verbal Jujitsu

If you believe that it’s important for intimate partners to work through conflicts as they arise, it is probably counter-intuitive to be told that there are times when conflict avoidance may be the better course. But such can be the case when faced with words meant to intimidate. I develop this premise here in the context of a divorce but believe it holds true in any personal negotiation.

The story: The timbre of the voice of my caller conveyed the intensity of his emotional state. Not bothering with any pleasantries, in curt tones he said he was only calling to inquire about mediation at his wife’s insistence. For a few moments he allowed me to describe the process, but soon interrupted to express his skepticism and told me that his wife was inflexible about the issue most important to him, concluding: I’ll only consider mediation if she agrees in advance that she’s willing to share time with our children equally. Otherwise I’m filing for sole custody.

I was reasonably sure that this warning was born of his anxiety in anticipating that divorce would seriously diminish the precious connection he had with his children so, while empathizing with his concern, I gently urged him not to throw down the gauntlet and suggested:Threats beget threats. And often lengthy litigation.

Silence at first. But then I learned that he and his wife had been attempting to negotiate terms on their own. Talking had begun in a relaxed way, for their past relationship had been a respectful one. But with their marriage bond now frayed, frustration mounted over the tone in which something was said, or over a proposal made, and anger was triggered. Their discussion escalated into dueling ultimatums.

Can the effort to intimidate just be ignored? It rarely is but actually, that may be the wisest course. Step aside without striking back. Verbal jujitsu.

Most threats are born of fear, and it is the fear that needs to be explored and understood rather than the menacing words. But the “fight or flight” response too often takes over precluding rational discourse.

In the divorce context, verbal threats are legion. As here: I’ll sue for custody before I ever accept one minute less than equal time with the children, or: I’ll go to jail before I pay a dime of alimony, when you’re the one who wants this, or: I’ll disclose the pornography I found on your computer if you fight me on this point.

If the sincere goal is to move a partner towards agreement, which it almost always is, to oppose a threat head on, or to counter in kind, may well destroy the chance of settlement, for responses to such statements made in the heat of the moment only makes the speaker’s later retreat more difficult. Both parties need to buy time.

There are other options:

If sufficient calm prevails, and a mediator or dispassionate mutual friend is involved, an analysis in private with each party to discuss the possible or likely consequences of the threatened action can be an important reality check. Most helpful is the catharsis that occurs when the party having issued the challenge is drawn into a discussion (often a tearful interlude) about why they feel so strongly about the issue.

But if the amount of tension already generated precludes either person being able to really listen to the other with understanding, an equally useful tactic is to move on to a discussion of a completely unrelated topic, allowing passions to cool. Step aside. Verbal jujitsu.

As the mediator, this is the choice I usually make if the parties will accept the diversion. And it is a choice individuals can make on their own, without announcement. The passage of time will likely allow for a return to reason, especially if the fear underlying the threat, usually of some loss or perceived loss, is acknowledged and addressed. And taking a moment to express sincere compassion at such times can cause incredible shifts in position.

It often behooves the threatened party to recognize that it is in their own best interest to allow the other to save face, by continuing to ignore, (and certainly to refrain from repeating the threat to allies on the sidelines), to simply step aside from the menacing words earlier spoken, so that both can refocus on what each hopes to achieve in the long term. Verbal jujitsu.


 

 

 

“Forget You”

When my kids were very young, the ultimate putdown 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 other’s 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 other’s 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 each 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 other’s 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.


 

Slowing Down To Go Fast

They entered my office smiling, an amiable couple in their early fifties. After my introductory comments, I was told that even before deciding to mediate their divorce they had pretty much worked things out. Many agreements were already in place, and I was assured they would make quick work of the issues that remained.

Approaching the end of our second session, Dave, a successful businessman, spoke with authority as he presented the financial plan he’d devised for his wife, Kate, for when she would be on her own. Apparently listening, but quiet and no longer smiling, Kate did not react or respond. I invited her comment. She just shrugged her shoulders. So I asked: need more data?

No answer. I continued: Perhaps you’re feeling apprehensive about what the future holds?

No answer.

Dave turned to me, making no effort to hide his irritation: Wait a minute. You’re putting words in her mouth. She’s fine with this plan. We already talked it over.

At that, Kate came to life:  You don’t know how I feel! I’ll never find a job earning what you say I can earn. Now she is sobbing. Dave sits back, displeased and exasperated. He is a man on a mission who thought the end was in sight.

So, why this breakdown now?

All along I’d been aware of Kate’s struggle to fully understand Dave’s explanation of financial matters that had previously been left completely up to him. Earlier he had pointed out that it was Kate who always paid the monthly bills, suggesting she was therefore savvy about finance. But did this follow? Although her husband treated her with respect and she did not appear distrustful, her anxiety was palpable. Not an uncommon response when the reality of going forward alone is no longer inescapable. And Kate as yet had no job in sight.

Dave’s inpatience would not serve him well. That day he came to realize, as Kate fully revealed her fears about the future, that unless she felt more competent to engage and reason with him, and had employment she could count on, she would likely turn to a surrogate power source: a lawyer, a gladiator, to do battle with her stronger opponent. This could be a very long journey.

We took time out from mediation for Kate to meet with counsel wise in the ways of settlement, and a financial planner with special knowledge of divorce, to take whatever time she needed to fully understand the deal she was about to negotiate, and to become assured she could successfully manage her financial future. She would get the help she needed, but not from Dave. And the job search would proceed before finality was achieved. Kate would even research the possibility of additional coursework to enhance her employability. It meant a delay of some months while these steps were taken, but she was excited now, still wary but optimistic.

I’ve never been comfortable with the cynical comment that if both parties walk away equally unhappy, a good bargain has been struck. Rather, I think, if both are given sufficient time to address their concerns, fully empowered, either alone or with a wise advocate at their side, sound agreements can be reached.

I was confident that before long Kate would find her own voice. And Dave, reluctantly, came to realize that sometimes to go slow is to go fast.


 

 

 

No Need To Explain

How can I explain this to my folks?

This was the question posed by a young friend. Following her husband’s disclosure of infidelity she had sought shelter and solace with her parents. Now after a month-long separation, she’d decided to return to her own home. She and her husband had gained important insights in counseling sessions, both together and on their own, and were ready to repair their relationship.

But in both subtle and direct comments, her parents cast doubt upon her decision. They pressed her to answer their questions. Their anger toward their son-in-law was great, and although at the outset their daughter found this comforting and supportive, she now regretted having shared such a private matter.

My immediate response was: you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

I’ve said this countless times to friends and clients. But her startled reaction gave me pause. Was I just playing out some old rebellious script of my own? My tendency when younger, shared by many women, was to attempt to legitimize my personal decisions with a well-reasoned rationale, particularly if I was rejecting another’s request or opinion. Even declining a dinner invitation seemed to call for an extended explanation. Never a simple: sorry, I can’t make it.

Looking back, I think I failed to note an important distinction between simply giving voice to my choices, stating what I believed to be the best path to take, and the need to justify my choice, to meet some norm of social acceptability. Often I’d hedge, be less than forthright, resenting my need to comply with the standards of others, and wanting to avoid the invasion of my private thoughts. I’d end up feeling somehow at fault.

No longer. Stating a personal preference or decision need not be followed by an effort to legitimize the choice. Responding to a request for an explanation may or may not make good sense, depending on who is asking and how important it is to share underlying motivations with another.

An example of the blurring of this distinction grew to mythic proportion when some prominent feminists faulted Hillary Clinton in years past when she offered what they saw as excuses for her husband infidelities. As I read her words, although attempting to understand what had happened by referring to his early years, she was not seeking to justify his behavior. Nor to seek approval from others for her decision to remain in the marriage.

As for my friend, in the weeks that followed she resolved her quandary. The essence of her considered response to the insistence of her parents that she provide reasons for her decision to rejoin her husband was: I appreciate your concern. I’ve given it a lot of thought and in my judgment it’s the right thing to do. Whatever problems we have will be ours to solve together.

Their questions persisted. She did not waver.

Seeking to explain one’s own or another’s actions in the personal realm, invites appraisal by those whose standards or values may well differ from our own. That is something we can be open to, or not. Our choice, not someone else’s due.


 

An Unrealistic Expectation: Fairness

It’s wonderful to engage with someone who has worked their way out of despair and become optimistic about the future. The enthusiastic woman I met with was preparing a proposal for her departing husband. After months of obviously useful therapy, she had given up lamenting the past and was facing her impending divorce with new found courage, determined to convince her soon-to-be former spouse to amend his most recent support proposal.

The story: this wife had earned a library science degree a decade ago, but now that her status as the stay-at-home parent was ending, she had a new career goal, one that required a return to school. To implement this plan, her husband needed to contribute to her support for a longer period than he had offered.

Her plea to him some months ago was: before the kids were even born, we agreed that I would leave work and stay home full time, to give them a good start. Now it’s only fair for you to pay for my return to school.

His response at that time was: true, that was the agreement we made, but it was never assumed that you would switch careers. The fair thing is for you to help bring in income now.

When fairness is the goal and each party asks the other “to be fair”, what they are really saying is: if you saw the world as I do, then you would agree with me. Since you don’t, you’re unfair.

Pleas for fairness typically fall on deaf ears. Bargaining for subjective concepts of fairness simply pushes people further apart, less likely to reach agreement. So, when you know where you want to go but keep tripping up along the way, it’s time to take a different tack, to be strategic.

This newly empowered woman was no longer stuck in the fairness trap. Still legitimately negotiating to meet her self-interest, here is what she now said: consider this. I know I could return to work in the library, but with 18 months of retraining, I could likely achieve a better salary and feel a sense of real satisfaction in my work. If this is something you’d be willing to help me accomplish, I’d be willing to commit to paying some portion of the kid’s college tuition, as you’ve been asking.

Maybe we all regress to some extent when life is turned upside down, and as a child might whine, with a stamp of a foot, insist: it’s just not fair.

The strategic approach is: here is what I want and here is what I am willing to do, or better yet: if I offered you ABC, would you be willing to give me XYZ? This latter approach has the added benefit of offering to consult on the solution, and acknowledges that the other person has a position worthy of respect.

Advanced consultation, respect for another’s outlook, and a reciprocal offer trumps a plea for fairness every time.

Anger: Serve Us Well?

For some of those that I work with, anger is too constant a companion.


          Therapists have helped many to recognize and legitimize their anger. Depression begins to lift and a new sense of self and autonomy is achieved, all to the good. But for a few, who I suspect give up exploring the source of their feelings too soon, a new found acceptance of their outrage is worn as a badge of courage, and it can do them in.

          A mediation example to consider: wife has been betrayed. Husband met a new and now preferred partner. Wife, who had remained at home, had fostered her husband’s successful career, provided fultime care for the children and kept the home fires burning brightly. (For the purpose of this discussion, who did what to whom over the years of the marriage is irrelevant, for as is almost always the case, both parties contributed to the relationship failure.) Wife’s acrimony is now given free reign and fuels her days.

          In the negotiation setting, tempers can flare, quite understandably so. This wife bristles and reflexively rejects her husband’s generous financial proposals, born of his remorse. She meets my cautionary words with: my therapist said I have every right to express my anger. 

          I meet with the wife privately and suggest that her indignation expressed in a therapeutic setting, or to a friend, may well serve a valid purpose, but does not serve her well when negotiating. Whether or not one has the right to be furious is not the point. Reaching a favorable result is. So, I advise: taste your ire, but then become strategic.

          My words, however, fall on unreceptive ears. A quick turn about appears impossible. I urge a return to therapy with a focus on taking care of herself in the immediate situation. But, I know that it may take months of litigation before she is able to recognize that her bitter stance is self-defeating, if then.

          My personal epiphany occurred many years ago when a book by a self-help guru got me on the right track by pointing out that holding on to anger hands over tremendous power to an adversary. The target of our indignation, in a sense, takes control of our life. That was the last thing I wanted.

For me, acknowledging, but then letting go of anger, and seeking an effective solution to the issue at hand, takes back the control I need.

And breathing deeply helps.

When Life Just Happens

Too often it is only after years of sidestepping talk of discontent, that the thwarted desires of partners are openly and seriously explored. So much that might be timely expressed goes unsaid, until it is too late.


          Here is the story a divorcing couple recently told: seventeen years earlier, she’d become pregnant, they married, and she gave up her college plans. He achieved career success, making it unnecessary for her to take a job for pay. As the family grew, they moved to an upscale suburb where the children attended private schools.

          Although she yearned to return to serious study, little was said of this, as obligations at home and in the community filled her days. After a time, he felt trapped in a career he would happily leave, but for the need to support their expensive lifestyle. The immensity  and seeming impossibility of their dreams overwhelmed them, so, although occasionally the subject of aimless late night talk, their dreams were put aside.

Now, with the decision made to part and all passion spent, they didn’t blame each other for the disappointments they openly discussed, both suggesting: it just happened.

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to a small volume, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life” by Alan Lakein. It’s one of the many books I never finished, but the early pages contained a suggestion I took to heart.

Following the author’s instructions, each year, usually in January, I sit before a blank piece of paper and without allowing any time for rumination, spend no more than two minutes writing the answer to each of the following questions:

1) What do I want to accomplish over the next five years?
2) What do I want to accomplish over the next year?
3) How would I spend the next six months if I knew I only had six months to live?

I keep my annual lists and from time to time I look back. Sometimes with pleasure I note goals that have been met. Other times I realize that year after year the same objective is repeated without much forward movement. My answers to the third question are least likely to have been implemented. Denial?

I never share my lists with anyone, but many conversations with friends and colleagues are spawned with my aspirations in mind, and projects are designed. Trying to enlist my husband in this specific question and answer process failed. Wasn’t his style. But over the years, my formalizing of goals, long and short term, often led to talk about our dreams and miseries. We gave each other permission and support to initiate change, and many important changes were made.

But what happened to the two people seated on my office couch who spoke of their regrets as they made plans for lives apart? At an earlier time they had great attraction for each other and probably shared many values, yet they failed to seriously talk about or suupport each other’s longings. Their imaginings about a different way of life were defeated before they were realistically explored. What if they had asked each other how steps in new directions might have been taken over the next six months or the next year?

Perhaps each couple, or at least one partner, should go through an annual assessment of what they wish they could do or be, to see if articulating what one hopes to achieve might lead to important disclosures by both of them and support for those ends. Together.

When Talking Is Difficult

Cold weather approaches and reminds me of the recent winter when my car broke down, which proved to be not only a failure of the mechanism, but of my spirit, at least temporarily. For I felt ill equipped to cope with the decisions that then had to be made. This had always been Len’s domain, not mine.  

         I managed well enough with the help of friends, and those who towed and repaired with kind tolerance for my ineptitude, but what a stark reminder of the division of responsibility in our marriage. Although we often consulted with each other, decisions about the purchase or repair of anything with moving parts were left to him, interior design left to me. Insurance, his. Kid’s clothing and wellness care, mine. With career decisions, he made his and I made mine. But major concerns, a possible move to another city, a home purchase, a child’s blue mood, were always talked through to resolution. If memory serves me well, our shared values usually made these conversations easy. But not always.

         When Len, who piloted his own small plane, began to take our young grandchildren aloft, I developed a twitching eyelid and my sleep was seriously disturbed. We tried to talk about it. He was hurt and angry that I would question his judgment, and thought my fears irrational. I thought not, but even if they were, I needed to find a healthy way to cope. We knew this was an issue we had to confront and resolve, but my anxiety and his defensiveness made it a difficult conversation that went nowhere.

         Eventually, we sought professional help, and along the way learned a lot about each other and ourselves. The outcome we reached was a compromise which I gratefully, and he somewhat grudgingly, accepted: he would take another pilot along.

         What the breakdown of my car and these meandering recollections brings to mind is how often, in private, both partners approaching divorce maintain that whenever conflict loomed, too discouraged or unable to talk it through,   they were the one who abdicated the decider role and simply gave in to the other. The moments most clearly remembered are those when dreams were compromised, eroding a sense of self, thwarting authenticity.

         I am aware of this because on the first day I meet with a mediating pair, I speak with each of them alone and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. How did they negotiate? Here is the interesting twist. Often each perceives themself as the one who most often capitulated and accommodated to the other’s wishes or demands. As impossible as this would seem, I think the belief is sincerely voiced.

         My friends whose relationships are working well readily acknowledge those areas in which they most likely have the prominent decision making role and those they are willing to leave to their partner. So, talk usually comes easy.

         But in a relationship where hope for a future together is ending, self-disclosure feels risky and talking is difficult, and the yearning to better understand the other is trumped by anxiety or disappointment. 

         Without some intervention, preferably an experienced counselor, dissatisfaction then just grows and grows.  So, of course, the earlier the better.

Contemplate Winning

A confusing truth: when family issues are litigated, it is not always easy to distinguish a win from a loss.

The story: Unhappy together for some time, once the decision was made to end their marriage, the husband moved out of the family home, but he remained determined to have a significant role in the life of his six year old son. The wife, angered by her husband’s infidelity and rejection, repeatedly thwarted his efforts.

Since the child’s infancy, she had managed all of the day-to-day details of their son’s life. She attended the school conferences and met with the pediatrician. Now she resisted the father’s wish to share the status of legal custodian and to spend significant time with their child.

There was a time, however, when she, a registered nurse, was dependent on prescription drugs she obtained illegally. He responds to her resistance by threatening to raise the issue of her addiction in Court.

Both parties have ample ammunition ready at hand to publicly display their private misery, and some of their friends and family urge them on. Each met with counsel reputed to be tough and relentless in their advocacy. A custody contest looms, when a counselor refers them to me.

In mediation, both parties privately acknowledged that the other is a loving and responsible parent. And since his departure, the husband has proven that his new attentiveness to his son has staying power. The wife has already completed a drug treatment program and, through still regularly monitored, has been reinstated in her hospital position. She is the one now called upon to compromise, but she needs time and additional professional guidance to get beyond her bitterness and sense of having falied as a wife. Not easy. He needs to remain involved but slow down, ease up on the pressure and stay calm. Also not easy.

Anxiety is always high as an intimate relationship ends. Will I be forever financially strapped? Will I ever find love again? Will I lose my precious connection with my child? Will another woman take my place with my son? Preparing to do battle may temporarily quiet these voices. Fear sharpens the focus of both parties on all they stand to lose.

This is the perfect time to take a deep breath and a longer view. So, I invite them both to switch gears and turn away from the pain of losing and imagine winning the fight, either through threats and tough bargaining or by convincing a Judge. Contemplate the aftermath of triumph.

These questions emerged:

Will the loser-parent back away from the parenting role?

Will there be a tightening of the purse-strings, less generous support now, and as college plans are made?

Will parental alienation darken the life of one parent or the other, as they continue to denigrate each other?

Will their child, forever caught in the middle of their conflict, be permanently damaged, his loyalty always questioned?

Will their savings and future income be depleted by repeated litigation battles that resurface again and again?

A sobering exercise. And more work remains to be done.

In the effort to regain control during the chaotic times of our lives, it is easy to become mired in misery, anticipating painful losses. Contemplating the results of winning a battle (or even a relatively minor argument), not just the fallout of losing, can actually restore some balance and lead to compromise, and sometimes significant gains.

Howling At The Moon

She sits on my office couch and speaks as if she is not even a participant in this drama, weeping and angry: this divorce is his idea not mine!

I understand her tears. Her marriage has fallen apart, and facing that reality is bleak. But this is our second mediation session, and I must try hard to swallow my impatience as she resists my efforts to move her past this focus on her misery, when I want to talk about her developing a plan for her future. Although reluctant to indulge her mood, I know she needs more time, so I continue to listen, and I hear:

          If only he would be reasonable . . . . .

Somehow I need to make him see . . . . . . .

I never wanted this, so it is up to him . . . . . .

I want to tell her to stop howling at the moon, but remain silent.

Her words are like those often spoken by people whose lives have been tipped off balance, and are desperately seeking to regain equilibrium. The words are actually a plea for change. But it is the “other” who is expected to alter their ways.

So, is it possible to shift, even reverse, another’s point of view?  Maybe so.

Here is her story which illustrates the point:

This divorcing husband and wife were negotiating financial issues. He was adamant about only paying support in the amount his attorney told him a Court would likely order him to pay, and not a penny more. She insisted, and probably rightly so, that he could well afford to provide a greater sum, which would allow her and the children to remain living in their current home.

On the other hand, awash in her own misery, the wife had made no effort to shield their teenagers from the conflict in which she and her husband were engaged, and had portrayed their father to the children and the villain who was forcing them to move. Not surprisingly, his relationship with them was seriously eroded. He was hurt and incensed and blamed her for their alienation.

They were at an impasse, and at the end of our last session, both left in a storm of irritation.

The nest morning, when I returned a call from the wife, she reverted to her now familiar refrain: if only he would be reasonable and provide enough for us to stay here just for the next four years, the kids wouldn’t resent him so.

This time, seeking to keep her engaged, but moving forward, I asked for and received her permission to offer some advice: Sometimes when parties are deadlocked, if one person acts, unilaterally, takes even a small positive step, it can cause an important shift in the relationship. Can you think of something you might do to break this logjam?

Her silence suggested she was finally ready and had heard me.

The next weekend, without requesting anything in return, she invited her husband to dinner with the children, and in their presence she apologized for having unwisely and thoughtlessly placed them in the middle of their parent’s conflict. She said she and their father were both struggling to create good outcomes. He relaxed his stiff posture and by the time dessert was served, tensions visibly eased.

Will this magically bring about the hoped for solution? Hard to say. But there will be an important change in the nature of the conversation, of that I’m sure. There are many bargaining chips still on the table. Talk will commence. Impasse is averted.

Giving up on trying to persuade another to change, when a dialog has broken down, and taking a relatively small forward step oneself, without requiring anything in return,  often generates a positive shift in another’s perspective, and the dust settles in a new configuration.

Apology: Remorse or Maneuver?

A mediation client recently phoned after a session and politely but firmly accused me of favoring a plan put forward by his wife, displaying a bias, not the neutrality I’d promised.

Although I thought his perception wrong, I knew I had likely contributed to this misunderstanding, so I simply apologized. That seemed to clear the air, and we were then able to listen to each other’s view of what had taken place. Defensiveness fell away, for both of us.

But it could have gone quite differently, for I almost mindlessly, and defensively, responded to him by saying: I’m sorry you see it that way.

I didn’t do so because of my heightened awareness of other expressions of regret gone awry: a celebrity, a politician or a radio talk show host places foot squarely in mouth and indicts an ethnic group or gender with evil or foolish intent, and when once again sober or contrite, with great apparent sincerity apologizes by saying: If my words resulted in discomfort or pain, I’m very sorry. Responsibility for the incident is thereby shifted away from the speaker and to the listener, who is presumed to be overly sensitive. Not really an apology at all.

Working with people who have hurt each other in egregious ways and decided to divorce, I don’t often hear an apology spoken. When the decision has been made to part, and anxiety about the future is high, perhaps this is not surprising. Yet, I regret this constraint, for expressions of remorse that take responsibility for acts or omissions, can be so healing and open the door to understanding.

Even under less stressful circumstances, in secure times, some can say they are sorry with ease, perhaps even be too apologetic, when for others, the words of regret remain unspoken.

The different ways each of us convey ideas or express feelings is dependent to some extent on ethnicity, nationality or a special dynamic in our family of origin. These are disparities that too often go unrecognized. The apology also presents an important gender distinction.

Here’s an interesting insight from Debra Tannen, a linguist, author and professor at Georgetown University. She’s written a number of books pointing out the differences between the communication style of most men and women, differences which she observed even in nursery school age children at play. She notes how willing women often are to apologize when things have not worked out well. I’ve noticed that myself, and assumed it simply grew out of women’s greater ability to express feelings, and the reluctance of many men to display emotion. But, according to Tannen, there is more to it than that.

Tannen observes that women tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation bringing us closer or pushing us further apart? Men, on the other hand tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation putting me in a one-up or one-down position?

For women, she concludes, apologies are to be embraced because they reinforce connections, but many men are attuned to the symbolic power of an apology to advertise defeat.

I find this to be a meaningful distinction, although, to be applied fully recognizing that generalizations don’t always fit.


 

Does Love Trump Privacy?

When our youngest child grew up and moved some distance away, I claimed her room and fashioned a space all my own. It was quite small, on the second story of our home with leafy tree branches almost touching the windows, a nest of sorts. There were times my husband came and stood at the threshold to ask me a question, but he didn’t walk in. He never entered uninvited. It was our unspoken understanding, as natural as breathing, that our separateness was respected. This personal background sets the stage for my describing a mediation session in which a privacy issue arose.

     The couple working with me was seeking to preserve, not end their marriage. They had come for help in negotiating some well-defined concerns, because discussions at home had proven difficult and divisive. In the prior week, without consulting his wife, the husband had installed a lock on his home-office door, She was hurt and angry.
     His story: when he was away from home, his wife opened mail addressed only to him. It was nothing of a highly personal nature, but in doing so she learned that his business debt was considerably greater than she had been led to believe. On discovering this, still in his absence, she looked through his desk and files, and eventually explored his computer, where she made discoveries of a more personal nature. When she confronted him upon his return,
he was outraged, and no doubt chagrined. That’s when the lock went on.
     Her story: She firmly believed there should be no secrets between marriage partners, and that she was, therefore, perfectly justified in her actions. He was the one who had much to explain.
    The response I addressed to her was spoken without hesitation, or sufficient forethought. With some fervor I said: But everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy.

    This statement and my tone surprised them, and myself as well. With hindsight I regret the unprofessional way I spoke. I should have posed some neutral questions, not been judgmental. Predictably, the issue did not get resolved in my office, and later, when the wife called to cancel their next scheduled appointment, I learned that after further discussion, her husband had removed the lock from his office door.

     I recalled another client who discovered that her husband had read the journal in which she wrote each morning on waking. She was incensed, even though she’d kept it tucked in her nightstand drawer, readily accessible. Her question: how could he not understand that it was for my eyes only?

      Will these unwelcome intrusions continue to rankle over time? My guess is that insistence on full disclosure, and by some even a demand to know their partner’s innermost thoughts, is more likely to erode than to foster harmony. Are these wounded loved ones likely to become more or less secretive?
Why is privacy so important? We speak of someone “invading” our privacy and the very use of that word suggests a violation of significance. It is an assault on our autonomy, a piercing of that protective skin we seek to keep in tact (so many words of aggression!). Privacy keeps us safe, free of judgment until we are ready for exposure, and then, only to those we trust.

Small Talk

I avoid most large social occasions, explaining, or complaining, that my tolerance for idle chat, small talk, is low.
           The friend with whom I shared this view on a recent afternoon as we strolled to our City’s Convention Center, nodded in silent understanding. We were headed for what we knew would be a crowded event and I expected it would call for considerable insignificant chatter before the program began. So, already I was looking forward to the time I could retreat and have the remaining hours of the day be of my own design.
          There was every good reason to be in attendance at this grand gathering honoring eight career women for their major achievements and contributions to our community, for these were people I genuinely admired. Yet, as we wove our way through the arriving crowd and found our assigned table, if I had been asked, (which my more extroverted companion did not ask) I likely would have pontificated that talk should either be intimate and disclosing or purposeful. All else a waste of precious time. My mantra.
         But even before luncheon forks were lifted, I surveyed the festive crowd and took note of how many of those in attendance, including my companion, seemed to be really enjoying greeting and chatting, and seeking to discover connections when introduced to new acquaintances. Thinking about it after returning home, and in the days since, this gave me pause. Should I reconsider my negativity? Was I the one out of step, missing the point? Discounting and avoiding something of value?
          These thoughts brought to mind notes I’d made some time ago after reading about a surprising research finding. An experiment was conducted with law students. Each was paired with another student at a distant school, given only a name, phone number and a set of facts presenting a fairly complex problem to be negotiated during a long distance call. Half of the group at each school was told to conduct a brief (no more than three-minute) conversation on the day before the telephone negotiation session was to take place. In this initial call, they were not to refer to the facts of the case in any way, but simply make small talk, get minimally acquainted, talk about the weather in their respective cities, if they chose, but nothing particularly purposeful.
         Data was later collected from both groups on the settlement success rate of those who had had insignificant friendly conversations the day before, and those who had not. The rate of successful settlements was much higher in the “small talk” group.
         Revisiting the results of this study, I thought back to my idle conversations of the afternoon, and wondered about their impact if those with whom I’d exchanged banter were to meet soon again, with a particular goal in mind.
          In his most recent book, Beyond Reason, Roger Fisher (of Getting To Yes fame) and his co-author Daniel Shapiro, both of the Harvard Project on Negotiation, address the emotional components, both positive and negative, which can be used to advantage, or avoided, when seeking to negotiate agreements. They give significant importance to “affiliation”, the building of personal connections, reducing personal distance with one’s negotiating partner. This is what seemed to have happened with the brief casual exchanges of the law student group with the greater success rate.
          As we were leaving the Convention Center, gliding smoothly along on elongated escalators, I noticed one of my close attorney friends in what appeared to be animated friendly chatter with another attorney who for many months has been her negotiating counterpart in a very difficult dispute. I don’t know how much time they’ve had for idle talk when attending meetings around massive formal conference tables. For now, I’ll hold out some hope their small talk may make a difference. I’ll find out. I may have to shift gears, stop complaining and improve my affiliation skills.

Fathers, Present and Past

I’m sure it’s true for all of us: Our personal past informs our professional present.

The father seated in my office weeps without shame. He and his wife have not yet told their 11-year-old daughter that their marriage is ending. For both of them this looms as a painful task, but he is the parent who feels most at risk of losing or diminishing the precious connection to this child. Although much more involved than fathers in years past, because of his work commitments his wife assumed the primary parenting role. Would he continue to have a secure place in his daughter’s life when living on his own and no longer with her for part of every day? He fears he will not. I empathize and want to reassure him, but how?

Later, I search for childhood memories of my own father and realize that, except for his place at Sunday dinners, I have few, for he was usually absent as I was growing up. To keep bread on the table during the Depression years, my father left home before I woke and returned after dark. Then, as our financial fortunes began to ease, came the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, my older brother’s entry into the army, and the detonation of atomic bombs.  These are the events that I remember commanded our attention when the family was together during my teen years. I left home for college just after the war ended, to return only for brief visits.

Yet, one personal memory remains vivid. When 11 years old, I cut my own hair, snipping off long locks to create bangs. My mother did not hide her utter dismay. But when my father came home and was brought to view the damage, even in the face of my mother’s frowning disapproval, he said: I like it very much. She’s very pretty.

My spirits soared.

An important moment for me, if remembered so many decades later.

The perhaps idealized memory I hold of my father is of a quiet kind man, always with a newspaper in hand, who seemed pleased whenever he saw me. I grew up believing he loved and approved of me unconditionally, a gift fully appreciated only much later in life as I witnessed the struggle of a close friend whose abiding memory is of her father’s relentless disapproval.

I told my client this story in a private moment when next we met, and suggested that his daughter will never forget the important kindnesses he has shown her in the past and will in the future. Though no longer a constant presence in her life, there will now be moments just the two of them will share. Some will be memorable. He smiles but retreats into silence.

The other father I have known well is the man I married. Len strove to be a father like my own, and mostly he was, until he wasn’t. In the early 1970s, as the Viet Nam war raged, the conversation at our dinner table, and on the campus at which he taught, roiled with dissent. The sexual revolution was in full sway just as our teenagers came of age. As parents we sought to a adjust to the swiftly changing times, but were in turmoil, trying to understand but still hold to the standards we then thought sound.

When Len came home one day and found one of our sons upstairs with a girlfriend, in anger he told him it must never happen again, or he must leave. It was our house, so our rules. I silently acquiesced to his edict, agreeing with his reasons, if less sure about the threat, but alert to the rage with which his quick decision was made, knowing some but not all of the sources.

Unwilling to agree, our son moved to a tiny apartment (guess who paid the rent?) until he left for college some months later. But the child grown to maturity learns to place parents in the context of their times and unique personal history. In the years that followed, both father and son apologized, and the relationship became relaxed and loving once again. I share this story with my client as well. Our missteps can repair.

And what is the message from fathers today: anything goes, just stay safe?

There Are Other Choices

When I’m with someone bemoaning their past mistakes, I look for the nearest exit. But when I witness folks on the brink of what I believe is a poor decision, I try to keep them in the room and urge consideration of other choices. If they are willing to take the time to listen, I’ve found an approach that usually works.

Here’s the story: Parents whose divorce was final several years ago returned to mediation to decide how best to help their thirteen-year-old son. Previously a fine student, his grades were now sliding, and a new self-consciousness was evident. Eating habits were changing. He was sleeping too much one day and awake all hours the next. More secretive.

The mother is sure that their youngster is seriously in need of psychological counseling and specialized tutors. The father thinks they are witnessing normal behavior and wants to avoid turning their son into a “patient” needing to be fixed every time he stumbles.

He says: He’s fine. Let him make some mistakes and learn from them. I worry that your plan will convince him there’s something wrong with him.

She says: We should be doing everything we possibly can to assure he gets a good start in high school. He needs this help.

Although their focus and concern about their son is genuine, in listening carefully to the nuances of their conversation, I’ve become aware that the mother’s new male companion is a source of as yet unacknowledged tension between these parents.

Back and forth the exchange goes, each presenting reasonable arguments, but steadfast in their own position. By the end of the session, their frustration with each other brings them to despair, convinced they are unable to resolve matters in mediation with a former spouse whose values and view of reality is not shared. Both suggest a return to Court is their only option.

Before they leave my office, I urge them to come back for one last visit, and reluctantly they agree. In the meantime, I’ll talk with each of them privately about what I perceive is adding to the difficulty of their discussion. I could be wrong, but if not, another conversation needs to first be held. Then, as a last ditch-effort, I’ll take them through an exercise taught to me by another mediator: exploring the three Cs. It may seem formulaic, but time and again it has worked, even personally, when I’m faced with a difficult decision.

On a large chart we will actually write down the answers to the following questions:

Circumstances: What facts are actually known about their son’s situation? From trustworthy sources? What additional information could be gathered? From teachers. From their pediatrician. (Can they attend meetings together to avoid later sharing biased interpretations of what they hear?) What changes in their personal lives may be having an impact on their son?

Choices: In light of these circumstances, what choices are open to them? The path mother proposes and father rejects is only one possible choice. What other next steps could be taken? Now they need to be free-wheeling, generating ideas without passing judgment prematurely. That comes next.

Consequences: What are the likely outcomes of each identified choice? Here they may not agree, but the calm deliberation in answering the earlier questions often supports a willingness to experiment and see what happens.

For if, instead, they give up their effort to resolve their issues together, will the Courthouse outcome, many months and thousands of dollars down the road, be more satisfying, even for the winner?

Certainly not for their son, who will have become the heart of his parent’s conflict.

Mother Always Loved You Best

The woman’s name announced over my office intercom was vaguely familiar. As I lifted the phone, she said: You may not remember me. It’s been seven years since I, my mother and my sister worked with you. Now my sister is dying and refuses to see me. Can you help?

My failed mediations remain a more vivid memory than my successes, and as soon as she offered this bit of background, I remembered her well.

Some years ago, a friend of a friend had called me to ask if I could mediate a problem that was tearing her family apart. Months earlier, having reached the age of eighty-five, she had disclosed to her daughters that she planned to leave her sizable estate to them in equal shares.

The older daughter was incensed. Living on the west coast, divorced and without children, she had achieved considerable success in the film industry and was financially secure. Although fully engaged in a demanding career, she maintained close contact with her mother.

Her sister, a gifted student in high school and college, married young. She and her professionally trained husband raised five children on a small subsistence farm, home schooling their youngsters and neither had pursued paid employment. The mother lived nearby so witnessed the unmet needs of her younger daughter’s family and regularly helped out financially, eventually even paying the college expenses of her grandchildren. A substantial sum, never tallied, had been contributed over many years. The older sister had always accepted her sibling’s life choices without rancor, but believed, from comments her mother had made in the past, that in the end a balance would be struck. She expected to receive a larger share of the estate.

Now her memory of that commitment was questioned. Family discussions became bitter. The mother wavered. Her every effort to soothe or develop compromise solutions only evoked more anger from one daughter or the other. She was distraught.

I agreed to try to help and the three women came to my office. The chill between the sisters, both in their early sixties, was starkly evident. Grim faced, they avoided eye contact and looked past each other even when in the same room.

Two lengthy mediation sessions were held but to no avail. Despite developing a number of options that could to some extent address the unequal gifting, the sisters remained positional, both insisting they were standing on principle. The older demanded a year to year accounting of the contributions to the younger and her family. The younger flatly refused to develop such a record, and was adamant there be no change from the plan for equal shares. Each addressed their mother’s anxiety and sadness with loving gestures, but no deference. My suggestion that they meet with a family therapist was spurned.

I raise a cynical eyebrow when someone says: It’s not about the money, just the principle involved.

But in these circumstances, it really didn’t seem to be about the money. It seemed to be about preferential love, about allowing old childhood jealousies and rivalries for affection and approval to sweep in and supplant mature behavior, even at the expense of the physical and emotional well being of a loved elderly parent.

Barring mental incompetence or significant evidence of undue influence, neither suggested here, aren’t parents entitled to autonomy and respect for whatever decisions they make about how they choose to use assets during their lifetime, and the disposition of their estate?

The story I tell here does not have a happy ending.

I learned that the mother had died some years before my being contacted once again, and that she had not changed her plan to leave her estate in equal shares. Since then neither daughter had spoken to the other.Then came news of the younger sister’s terminal illness. My offer of intervention at the request of the older sister was not accepted.

I try to stand in the shoes of each daughter and wonder why they found it impossible to look beyond the immediate conflict, and make choices less destructive of the family. Is this simply not possible when overwhelmed by the belief that “mother always loved you best”?

The older daughter called again before leaving town. The reconciliation she sought had been refused. I did not ask whether she looked back at their bitter contest with regret, but I know the answer.

Take It Or Leave It

The eyes of the woman seated on my office couch brimmed with tears. At my request her husband left the room for a few minutes.This was their third mediation session and they’d been making steady progress, inch by inch, working out the terms for ending what had become a joyless marriage.

The decision to part had not been made lightly. For a time they see-sawed back and forth, and tried with a skilled counselor to reverse the downward slide. But now both seemed sure they were making the right decision. And once that direction was clear, a measure of calm had returned to their home.

So, I had no reason to believe that their negotiation would not continue to evolve in a positive way, although their property settlement was complicated by the need to assess the worth of the husband’s business. They had chosen a valuation expert but he had not yet submitted his report.

On this day, it became apparent at the outset that the husband’s patience was spent. Just moments into the session, he abruptly presented a global settlement proposal and then forcefully said: This is it, take it or leave it!

His wife was surprised, remained silent, and looked to me for rescue.

When we were alone, I asked: do you know what brought on this change, the ultimatum?

She shrugged, but understood my question. She reported that after breakfast that morning, he had opened the invitation to their college reunion which had arrived the day before. Her husband had been a star athlete, the proverbial big man on campus. That was twenty years and thirty pounds ago.

While he steadily climbed in the corporate world, nothing had matched those glory days. The reunion invitations sometimes triggered a few days of gloom. Now it appeared to have enhanced his “is this all there is” mood, which was, in part, the rationale for ending the marriage. Perhaps, she thought, this was what had sparked his change in  demeanor.

We explored her choices in light of his having thrown down the gauntlet:

1) Reject his proposal outright, which might mean terminating their negotiation.

2) Present the argument that his position was unreasonable and try to convince him to await the valuation report.

3) Let his demand pass without comment and help him find a way back to the table.

After my brief chat alone with the husband, in which he disclosed little, I invited him to return to the room where his wife awaited. He sank heavily into the other end of the couch, his large frame somewhat more relaxed. She turned to face him and said: I’m not sure, but I think I understand how you’re feeling.

The slightest nod of the head from him.

I shifted to talking about documents that still needed to be collected, and we made a plan for appraising the house. No mention of his edict was made by either of them, or by me.

The temptation is so great when we are verbally threatened with a “take it or leave it” demand, to respond in kind, sparking further escalation. The emotion that triggers such a thrust may be provoked by a barbed remark or perceived slight during the negotiation. But, sometimes, as was the case here, outside events cause an emotional state that can be ignited by a seemingly innocent comment. Here it had happened so early in our meeting, an outside source seemed likely.

Meeting an ultimatum by probing to understand the underlying cause, rather than confronting it head on, can preserve the path to eventually reaching agreement. Then taking a short time out and simply evading or side stepping the challenge, allows the belligerent one to calm and save face. Forward motion can then resume.

As they rose to leave, the wife addressed her husband: Thanks for thinking things through to the point of designing a proposal. Talk it over next time?

His response: Works for me.

No smile, but I knew we were back on track.

Parental Debate Cancelled

He said: If only I could make you see, convince you of the harm you . . . . .

In frustration he stopped talking, his jaw clenched. Seated on one end of my office couch, he turned to face his ex-wife, eyes pleading for her understanding. Staring straight ahead, her body rigid and poised to respond, her words were clipped: you just don’t get it!

This father of two pre-teenage children complained that his ex-wife was so overly protective that their youngsters were growing up fearful about taking even the slightest physical risk. He had arranged for them to go on a canoe camping trip, which he assured her would be well supervised. She remained anxious and refused to give them her permission to go.

In an effort to convey to me the irresponsibility of his past decisions, she reported that he repeatedly ignored the children’s serious health issues, citing a recent example: when their daughter had a temperature of 101, he had allowed her to go swimming.

Our standards for child rearing usually mimic those of our own early experience. No doubt, if motivated, we can open ourselves up to learning new ways, but being willing to change is not likely when defending against verbal attack, or even a gentle disparagement of our behavior.These parents really needed to sit back and listen to each other’s concerns and give up on the thankless task of reversing another’s decision by forceful argument.

Both parents were on the brink of returning to Court, but for now were willing to try talking about their differences. Several years earlier they had spent a few months mediating to resolve their divorce issues, and had built up some reserve of trust. So, maybe they could find a way to get the other to shift their thinking. And once calm was restored, they did.

Reminded that their own self-interest lay in meeting the interests of the other, after some venting they were able to relax a bit, listen and look for ways to stop the alienating debate. They came to an understanding, if not acceptance, of each other’s point of view.

Ultimately here was the compromise:

Father agreed to provide detailed information about the supervision the children would have during the adventure he’d planned. He would collect the names of all the parents whose children had taken the trip the year before and help mother contact as many of them as she wished. She was also to have the opportunity to speak directly with, or actually meet, the adults who would be in charge.

Mother agreed to provide a list of illness symptoms that would trigger father’s obligation to check with her before allowing the children to take part in special activities he had organized. Then, if unable to reach an accord, they would follow the advice of their pediatrician.

Were these parents changing their views in any essential way? Hardly. But they were accommodating to each other’s interests in a way that ultimately met their own. Not perfectly, but close enough. Until the next time.

And they presented an example for me to recall the next time I think I can change another’s mind by simple force of what I believe is a sound argument.

Negotiation By Threat

A caller sought advice that in the moment I could not give. He told the following story: Four years earlier, when separated from his wife, he sought solace in the arms of a sympathetic co-worker. But within days they abandoned their brief affair, she not wanting to put her marriage at risk.

Later the caller and his wife reconciled and during an intimate moment, he disclosed this misstep. Now once again they were living apart and their divorce action was pending. His soon to be ex-wife was demanding an excessive financial settlement and threatened, if thwarted, to tell all to the husband of his former co-worker friend. The caller was in turmoil, imagining painful, perhaps irrevocable consequences.

This left me in a quandary. The issue of extortion, which I deemed this to be, had never arisen before.

Then, oddly, within days of this call, a professional colleague also sought advice about a similar event. During a mediation session, an ex-husband seeking to end his long-term support obligation, issued a challenge to his former wife: He knew that some years ago she’d had prior knowledge that a former co-worker, who was also her close friend, had breached the trade secret policy of their employer. His ex-wife had never disclosed to anyone else what he now threatened to reveal. Although no known harm had come of his former wife’s silence, she feared that her earlier disloyalty would damage her own reputation and likely imperil her job.

After considerable thought, my suggestion to both persons threatened in this way, was to consult with legal counsel. Perhaps a letter sent to each of those seeking financial gain by intimidation, questioning whether they were aware of the possible criminal nature of their proposed actions, would be a sufficient deterrent.

Yet, even if these threats were initially withdrawn, could not this pressure be renewed at any time, perhaps in a more subtle fashion?

And if not deterred, then what? Call their bluff? Are bullies closet cowards?

Or, capitulate to the demand being made? Would other demands follow?

Or, try to understand the motivation for the desperate measures being taken? Could the threatened party step back and with genuine interest question why such scare tactics were being used? Explore compromise? Or is this sheer folly?

In an ideal world, would it not make sense to become a truth teller and take back personal power? Is this perhaps the only secure ending? Alert the friend who had ended the brief affair to preserve her marriage, and offer the option of her maintaining the secret, or not. And in the second situation, own up and take the risk that the employer, when belatedly told of the failed espionage, would understand, even respect the conflicted loyalty of a valued employee?

Each possible course of action carries risks difficult to weigh, but taking responsibility for past actions wrests control from the unprincipled aggressor. Even if a high price is paid, would less troubled sleep be the reward when the balance of power is restored?

Going Along To Get Along

How many of us deal with conflict by avoiding it? To foster and preserve a valued relationship, we forgo the challenge and hope that by morning all will be well. Many times this worked for me and harmony became the new reality. Pretending could make it so, especially if there was other glue to hold things together. A caress. Or the distraction of a child’s laughter, or tears.

To a certain extent, we all play this game, until the rules of the rules of the game change.

Divorcing partners, when alone, often sing the very same tune about how they managed disputes: I just went along to get along.

With complete sincerity each sees themself as the one who always gave in. But now, when the ties that bound them to seek accommodation are broken, the greater need is for authenticity and autonomy, and respect for their new role as a former partner.

Picture this scene: a mother and father of a young girl are in conflict over how they will share her time when living in separate homes. In the interest of what the mother deems “stability”, she wants the child in her home most of the time. Father is equally determined to have his daughter with him at least half the time. This is today’s classic impasse.

As their mediator, I will shift the discussion away from the immediate issue at hand and ask: are there other concerns we can identify?

There are many. Some examples:

Mother: He never helps out with her homework, and never brings her home on time.

Father: I’m never told about teacher conferences until they are over.

Mother: When I phone to talk to my daughter, I’m told she is not available.

Father: When I have to travel on business, I miss out on the time I’m entitled to.

Mother: He signed her up for soccer without ever telling me.

Actually, the longer the list of grievances, the better. Grist for the negotiation mill.

I send them off to each develop answers to these two questions:

What options can I offer to her/him to get my proposal accepted?

What conditions do I require before agreeing to what is proposed?

With luck, they will return with many answers. Perhaps in anger they will be stated as demands, but as small agreements fall into place and they begin to trust that compromise is possible, demands may be presented as requests.

Perhaps, if willing, even those still nurturing a harmonious relationship can learn to risk conflict, can lift the rug under which differences have been hidden and bring them out into the open, to play the game of: let’s make a deal.

Is There Still A Chance?

Often a husband and wife who are scheduled to meet at my office to share their sad story and negotiate a plan for their future, arrive together. I greet them as they step off the elevator and note the tone of their voices, or the silence. It is telling.

Some are already living apart, others soon will be. Most are quiet and choose to not even meet the other’s gaze as they settle on either end of my long couch. Misery and anxiety hangs in the air. But a few chat in a friendly way, ignoring the lack of privacy. They speak of their children, the soccer schedule, report cards. These safe topics may even elicit smiles, or perhaps the sharing of photos.

As our formal talk begins and we become acquainted, occasionally partners tell me that they’ve been unable to engage in a meaningful conversation for years, but that after the agonizing decision was made to separate and divorce, tensions lessened and slowly they began to have the very disclosing and important talks that had eluded them for so long.

Each situation is unique, but it is easy to conjecture that now that they are parting, even though there is considerable fear about what the future holds, neither feels quite as emotionally vulnerable, less exposed or threatened by the other’s judgment and disapproval, so they can relax and be more authentic. Perhaps they even once again display the very qualities the other found attractive years before. A romantic might suggest that these folks have found the answer and can now live together happily.

How often is that the case? Although ease of intimate communication surely contributes to a successful bond, can it be counted upon to rejuvenate a relationship that has seriously faltered? No doubt the answer to this question is both “yes” and “no”. Those who have answered “yes” do not walk through my door, so I cannot speak to their lasting success.

But, I recently worked with parties in mediation who were cordial, seemed to have an easygoing friendship, and an ability to problem solve together about their children which was so effective and affirming that, when alone with the wife, who had initiated the ending, I decided to ask whether she had sufficiently examined the possibility of reconciliation.

With a weary smile she assured me that she had fully considered that option in the work she had done in therapy over the past year. Quoting her therapist, she likened her marriage to a plant that had died for lack of water over an extended period of time. To now pour water over the dead plant could not bring it back to life. Both she and her husband were now ready to move on, apart.

Ironically, the decision to end their marriage had allowed them to risk finding new ways of telling each other truths. This did not rekindle the interest or passion they both now hoped to find with another, but their lucky kids would always have two parents who could talk in a meaningful way, and who would support each other over bumps in the road ahead.

Impossible to know what the outcome might have been if the truth telling had come sooner.

Awake At 4:00 AM

My professional failures stay with me. Wakeful at 4:00am I conduct the postmortem.

The case began when a mother petitioned the Court to terminate the plan she and her former husband had been following to share responsibility for raising their 8-year-old daughter. For several years these parents had been working well together and their daughter was flourishing.

A disturbing event tipped the balance.

The father had remarried. His daughter and his new wife gradually became acquainted and formed a comfortable bond. Then, one evening, when the daughter was at his home, the father phoned the mother and asked her to come promptly and get their child, as there had been a troubling exchange between his wife and daughter. In haste, the mother drove to his home and picked up the frightened youngster. On the drive home, she heard a tearful story: the stepmother had been drinking, and when an argument arose after dinner, she had verbally lashed out at the child.

The next morning, the mother shared this story with members of her family. She was strongly urged by her sister and her own mother to immediately call her lawyer and do whatever was necessary to prevent such an event from ever happening again. Days later, she did just that, and soon after, her motion seeking sole custody was filed with the Court. Both parents were then referred to mediation and arrived at my office the next week.

Now more calm, and in a problem-solving mode, the mother realized that even if she were awarded sole custody, her daughter’s regular visits with her father, although lessened, would continue. Her exposure to his new wife would not end.The father, in turn, assured her that both he and his wife took the lapse very seriously. She had reentered a counseling program, had apologized to the child and expressed sincere regret. In the weeks that followed, there had been no further incidents.

When the mother and I talked privately, another reality also became clear. Her greatest assurance that her daughter would be protected in the future was her ex-husband’s earlier behavior, reacting so quickly to call and seek her help.Should there be another troubling event, would he likely call upon her again if she went forward with Court action seeking to deprive him of his status as a joint custodian?

The discussion continued with both parents, and they explored additional ways to enhance their daughter’s future well-being should other issues arise. The father had already scheduled a family therapy session. He talked of how hurtful it would be to feel disenfranchised as a parent. The mother seemed understanding and to recognize the damage likely to be done to their future parenting relationship if she stepped into a public arena with allegations of fault and poor character. There was even some tentative talk about the mother and step-mother becoming better acquainted.

So, was the custody litigation dismissed? It was not. Mother’s family maintained their pressure on her to proceed with Court action, calling into question her devotion to her daughter if she did not. The mother’s need to meet the expectations and approval of her family won out.

No one makes decisions in a vacuum. We seek the support and acceptance of our “constituency”, friends and family. Agreements need to be developed with this in mind. I had not given that enough consideration. Although aware of her family’s initial involvement in her decision to file, I had not focused on helping the mother develop strategies for sensitizing her family to the likely consequences of bitter and prolonged litigation.

It is so easy for extended family and friends to hold onto a winner/loser mentality without fully understanding the ramifications of parents undermining each other publicly, and in the eyes of their child.

Mediation sessions ended and I do not know the final outcome, as such cases take many months to resolve. It still feels like my failure.

The Art of Asking Questions

I often share a meal with a close friend. The talk is our sustenance, the food incidental. And the conversation flows, unguarded. We are skilled players of the verbal ping-pong that carries us forward, inquiring and learning about the other, disclosing what is important about our lives at that moment, Ours is a dance with the steps so practiced, there is no need to be mindful about the questions we pose. We risk little, even with a misstep.

But consider different settings where this is not so:

The cardinal rule taught in law school is to never interrogate a witness in a courtroom without knowing the answer in advance. The temptation can be so great. One last probe to emphasize the essential winning point: “And why is that Mrs. Jones?” Then a response issues that surprises and wipes out earlier testimony.

But that is the courtroom where the choreography of words spoken in critical. Need this be so in our personal lives? In our professional lives? Is the art of asking questions so important? In mediation sessions, as I observe the impact of the questions the parties ask each other, and responses to those I pose, I’ve come to think so.

When negotiating, or just conversing with a loved one, a question can either bring someone to a desired destination or evoke a defensive response that creates a barrier, sets the players apart, and prevents or at least postpones a positive outcome. Mindfulness is especially called for when there is tension in the air. The inquiry, the tone of voice, even the quality of eye contact, needs to be free of criticism or judgment. If simply reacting without much thought, without consideration of the goal sought, opportunities for agreement, or an intimate connection, are often lost.

The distinctions can be subtle:

Ask: Can you tell me more about that? (open, accepting)
Not: Do you really believe that? (veiled belligerence)

Ask: Would it be helpful for me to explain my reasoning (respect, consultation)
Not: Do you understand my point? (intelligence called into question)

Or in a more personal vein:

Ask: Feel like talking about what happened last night? (an invitation)
Not: Don’t you think it’s high time we talked about what happened last night?
(command performance)

If a professional or intimate relationship is troubled, and discussion of an important issue avoided, — either fearing a negative reaction which will only make things worse, or because embarrassment impedes honesty — consider first saying: we need to have a difficult conversation.

The respect shown by not taking another unaware, offering even just a moment to prepare, may set the stage for willing consideration of the issue at hand, There are times when both conversation partners will be off balance. Just acknowledging this at the outset can avoid a defensive response, or a closed door.

And here is another rule it might be sound to consider: Some questions are best left unasked.

Do you think these pants are too tight?
How many calories in this banana cream pie?
Do you still love me?

A Fairy Tale

I met my new mediation clients as they stepped off the elevator, and guided them to my office door. 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 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.

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.

I asked her: what does financial security mean for you?

She: Well, staying 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. When she cashes in her share of my retirement account and adds to that what she can earn, they’ll be able to stay put for at least a year.

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 other’s 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. She may start 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.

I’m unconvinced.

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.

The Fear That Does Not Fade

When I decide to write about violence between intimate partners, my heartbeat quickens and I am tempted to stop. I’ve never been subjected to physical intimidation, so don’t fully understand why I so readily insert myself into the picture painted by others.

As a mediator I have to provide a safe setting, one in which both parties feel empowered and able to speak freely. To assure this design, I always talk with each person alone on the day of our first meeting. One question I ask is a veiled one: How did you resolve disputes during your marriage? The most common response: I just went along to get along.

Not often, but on occasion, grievous assaults are disclosed.

My initial thought, which I never speak, is: if this was happening to you, why didn’t you leave? Many others must actually have posed this question, for without prompting, excuses often follow:

I knew I could handle it.

The children needed their father.

He would have lost his job.

I didn’t want anyone to know.

He was going through a bad time and promised it would never happen again.

Oddly enough, the speaker of the unspeakable remains calm. Practiced? I too appear composed, and am actually relieved and ready to accept these reassurances, end this discussion and move on. In fact, over the years I have successfully concluded a number of cases in which threats and rough treatment were reported. I took at face value that the past could be set aside, perhaps not forgiven, but forgotten. Now, I know better, and I ask myself how many of those prior agreements were motivated by fear?

For today, I am better schooled and wiser about the lasting impact of being the target of purposely inflicted pain, of living in fear of an intimate partner. Now I know I must look behind the superficial responses, and when I do, the anxiety, theirs and mine, appears anew.

I no longer listen passively to the rote explanations, but press for details and this is what I hear:

We were on a Sunday drive on a winding road and I asked him to slow down. His arm swept across the space between us and he broke my nose.

We were in the cellar examining the furnace which had gone cold. I checked the sticker and noted the inspection was overdue. He broke my arm.

After crushing my cell phone underfoot, he stood in the doorway and wouldn’t let me leave the room.

He hasn’t struck me in years, but the day after I told him about my promotion, he attempted suicide.

Now I probe: are you still afraid? Do your friends know? Are you in counseling?

In almost every instance, residual fright is admitted and tears flow. And except in rare cases where significant therapy and the passage of time have provided new strengths, my skill as a mediator cannot overcome the power imbalance generated by enduring fear. Mediation must end.

I’m told those who grow up in a home where there is raging and coercion, often seek to connect with a controlling partner. Perhaps this is so. But when they are finally ready to leave, there must be an advocate present to assure a safe escape and a well reasoned settlement, forged in a secure setting, free of fear.

The Talking Cure, Unfinished

It was some time ago that Evelyn phoned. Unhappy for several years, she was contemplating divorce, but remained unsure. Her speech was halting and her tone subdued. The children were grown and on their own, and she spoke of being seized with anxiety imagining a future alone.

Her husband, Hank, was described sympathetically, a good man who was downhearted as well, although unwilling to consider marriage counseling. I encouraged her not to leave the counseling decision to him alone, and to consider working with a therapist on her own.

Months later, Hank called to schedule mediation, reminding me of the earlier call from Evelyn. He said he was actually the one who had finally made the decision to end the marriage.

A week later when they walked into my office, to my surprise Evelyn presented as very self-assured. She soon proudly announced that she had completed therapy, and that her self-respect had been restored. An apparent success story, but it was not.

Evelyn’s posture, and the words she now chose, spoke of a determination to be assertive on her own behalf. This hardly seemed the same woman I’d talked with before, so my smile, although congratulatory, was not quite wholehearted. Something was off.

As we explored the data they had gathered and identified the issues to be resolved, Evelyn laced her comments with sarcasm, and a few sharp personal insults were directed at her husband. Hank’s jaw tightened, his face grim. Therapy, and perhaps other events of which I had no knowledge, had certainly fostered change, but for the better?

I often meet with divorcing parties who have worked with a counselor, gained confidence, and come to honor their new sense of self by speaking in a new way. Sometimes their statements are tinged with anger long repressed. Their determination to no longer simply endure unhappy circumstances suggests a significant catharsis. Many are then better able to serve their interests well. But for some, their new found assurance edges into belligerence, and their effort to negotiate a good outcome fails.

I’m tempted to offer Evelyn unsolicited advice, but I know this would neither be welcome nor wise. We all see the world through the lens of past experience, that known to us and that hidden from view, but influential nonetheless. It would be presumptuous of me, looking through my lens, to advise. But next time we meet, I will pose some questions for Evelyn and in private share my experience. As she expresses her new found strength, I ask myself, must Hank be diminished, denigrated?

Therapy often helps us to recognize and dissect actions of our parents that we may have translated into grievances. With maturity we come to accept, even forgive, their human frailties, along with our own. But being able to forgive when love fails with an intimate partner, especially if feeling rejected, is more of a challenge, the wounds so exposed and in the here and now.

The most valuable resource for achieving a positive negotiated outcome, which costs nothing in a monetary sense, is respect for the other. Yet, so often it is the most difficult thing to offer when a marriage is ending.

I will ask Evelyn: would she be willing to return for additional counseling, to seek an understanding of the roots of her anger, to go beyond personal validation.

Respect is the key, but not just self-respect.

A Turn Around

He phoned after his first mediation session, and said he was considering withdrawing, having come to believe that I was biased against him. Although I apologized for creating that impression, I did not offer a denial. For I knew he was right.

Yet, silently, I excused my professional lapse. He had worn his arrogance like a badge. Self-righteous and proud, he had blamed the failure of his 22-year marriage entirely on his ungrateful departing wife.

Covertly, I had cheered her on.

Arrogance has always aroused in me a confusion of emotions. Scorn, heightened anxiety, perhaps even tinged with fear.

But his perception could not be ignored and as a mediator, I had failed. Could I reestablish my impartiality and bring him back to the table to negotiate the terms of their agreement, and avoid his simply throwing down the gauntlet? Or would my reaction to his show of conceit and disdain send them off to combat?

I consulted a colleague. Her advice: Try to genuinely empathize with how he’s feeling, and if you can, let him know that you do. Unless you connect with him in this way, simply educating him about reasonable settlement options won’t work.

Wondering if I could do so with sincerity, I determined to try.

I met with each party alone at the beginning of our next session. In his early fifties, a vital, attractive and financially successful man, he exuded both great assurance and despair. I deliberately put aside my previous mission of bringing him to recognize and accept the legal realities he faced. I focused on how he was feeling at that very moment and simply asked: Tell me how things are going.

He returned to the same story of disappointment, innocence and blame that I had heard before, but having deliberately removed my attorney/mediator mantle, I listened as might a friend, and found I could genuinely empathize with what he was feeling: wronged, betrayed, misunderstood and overwhelmingly sad. I did not, as I had before, try to get him to put aside these feelings. I actually felt a fondness for him. Sympathy required only understanding, not affirmation.

I apologized for my previous failure to fully appreciate his experience. And then asked: how can I be helpful to you?

We talked at length.

He posed all the right questions, and now, working with someone who recognized and accepted his genuine angst, he could hear what I had to say. He was ready to be pragmatic.

I’ve learned something important.

We develop ways of successfully performing our many roles, as parent, spouse, friend, and in our work life. Over time, what seems effective and comfortable becomes part of our standard script. Sometimes we respond having made an accurate assessment of the behaviors we witness. But how often, without conscious thought, or the wisdom of restraint, do we react in response to our own past experience, to emotional triggers that have little to do with the person before us in the present? Then, if our communication fails, we blame the other.

If a reflexive response to the actions of another derails the conversation, questioning the source of our own emotional reaction, and putting it aside, to listen with understanding and empathy, may cause a meaningful and positive shift in how we communicate and relate.

Which is how I hope to be received, when it is my crisis on center stage.

When Argument Is Futile

Although Dave and Jayne mutually decided they needed the intervention of a mediator, once seated in my office they ignored my presence. Their conversation quickly became an argument, their voices raised and strident. After a time I interrupted and asked: has this worked for you in the past? Do you manage to change each other’s minds?

They responded in unison: never!

As their marriage crumbled over recent months, their lives had spiraled out of control, their teenage son a reluctant bystander. Now his grades were in free fall.

A friend had referred Jayne to a doctor who diagnosed their son as having attention deficit disorder and prescribed medication. But Dave had grown up with an aversion to the use of any drugs, particularly those he saw as “fooling with the brain”. He believed the problem was psychological, and he urged that all three of them enter family therapy, or at least have their son work with a psychologist.

Jayne had no faith in Dave’s approach, and was derisive about talk therapy and'”shrinks”. She trusted the doctor who made the ADD diagnosis, and had spoken with other parents who described their child’s miraculous turnaround.

When I asked, both acknowledged that they were echoing beliefs held by the family in which they had grown up, although on this day they were armed with internet research supporting their divergent views. Neither gave the other’s data even cursory attention.

The question: would they be able to give up their determination to change the mind of the other and agree on a plan to rescue their son? If not, would they have to let a judge decide? This was a path dreaded equally by both.

Although we may reject some of our parent’s convictions, how often do we discard the viewpoints we adopted when young, in light of later life experience? Do we discount as exceptional the evidence that doesn’t fit with our basic assumptions? Often, I think we do.

We took a break for coffee, and when calm they agreed to try a more pragmatic approach:

First we reviewed their present circumstances. Even if restating the obvious, this placed them firmly in the here and now. I said:

-You’re both still hurt and angry, just beginning to heal.

-Your son is struggling to keep his head above water in school.

– So far, you can’t agree on a plan, but you’ve each developed some possible strategies.

– And you’ve decided not to turn the decision over to the Court.

Next we considered their choices and the possible consequences. The discussion that followed was less blaming and with fewer references to the past. Eventually they developed these options:

– Dave agreed to meet with the doctor Jayne had chosen, if she would join him to talk with a psychologist he selected. She consented.

– Jayne suggested a joint meeting with their pediatrician, always trusted in the past. Dave agreed.

– Jayne had already met with their son’s teachers but offered to go again, with Dave.

We talked about where these steps could lead if both were committed to listen with an open mind. Either might change their view and proceed with the choice of the other, or not. But in any case, they would have more data, have heard it together, and been able to ask questions of the “experts”.

So, a plan was in place.

The actual solution: Jayne decided to avoid the delay needed to schedule and keep all these appointments, and agreed to start family counseling right away, and Dave agreed that if after three months their son was still struggling with school, medication would be given a try. After family counseling began, they met with the doctor Jayne had seen, and with their pediatrician.

Conclusion: Once recrimination about the past is set aside and the futility of argument is recognized, this process can work for many:

– clearly state the current circumstances which must be faced

– develop possible choices for moving forward

– analyze the likely consequences of each choice

Sometimes, as with Dave and Jayne, just going through these steps can cause a shift from impasse to movement.

Who Else Is In Bed?

Many moons ago, I read a clever observation by a psychologist, that there are always six people in every marriage bed: husband, wife and both sets of parents. A recent experience reminded me that we never travel down the path to any decision truly alone.

The story: A young couple was slowly working their way through all of the trauma and difficult choices for planning their lives as parents when no longer married. Their very young child seemed to be adapting to the sea change in their lives with greater ease than either of them, they so much more aware and worried about life without love, and with financial hardship.

Although divided about many things, from the outset of mediationthey were completely in sync about their goals for their child, and even for promoting each other’s chances for future well-being. Splitting up their accumulated assets was easy, coping with their high mortgage payments less so. Yet, some decisions for the short term were possible, because for a few years the husband, a medical researcher, was willing to contribute the lion share of his income to retain the marital residence, for the sake of stability, and to avoid a fire sale in a weak housing market. And as their child was so young, he readily agreed that his wife should not seek a job until their daughter was school age. He would rent a small apartment nearby and live frugally. Grandparents stood ready to help out a bit financially. The chips were all falling into place.

And then they weren’t.

His lawyer strongly objected to the level of support he proposed to contribute for the next two years, saying: No court would ever make you pay so much. She’s bleeding you dry. She needs to get a job and help with the mortgage, or sell the house. I can’t let you do this.

On their return to mediation he announced he had changed his mind, and his wife was soon in tears. He asked to speak with me alone.

His words: It isn’t just my lawyer, although she says I’m being a fool, but it’s everyone else too. Since I’m the one who’s leaving, I’m made out to be the bad guy. But trust me, we’ve both been miserable for a long time. My friends say I’m crazy, letting my guilt get ahead of my reason. I want her to keep the house, and be a full-time mom, but maybe it’s just not possible.

I took note of his use of the word “maybe,” recognizing the pull between where his heart led him, and the dictates of his lawyer, and his need to seem forceful in the eyes of his friends. These bystanders, who likely saw themselves as fulfilling their role as advocate and as loyal supporters, fueled an anger and resentment he’d not previously expressed.

Ironically, selling the house now, likely at a loss, might well leave them less financially secure. Could his wife, a graphic artist, find a job earning enough to even meet the cost of their child’s day care?  And most important, what would happen to the ease that had evolved as he and his wife now related as parents? He nodded his understanding when these questions were raised, but said only that he needed more time to think it over.
Would he be strong enough to withstand the judgment of his lawyer, and his friends, who portrayed him as impotent and her as domineering?

His compatriots, invisible contributors to the decisions he faced when negotiating in my office, were sabotaging his better judgment. A group decision was being made. Could he pull himself away and stand alone?

His wife was out of the marriage bed, but many others had climbed in.

What’s The Payoff?

Dear M and D:

Were you as relieved as I was when you left my office? Witnessing the animosity, blame and disrespect with which you assault each other, leaves me both amazed and dismayed. Did you feel equally disheartened? Or, perhaps you welcomed having a safe haven in which to publicly expose your frustration and anger. You test both my skill and endurance. Can I possibly help you resolve your issues?

From time to time I’m faced with warring parents, long divorced like you, who’ve never given up the fight. I have only questions, no answers.

You tell me you recognize that your daughters are troubled, and you both acknowledge that in the face of your open conflict this is hardly surprising. Child specialists teach that children internalize the character, the essence, of both parents, and to the extent one parent denigrates the other, the child’s self-esteem is diminished. You both bear witness to the damage being done.

This is what I wondered about you after you left: was yours a studied performance, or were you out of control? Were you playing out a lack of satisfaction in your individual lives? Are you howling at the moon, and not just at each other? Or are you following an old childhood script, never having learned another? It was surely a passionate dance I witnessed, alternately one of you leading, the other in pursuit.

A psychiatrist friend I talk with about conduct I observe and cannot understand, shared his insights by asking: what’s the payoff? What benefits are these parents each receiving by their persistent warfare? He says we revert to those ways that are personally satisfying: the relief of stress, some imbalance set right, or perhaps the comfort of behavior consistent with our early experience, even when hurtful. Likely unseen by another, these rewards support the pattern of actions that repeat and repeat.

I know I see only the surface of your relationship, and I don’t have the analytical skill to draw conclusions. But what’s the payoff? Does keeping your conflict alive serve you in some important way? Perhaps even allow you to remain connected?

Am I wrong, or in the midst of your refusal to give even an inch in the direction of the other, did I glimpse in some offhand comments a hint that there are times, when out of view, you relate with a measure of civility and respect? Or is this wishful thinking on my part? Might there be some remnant of feeling that could be tapped by you as parents, to come to the rescue of your daughters?

When you left, did you feel better or worse?

In both of you, I recognize intelligence and love for your children, a genuine concern for their safety and well-being. But no willingness (or ability?) to protect them from the animosity you express toward each other.

If your kids crash, as I fear they will, is it only their behaviors that will be addressed? For their sakes, might each of you be willing to seek some path to greater self-awareness and ask yourselves: what’s the payoff?

They are learning from you how to live their lives.

Will you one day reap the whirlwind?

Truth Telling

You consider disclosing an important truth, but reconsider when a friend urges caution, that you not take unnecessary risks. You are halted by ambivalence.

We grow up being told to always tell the truth. But parents inevitably send a more nuanced message when we hear them tell a half-truth, or tell an untruth out of kindness, or send a false message by remaining silent to keep a promised confidence.

Is it better to tell or not tell? This is the question sometimes asked by a spouse who has strayed, and now seeks to revive a marriage gone adrift. I have no pat answer. The complexity of people’s lives, always only partially known to others, suggests that giving advice would be unwise. At best, we can ask probing questions for the keeper of the secret to explore.

Sometimes it seems only the teller, not the unknowing other, would be well served by admission. Guilt made more bearable by confession. Yet for some, living with deception is untenable, believing that only through a shared exploration of the past can a genuinely loving and committed relationship be restored.

Risky, either way. And not an easy call when the decision is unilateral, but the potential impact falls on many.

Consider this: A wife, who for some time has been silently enduring her husband’s sustained lack of sexual interest, gathers the strength to ask him if he is gay. Husband answers emphatically and in anger that he is not, knowing that he is. His great fear is that exposure will cause the loss of the precious connection he has with his young children. When asked for advice about this potential disclosure, I’m surprised to find I am comfortable responding that, of course, the truth should be told. And in this case, it was.

All of his worst fears came true in living color. Wife raged. Husband was awash in guilt. The children were confused and frightened, and the family’s community of friends unbelieving, some falling away. Many tears and sleepless nights. Yet, over time, with the support of professionals and loyal friends, acceptance and accommodation evolved as the family was reconfigured. Loving feelings were once again expressed. The world shifted, but righted.

It became clear that this truth needed to be told, for the damaging impact of keeping this secret seemed too serious to justify the lack of honest disclosure. But “clear” is not a good choice of words, for these decisions are often anything but clear. Had this wife been judged to be a vengeful, vindictive person, a different choice might well have been made.

Approaching adulthood and beyond, as self-knowledge and self-acceptance grows, most of us allow ourselves a good measure of authenticity, a willingness to openly share our truths.

But concerns will inevitably continue to arise when we must choose between being a truth teller and protecting our privacy. We strive to maintain the delicate balance of our own well-being and the possible harm to others. Perhaps doing so is one important definition of maturity.

Verbal Jujitsu

The timbre of his voice conveyed intense emotion. He called because his wife suggested mediation. He’s interested but skeptical, insisting that she is inflexible about the issue most important to him. He says: I’ll only try mediation if she agrees in advance that she’s willing to share time with our children equally. Otherwise I’m filing for sole custody.

I suspect anxiety about being denied this most precious connection is motivating his warning, but I urge him not to throw down the gauntlet.

Threats beget threats. And often lengthy litigation.

I learn they have been attempting to negotiate on their own. Their discussions even begin in a comfortable way, for they value each other as parents, but then frustration mounts over something said or a proposal made, and anger is triggered. Their reasonable discourse escalates into dueling ultimatums.

Can these mutual efforts to intimidate just be ignored? Yes. Actually, that is probably the wisest course. Step aside. Verbal jujitsu.

Most threats are born of fear, and it is the fear that needs to be explored and understood rather than the menacing words. But does that happen? Or, does the “fight or flight” response take over, precluding rational discourse?

In the divorce mediation context, threats are legion. As here: I’ll sue for custody before I ever accept one minute less than equal time with the children, or: I’ll go to jail before I pay a dime of alimony, when you’re the one who wants this, or: I’ll disclose the pornography I found on your computer if you fight me on this point.

If the sincere goal is to move a partner towards agreement, which it almost always is, responding to such statements made in the heat of the moment, only makes a later retreat more difficult.

The parties need to buy time. Although I’ll not allow coercion of either party, I know that to oppose a threat head on, or to counter in kind, may well destroy the chance of settlement. There are other options.

If sufficient calm prevails, we could discuss the possible consequences of the threatened action, and the party having issued the threat might then be drawn into a discussion about why they feel so strongly about the issue. But the degree of tension already generated may preclude either party being able to really listen to the other with understanding.

If so, consider this option: acknowledge the strength of the feelings underlying the threat which has been made, and then move on to a discussion of an unrelated issue, allowing the passions of both parties to cool. Verbal jujitsu.

This is the choice I usually make if the parties will accept the diversion. It is a choice individuals can make on their own, without announcement. The passage of time will likely allow for a return to reason, once the fear underlying the threat, usually of some loss or perceived loss, is acknowledged and addressed.

And ideally, the threatened party will recognize that it is in their own best interest to allow the other to save face, by continuing to ignore, to step aside from the menacing words earlier spoken, so that both can refocus on what each hopes to achieve in the long term.

Does Love Trump Privacy?

When our youngest grew up and moved some distance away, I claimed her room and fashioned a space all my own. It was quite small, on the second story of our home, with leafy tree branches almost touching the windows, a nest of sorts. There were times my husband came and stood at the threshold to ask a question, but he didn’t walk in. He never entered uninvited. It was our unspoken understanding, as natural as breathing, that our separateness was respected. This background sets the stage for a mediation session in which a privacy issue arose.

The couple working with me was seeking to preserve, not end their marriage. They had come to negotiate some well-defined concerns, when discussions at home had proven difficult and divisive.

Their story: in the prior week, the husband installed a lock on his home-office door, without consulting his wife. She was hurt and angry.

His story: when he was away, his wife opened mail addressed only to him. It was nothing of a highly personal nature, but in doing so she learned that his business debt was considerably greater than she had known. Then, still in his absence, she looked through his desk and files, and eventually explored his computer, where she made discoveries of a more personal nature. That’s when the lock went on. He was outraged, and no doubt chagrined.

Her story: She firmly believed there should be no secrets between marriage partners, and that she was, therefore, perfectly justified in her actions. He was the one who had much to explain.

The response I addressed to her was spoken without hesitation, or sufficient forethought. With some fervor I said: But everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy.

This statement and my tone surprised them, and myself as well. With hindsight I regret the unprofessional way I spoke. I should have posed some neutral questions, not been judgmental. Predictably, the issue did not get resolved in my office. Later, when the wife called to cancel their next appointment, I learned that after further discussion, her husband had removed the lock from his office door.

I recall another client who discovered that her husband had read the journal in which she wrote each morning on waking. She was incensed, even though she’d kept it tucked in her nightstand drawer, readily accessible. Her question: how could he not understand that it was for her eyes only?

Will these unwelcome intrusions continue to rankle over time? My guess is that insistence on full disclosure, some even demanding to know their partner’s innermost thoughts, is more likely to erode than to foster harmony. Are these wounded loved ones likely to become more or less secretive?

Why is privacy so important? We speak of someone “invading” our privacy and the very use of that word suggests a violation of significance. It is an assault on our autonomy, a piercing of that protective skin we seek to keep in tact (so many words of aggression!). Privacy keeps us safe, free of judgment until we are ready for exposure, and then, only to those we trust.

Blame/Guilt

She said: I feel terrible. You’ve ruined my life.

Her husband, silent, sat at the other end of my long office couch, awash in guilt. He had made the final decision to divorce, but his compassion for his wife was sincere. I wanted to somehow calm and comfort them both, reassure him by saying that relationships rarely fail for simple one-sided reasons, and assure her that I empathized with her misery. But I said nothing, and in a few moments her tears lessened and she regained control. She apologized to me for her outburst. I said: no need.

The blaming was over, for now. We returned to talk about their budget, how the family could best share their joint income.

Nine months of marital counseling ended just weeks before they began mediation. Did she really believe that she had no part to play as they drifted apart, moved into separate bedrooms? At times it seemed so. But she was mature enough to hold on to their determination to end things as amicably as possible and preserve as much stability as they could for their children.

Husbands and wives, partners, inevitably both delight and disappoint each other. Delight, that’s easy. But disappointment too often gives rise to both blame and guilt .

With the tearful scene in my office still vivid, I bring back to mind the guilt I felt for many years for having failed Len. From the beginning, he and I talked through and jointly made important decisions. Then as our years together multiplied, we often wordlessly simply accommodated to the other’s wishes, knowing for which of us a particular outcome mattered most. At least that’s the way I now choose to remember it.

Usually worked well. But there was an exception. I knew Len yearned to live his life near water, by the sea or a large lake. Either would do, so long as he could experience its wonders and the tranquility vast waters offered him. And, of course, the fishing potential!

But with his new PhD, a wife and young children in hand, life took us to his job in land-locked Ohio, when college teaching posts were hard to come by. Law school followed for me and some years later my growing successful practice became another anchor. He gloried in his summer teaching work when the family roughed it, joining him in the Rocky Mountains, where clear roiling trout streams filled his every spare hour. But in the grayness of midwest winters, he yearned to move and often seemed sad. Witnessing this, not sharing his wish to leave, I avoided addressing his apparent unhappiness, but my guilt was at times intense.

Today, I still clearly recall a conversation about this, with my wise psychologist friend, that caused me to shift mental gears. She suggested that as adults we are each responsible to make those decisions that are important to our own well being. Of course. Len could have developed a specific plan to move and proposed it. But he made no serious search for other job options, in effect choosing to foster my career over his own.

But he was not passive. He learned to fly, and with the help of my additional income bought a small plane, and (later opting for early retirement) for over twenty-five years flew away with like-minded students and friends to wherever the geology was exciting and the fish were biting, exploring the Great Lakes, National Parks, and Alaska. We each had our cake.

With some divorcing couples, parties maintain that in the effort to avoid conflict, they chose to abdicate the decider role. Then when conflict takes center stage, they look back and resent having lost their authenticity, the power to direct their own life, wishing they had taken other paths. But with certain exceptions, families subjected to violence, and single parents of young children, adults are responsible for designing their own destiny.

The blame game is neither fair nor in the long run satisfying. Nor is the guilt.

Out Of Sync

Sometimes partners drift apart slowly, move into separate worlds, failing to disclose to each other the evolving person they’ve become. They may be communicating in subtle nonverbal ways, but is the message getting through? An example:

John and Mary have similar backgrounds and compatible values. When their children were small, they delighted in being parents and assigned themselves the traditional roles of breadwinner and homemaker. As years went by, John, a gregarious man, was increasingly successful in business and developed close friendships in that world. While he spent more and more hours at work, Mary found satisfaction and pleasure in her focus on their daughters, now teenagers.

When he became quiet and withdrawn at home, she asked if everything was all right. She knew it wasn’t. He had stopped going to the gym and was putting on excessive weight. But his answers were vague, and she chose to interpret his equivocation as meaning it was stress at work that was the cause. So she backed away to “give him the space he seemed to need.” They were out of sync and gradually moved apart over the next several years, each dissatisfied, but saying little that was to the point.

John saw his physician and was referred to a psychiatrist. He went on anti-depressants. They helped his mood but not his ability or willingness to share his feelings with his wife. Within months he suggested divorce. How can she have been surprised? But she was.

As their mediator, I concentrate on the decisions they must make about their future, so ask few questions about their past. I gain just a superficial knowledge of their personal dynamic, and little of their early formative years. I listen well, but their messages are often delivered in code.

He says: We used to do things together, although all the planning was left up to me. I have to initiate everything and half the time she has no interest in my suggestions, seems more involved in the social lives of our girls.

She says: He had no time for us. Didn’t even come to school performances. (She then showed me a picture of their attractive daughters, in provocative dress and stance.)

My unspoken questions: Is he saying she no longer found him desirable? Is she saying the day of her attractiveness has passed and now belongs to her daughters?

As with many mid-life parents, might they both, in different ways, be experiencing discomfort with the emerging sexuality of their children? These are stressful times, when divorce rates climb.

I can only make an intelligent guess, and my guess may be way off base. But my guess doesn’t really matter.

The tragedy is that they too were only able to guess, and that really did matter. They lacked the skill to be self-disclosing with each other. About this they now agree. So, did their feelings of discomfort, rejection or inadequacy remain hidden? While still sharing a bed did they become strangers?

If both partners are unable to verbalize their feelings or intuit those of the other, is there any reason to be hopeful about their future?

If even one has the emotional intelligence to express their feelings and draw the other into a non-blaming conversation, there would be reason to be hopeful.

If both were motivated and felt safe enough to talk openly about their desires and disappointments, and early on enlist the aid of a skilled professional, they might get the prize: an intact family.

Will The Prince Be Charming?

They were young, but had finished high school before they married. That’s the good news. The bad news is that after seventeen years the marriage is over.

But there is much more good news. They take great pride in their two teenage daughters who are gracefully weathering adolescence, saddened by the family turmoil but still high achieving, and with a loving connection to both parents. He lauds his wife as a wonderful mother, and credits her with the children’s success.

After working only at home for fifteen years, she recently found part-time employment. They are in complete agreement that the girls should continue to have parental attention, even now. Especially now. So she will keep her present job and remain available to manage and monitor the girls’ busy after-school hours.

He owns a few shares of a small but profitable family business in which he works, and is destined to take over when his father retires and gradually gifts him the remaining stock. His hard work has yielded income five times his wife’s modest salary, and they are financially solvent.

And still more good news. Although he is the one who has chosen to leave, he speaks of his determination to remain on friendly terms with his soon-to-be former wife and “no matter what it takes, to be fair”. Prince Charming is resolute and insists he will not disappoint.

So, although a bit tearful, sad and frightened about a future alone, she is repeatedly promised, “all will be well.”

But now, for the rest of the bad news: the meaning of “all will be well”.

He assures his wife that her current standard of living will be maintained as long as there is a child living at home, and perhaps for a couple of years beyond that, six years in all. This is a term her lawyer says is generous. And during this time, her husband will provide more support than the Court would order. All of their property will be equally divided, a bit of equity in their home and his modest 401-k. So, why is this bad news?

Calmed and breathing easier she asks: what about the business?

His answer: well, you know it was started by my grandfather and passed down to my father, so one day it will be mine.

Her question: but for seventeen years I took care of everything so you could devote yourself to building the business. We should own that together. Right?

Wrong.

They will both seek advice from their lawyers and learn that the small stock ownership interest already gifted to him may have some marital value to share, but not much, minimal compared to the valuable business asset he will one day own.

The realization dawns. Angry now and in tears, she says: when you were working fourteen-hour days, I didn’t complain because it was for all of us. Now you will always be secure, probably even rich. After six years I’ll barely be able to survive!

This is where the story ends, for now. To be continued, as there are more conversations to be had and decisions to be made.

If I could write the script, this wife, while still being supported will spend the next six years in school, and regain the power she gave away when she auditioned for and landed the role of Cinderella. Her prince is charming, will continue to work hard, and likely pay their daughters’ college expenses.

But now it is up to her to design the rest of her life, so as never to be so wholly dependent again.

Daughters everywhere: are you getting the message?

It’s Payback Time

After living together for fifteen years, they married when she became pregnant. Their daughter is now three years old. Two physicians, he an academic, she in family practice.  Neither have remarkable income, but due to the generosity of her wealthy family, their financial lives have been more than comfortable. Most recently, upon the birth of their granddaughter, the gift from her parents was an elegant home.

But their marriage is crumbling, awash in a sea of anger and despair. He is 50, she 43. Another woman, now long gone, turned his head. Unaware of his affair for over a year, blaming herself for his distant ways, she met depression head on.

After many months of marriage counseling, for both of them were motivated to preserve their family, he said he could no longer live the lie that his passion for her was restored, and moved out. She, at first willing to forgive him, now finds he is the one giving up, on loving her. This, rather than the affair, is the source of her rage, and she is emboldened.

It’s payback time.

On his departure, without having consulted an attorney, he believed that the value of all that they owned would be divided, including their very pricey home. Not so. Fortified with legal authority, the house is now claimed, by both his wife and her parents, as a gift to her alone, an advance of her future inheritance. Thus, not marital property to be divided. The couple had not sought to accumulate any significant savings, always reasoning that her inheritance would provide them with a comfortable retirement. So what money they had to spare was gifted to their daughter’s college account. There is no marital property to divide.

So he said: but then I will have nothing!

And she said: right!
(Along with a few other choice words, beginning with: you should have thought of that before you . . . .)

It’s an old story. Almost a modern fable, with a moral easy to write: don’t get mad, get even.

Sort of makes sense. But not for their daughter.

For if her mother’s anger and her father’s rancor pervades the air that she must breathe, how can she love them both without her loyalty always called into question?

My fantasy, but I well know it is just that, is finding and speaking the words to focus both parents on imagining their daughter twenty years hence, how she would then assess the space they created for her childhood, how their treatment of each other warped her future. Might the mother wish she had been more generous? Might the father wish he had been less resentful? Might this vision alter current decisions?

In my real world, I meet alone with the empowered wife, but just ask questions, for it is not my role to give advice or make judgments. What does she think will be the impact on her daughter growing up with parents of such unequal security, and who are unable to be friendly in her presence? She is silent for a long time, but then says: I know, somehow I must get past the anger, but I’m not sure I ever will.

It is said that revenge is sweet, but there is only bitterness here.

The Folly of Giving Advice

I’m watching a young family self-destruct. I cast caution to the wind and offer some advice. A foolish move.

The story: Two young physicians are taking part in mediation, ending their five year marriage, and in the process are building a reservoir of misery for themselves and their child. After just one meeting, I thought I knew how they could avert disaster.

He is smart, charming, articulate, qualities that attract, attracted her. But though soft spoken, he is a very angry man. Now that their marriage is ending, his anger, sometimes covert, subtle, disguised, has taken center stage. She says it is what has driven her away, and she sees herself as the victim in their drama.

When his verbal saber slices the air, as he thrusts, she parries. They are frozen in this dance, and are on the brink of waging legal warfare. Their child is young, so they have many years ahead to play their parts.

My ego gets in the way of wisdom, so in private I give him advice: get therapeutic help. Seek the source of your rage, try to understand and overcome it.

My advice to her: with your ardent defensive reactions to his anger, you’re turning control of your life over to the very man you’re trying to escape. Get some help to figure out how you can change your responses. Don’t live with the hope or expectation that you can best him at this game, or that he is the one who will change.

Neither acknowledges nor attends to what I urge upon them. Just the opposite. She pays no heed and changes the subject. He’s resentful and withdraws. My advice may have been sound. Offering it was not.

I step back and examine my folly, and bring my failed experience to a thoughtful colleague. And she says: you’ve stepped across a boundary and taken on a role that is not yours to play. You can’t change their lives with motivation that is yours, not theirs.

Words I might have spoken to another, but did not speak to myself in my rush to rescue them. They had not come to me for salvation.

Good advice may be a great gift, but giving it in a constructive way is an art.

My knowledge of this pair was superficial, their situation far more complex than it initially appeared. An empathic listening connection had barely begun. With meager acquaintance, one cannot know what is best for someone else.

Even with close friends or family members, unsolicited advice is an unwelcome intrusion into another ‘s personal life, suggesting that they are not capable of working out their own issues, a lack of due regard. At least, I should have asked whether my advice was wanted, and posed the question in a way that allowed for either a yes or no answer.

There are some things I can do in the role of mediator (not savior), or as a friend or family member, that might be helpful, and which I may still have the opportunity to do with my young clients. I could share my experience in dealing with anger, my own and in responding to that of another, information they could choose to make use of or simply ignore, but which would not be a show of disrespect. And I could ask questions that would help them arrive at their own solutions, explore possible options and the likely consequences of each path that could be taken.

We all act on what we think is our best course of action, not on what someone else tells us to do. (Especially not on what a parental figure suggests!)

Best we share our own experience, give of ourselves, not advice, and offer our analytical skills. The rest is up to the listener.

Learning New Steps

She said: you need to learn some new dance steps.

On my weekly Sunday walk with a close friend, she a psychologist, I’d spoken of my inability to penetrate the gloom that had befallen my husband. Each time I probed to learn more about the source of his apparent sadness, the few words he spoke in response served to close not open the door.

I queried: a new dance?

Her response: Stop asking questions. That’s your old dance. Just tell him how you’re feeling, only a few sentences, no accusations and see what happens.

It worked. A brief back and forth began and he shared a few important words. The next day, the new steps were repeated. A bit more disclosure and tensions eased.

Some new wisdom to keep in mind. And recently the occasion arose to offer it to another.

The newly separated father and mother seated on my office couch came in to address his accusation that their seven year old daughter was being turned against him. She was unwilling to talk and share her life with him, non-disclosing in response to his efforts to engage her in conversation. But when she phoned her mother from his home, she was animated and fluent. He made little effort to hide his resentment of his wife, allowing himself to believe this was all her doing.

So, I suggested: maybe you need to learn some new dance steps.

At the start of his weekend, the father picked up his daughter at her school. We deconstructed the usual conversation they had as she climbed into his car:

He: Hi, sweetie, how was your day?

She: Fine.

He: Learn anything new?

She: Not much.

He: Any good friends in your class?

She: Um hum.

He: So, play with them today?

She: Yes.

He: What sorts of games?

She: Oh, just stuff.

Now frustrated, he shuts down, angry and hurt, and they ride along in silence until reaching his home, when his daughter brightens and showers affection on the dog, turns on the TV and cuddles with her pet. He feels the outsider. This conversation dance repeats many times over the next two days.

Bringing to mind my past experience with a sometimes-silent partner, I suggest: Try this. Stop asking questions. Just talk about yourself, nothing too profound and not accusing or in any way critical. Maybe talk about what happened to you earlier in the day. But no questions.

On return for their next visit to my office he was smiling: Amazing! Picked her up at school. No questions. Told her about the pizza I had for lunch, made with anchovies, which I hate, and what a time I had dislodging them from the layers of melted cheese. She told me about the yucky salmon patties served in the school cafeteria, and how one of the boys started tossing them around and got into trouble, and that she knew his older sister who was stuck up. So, I told her about a woman in my office who was stuck up, and she asked me why I thought people got that way. We had a great talk.

Hard to know what this youngster’s feelings were when she left school with her father instead of ending the school week by returning to the parent with whom she was most comfortable. What subliminal message did she carry from her mother? Did his being the one who left their home still feel like abandonment? Was she at fault for what happened? No easy way for a seven year old to address these issues, even for herself. Was closing the door on his questions a perfect defense against revealing a confusion of emotion?

No monumental disclosures were made, but tensions eased. Now the possibilities for real talk and future understandings were there again.

And for comfortable silences too.

To Go Or To Stay?

She rummages in her purse but then pauses, smiles, and remembers that she no longer smokes. It’s a tense moment and she wishes she still did. Deep sigh: he says he just needs some space. What do you think?

For some months now, I’ve been aware that the marriage of my friends was troubled, although she was sure they both still valued their bond. Counseling was rejected, her husband insisting this was a private matter and he didn’t need to “get fixed”. My cautionary words were: if respectful conversations are still possible, give it more time. Separations usually become permanent.

I realized as I spoke, that although invited to give advice, I had no sound knowledge base for my statement, no actual data to support my conclusion, and I told her so.

All of my evidence was anecdotal, and those who separated and then reconciled did not end up on my office couch, so my evidence was not only anecdotal but skewed. Yet many of my divorce mediation clients reported having separated for a trial period, sometimes for as long as a year, only to later decide to end the marriage. For many I surmised that a proposed temporary parting was often one party’s way of letting their partner down easy, suggesting only the need for space, but knowing that their decision to end the marriage was made, and was the right one. For others, I believed that the motive was more sincere, a testing time.

I quizzed a friend who is a Magistrate in the Domestic Relations Court and got another perspective on separations. She commented on the number of dramas that had played out in her courtroom where one spouse had asked, even demanded, that the other leave, only to later acknowledge that their real intent was to test the commitment of their partner. The departed spouse had then became happier living on their own, and declined to return. A risky request, probably made impulsively at a moment of hurt or anger. I too had heard this scenario a number of times.

I shared my personal experience with my friend, for I well remember those times during my marriage when we were both unhappy, though not always at the same time. It was toughing out those difficult days, struggling for understanding, and to be understood, that repeatedly brought us to a new and better place. Long walks were taken, sometimes together, sometimes alone. There were tearful but also loving times, because we had opportunities to reconnect with spontaneity. While still together we could reach out and touch, smile, or fix a favorite meal, do something to bridge the gap and then begin again to talk. But I know others within my own family who took a different path, lived apart and came back together successfully. A little scarier perhaps.

So, on balance, I’ve come to believe, even without reliable evidence, that when unhappy partners remain committed and respectful, most problems are best worked out in close proximity, often with professional help.

Although I know there are those exceptions that prove, or probe, this rule, is it not also true that nature abhors a vacuum? The intimacy vacuum created by a separation often gets filled, with new directions, or other people.

Going Along To Get Along

On the day we first meet, I spend time alone with each new client, and ask how disputes were resolved during their marriage. It’s helpful to understand their negotiating style, and essential that I uncover any claim of intimidation.

She said: I just went along to get along.

And when she noted my knowing smile, my eyebrows raised as if questioning the truth of her words, she became more insistent: I really did. Even if we argued bitterly, I’d give in just to keep the peace.

I explained my curious glance, telling her that often both parties deliver the same message, that they were the one who was passive in the face of disagreement, the one who always surrendered. And this was exactly what her husband had told me moments before.

My personal experience suggests that most of those living in contented relationships aren’t shy about trying to influence their partner when differences arise. Talking, back and forth, weighing of options. Humor may diffuse rising tension, and even when hurtful words are spoken, always knowing wounds can be healed. Perhaps a touch, as a reminder of loving, of respect, becomes the promise of a million new beginnings.

But more often than not, when a relationship is ending, has been eroding for some time, each person sees themselves as the one who always accommodated to the other’s wishes or demands. As improbable as it seems, I think both perceptions are sincerely voiced, that personal power has been relinquished, or taken away. Resentments build until the delicate balance tips.

So, is there something important to note here? How differently has the couple that is falling apart been living during the years of growing unhappiness? Has the ice become too thin to risk discussion, when they are hoping to avoid the break up, clinging to the chance of remaining together? Is each slowly losing, giving up their authentic self in the struggle, at times acting out in anger, at other times quietly swallowing their words? And as one assumes the role of decider and the other retreats, are the last words spoken at day’s end: not tonight, I have a headache . . . .

Are these the moments most remembered, the times when wishes were compromised or submerged, sacrificing the sense of self?

Friends ask if it isn’t depressing to witness the sadness of those I work with. It is not. For, here is the hope: now they head for life apart, autonomy restored. Once anxiety about the unknown diminishes with the development of a plan for the future, the freedom to again be authentic will one day lift despair. A new beginning.

Guilt

She called to ask for the first available appointment because her husband, feeling guilty about an affair, was proposing a generous settlement. My silence told the story. I thought: don’t count on it, guilt fades fast. As if able to read my mind, she laughed, and I thought I heard a knowing sadness.

The first mediation session was scheduled for the next week. The husband’s culpability, unchallenged, was spoken of at our first encounter, and hung in the air each time we met. Yet he remained steadfast in his offer of substantial financial support for his wife, for many years to come.

When promises earlier made are broken, the betrayal becomes the focal point. It’s easy in those first days to be simplistic and blaming.

But with the passage of time, the breach, initially seen as the cause of the rift, is often recast as the effect of expectations unmet. Regrets unattended. Sometimes this is a reality perceived only by the actor, sometimes by both players.

As this shift from cause to effect evolves, the injured party may well get advice from family and friends to move forward quickly and take full advantage of their partner’s remorse. But experience has taught me that regret, or even the admission of fault, is a shaky foundation for lasting agreements.

I met alone with the husband wanting to assure myself that his decisions were well considered and would not crumble before pen was put to paper. I wondered aloud whether it was guilt or compassion that was motivating his largess?

His  response was a question: Does it matter? What’s wrong with feeling guilty and doing what I can to put those thoughts to rest? I know the reasons for our failure are not all of my doing. But this is less about looking back than about looking forward. I’m not atoning or even offering compensation. I want us both to get on with life. She’ll be secure, and I’ll feel better about myself. Leave it at that.

I was chastened.

Will he still feel he made good decisions some years hence? Impossible to know, but his values  prevailed, respected by me, prized by his wife.

Guilt has gotten a bad name in our feel good age, the sources to be analyzed and exorcised. Was I misguided in my cynical assumption that guilt, met with blame would ultimately fade, fuel anger, even retribution? When instead it motivates compassion and a recognition of shared human frailty, is that the exception that probes the rule?

The Throwaway Line

I did not fully realize anger was in the room until they were walking out the door. A step ahead of her, looking away, his tone flat, he said: when are you moving out?

Was I meant to overhear these words? I wasn’t sure, but they surprised me. Just moments before, as their first mediation session ended, an agreement was made to postpone the decision about which parent would remain living in the marital residence, or whether it should be sold. More financial data was needed and budgets not yet developed. So, it was agreed that for a time they would remain under the same roof.

For fourteen years these marriage partners struggled to draw closer together and from time to time succeeded, but the husband’s recent severe depression tipped the balance, became the catalyst for their decision to end the relationship.

During the time we were all together, they were amiable and calm, smiling and nodding in affirmation as each spoke, the focus on how they could best continue to care for their children. This negotiation would go smoothly, or so I thought.

Then, privately the husband confided that over the past year, his wife had literally turned her back on him, and withdrew at his touch. He knew it was time to move on. I asked about counseling, but although treated for the depression, he now saw no need. He was sure that with autonomy would come the return of his emotional equilibrium.

The wife’s concern, expressed in confidence, was her husband’s outbursts aimed at their troubled adolescent son. She feared that when she was no longer present, no one would moderate their increasingly hostile exchanges.

The remark he made as they left my office, almost as an aside, confused me. A painful jab, a contradiction of how they had presented when together, and of what had just been resolved. My educated guess: this smiling man is a very angry man, both of them on their good behavior in my presence, but with tumult just below the surface.

. . . . . . . . . .

I’m no stranger to this mystery. My husband’s oft spoken throwaway line was usually addressed to my back as I worked in the kitchen or sat at my desk:

I’m going for a walk.

Was that an announcement or an invitation? Unable to read his mind, I would just nod, silent but hurt, feeling excluded. Over time and after some difficult conversations, I learned to ask: on your own or do you want company? He usually did.

. . . . . . . . .

When they return, I will ask this client-husband to clear up the meaning of his parting shot. Perhaps it will open the door to an important story yet to be told and understood. Even provide a chance to design an agreement that will, to some extent, diffuse his anger.

Throwaway lines. Spoken into the air as someone is walking away, off handed but ambiguous. Attention should be paid.

A Taste of Power

 I have friends, in a distant city, who divorced some years ago and are now contemplating remarriage, to each other.

For over a year, they lived separately, shared their children’s time, and then slowly drifted back into each other’s orbit in loving ways. Now the entire family is once again under the same roof, and they are recommitted to each other.

So, the question they are pondering is, should they remarry? Religious considerations aside, which for them are not wholly insignificant, could they accept the practice of their children’s generation and simply live together? Perhaps.

What is most confusing to them now is how to handle their money, which they’ve gradually come to realize presents puzzles greater than the sexual conundrum.

Let’s call them John and Mary. John has always been the sole breadwinner. Mary has now returned to graduate school, anticipating a future career, but some years off. During their marriage, John’s earnings, if not invested or added to a retirement account, were always placed in a joint account from which they both drew for day to day needs, consulting on all major expenditures. Money was not tight, and rarely did either question the spending decisions of the other.

So, why not simply return to their old comfortable ways? John suggests this path.

But, things have changed, particularly for Mary.

The terms of their divorce decree require that John pay significant monthly support to Mary. He continues to do so. Mary places these funds in an account in her name alone. As she did during their separation, she still provides for her own and the children’s needs, pays the household expenses and saves what is not needed. This could be seen as Mary receiving a substantial salary for her homemaking efforts. She also now controls, in her own name, half of the assets which they had accumulated, and which were divided at the time of their divorce.

Mary has come to value her financial autonomy, and would not welcome a return to total economic dependence on John, to relinquish the power the Court support order provides, which has put her on something of an equal footing with her former husband.

What games are played in relationships where one person’s security and future well being is wholly dependent on the largess, however benevolent, of another? Is an equilibrium sought in covert ways? It is interesting to contemplate how many relationships might flower, if the equality achieved by my divorced friends, happened before rather than after disaster struck.

And here’s a twist. John’s and Mary’s children very much want them to remarry, so with some new agreements, possibly even formalized in a legal document, that is likely what they will do.

Imagine Winning

If you clicked on this commentary expecting a “visualize world peace” proposalwrong guess. I don’t suggest that by imagining winning a contest (of wills) the likelihood of victory is enhanced. Quite the opposite. Try to visualize obtaining a hard fought for result, either through tough bargaining or by convincing a Judge, and imagine the consequences that will flow from the victory.

Strange as it may seem, in pursuit of victory, it is not always easy to distinguish a win from a loss.

The scene: Father moves away from the family home, then seeks a significant role in the life of his seven year old son. He wants to share the status of legal custodian and have more time with the child than would likely be ordered by a court. Mother feels betrayed by her husband’s infidelity and departure. She, not surprisingly, is hurt and angry. As a work-at-home parent, since the child’s infancy, she has managed all of the day to day details of his life. There was a time, however, when she was excessively dependent on prescription drugs.

The anxiety evoked when contemplating the end of an intimate relationship, sharpens the focus of both parties on all they stand to lose. Some prepare to do battle, whatever the cost. In the above scenario, ammunition is ready at hand.

A good time to take a deep breath and imagine winning. Contemplate the consequences of victory.

Some possibilities:

-a forever angry co-parent who may even pull back from the parenting role, to the child’s detriment
-a tightening of the purse strings, less generous support, now, and as college approaches
-possible alienation of the child over time, as parents continue to demean each other
-a child caught in the middle of parental conflict, who suffers intensely from the constant test of loyalty
-savings and future income depleted to pay for the prolonged battles which often resurface for years

As destabilizing as this crazy-making time is, a balancing act is called for.

In the effort to regain control during the chaotic times of our lives, getting the necessary help to refocus and contemplate the consequences of winning a battle, and not just the anticipation of painful losses, can point towards peaceful resolutions, and often significant gains.

“We Just Can’t Talk”

“We just can’t talk.” The sad refrain of so many disappointed partners. And likely of others still struggling to ward off failure. Surely they talked early on, when first getting acquainted. But with greater familiarity, and perhaps an accumulation of minor or significant disappointments, some opt for saying nothing, if unable to find just the right words. Perhaps yearning to be authentic, but fearing further distance or hurt. Others talk non-stop but in accusatory mode, desperate for acknowledgment, but succeeding only in driving a partner further away.

Oddly, many report that once having made the decision to part, with the reduction in tension born of that resolve, ease of communication returns, but sadly only after all passion has flown. Is there something to be learned?

Friends of those still struggling to overcome the silences often suggest that partners try active listening, a determination to not interrupt, and then feeding back what has just been heard, as a way of regenerating communication. On an intellectual level, these are techniques that have always made good sense to me, even though my own success using them was abysmal. My mediation clients would often report that the feedback given was tinged with sarcasm or boredom, resentments too firmly established.

So, my interest was aroused when, some years ago, I read about the research of Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington,(brought back to mind, as his work is written about extensively in Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating “Blink”). He studied 130 newly married couples over a six year period, tracking how they handled disagreement. Many reported they tried active listening and feedback skills.

These couples were then compared to an older study in which successful marriages had been followed for 13 years. Dr. Gottman found that people who stayed together almost never used such listening techniques.

What the marriages that seemed to work had in common, according to Gottman, was that the husband was willing to be influenced by his wife, and I quote the good doctor who said: We found that only those newly-wed men who are accepting of influence from their wives are winding up in happy stable marriages.

Now, I am not so naive as to believe for one moment that this is all it takes, but I clipped this article, gave it to my husband, sent a copy to my daughter, and of course, to my sons.

The Devil You Know

Sometimes  it seems so clear to me that divorcing partners have virtually completed the mediation process, but the process does not end. Some relatively minor point becomes a major sticking point. Both parties become entrenched, unwilling to give in or compromise, even when the issue is minimal.

One might almost think that they do not want to finish and have their meetings end. These two people sitting on either end of my long couch usually have been a “couple” for a long time. There was a time when the relationship was everything they could have wished, full of promise. The dream faded and the promise was not kept. Most likely they lived with frustration and unhappiness for a good long while before making the wrenching decision to part.

However dysfunctional, this relationship is a known quantity. The future is full of frightening unknowns, the single life, financial insecurity, facing responsibilities alone that previously were shared, having to contemplate the dating scene, new sexual partners. Too much change to even imagine. Holding on to the present, however miserable allows one to hold the future at bay just a little longer. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

It’s hard to know how to help when I suspect that it is fear of the unknown future that is preventing closure. I can normalize, talk about other folks who have been similarly stuck, empathize and be patient, Eventually one or the other will break the logjam, perhaps suggest a compromise and get us moving again and then in no time simple agreements are made.

What is most important is not to allow these minor sticking points to cause a full-blown retreat. The test of my skill is to keep everyone coming back to the table even when, in frustration, the threat may be made to resort to litigation. This is one of those moments when to go slow is to go fast.

If There Is No Trust

It is not unusual for some of those entering the divorce mediation process to question whether it can work, because they so distrust the other party.

As an intimate relationship ends, the breakdown of trust is almost inevitable. A spouse formerly so well known becomes a stranger. It can be terrifying. The intimacy vacuum created is quickly filled with anxiety. Then all that is needed is a spark, a canceled credit card, a letter from an attorney or the closing of an account without consultation. Any residual trust vanishes.

The offended party asks: How can I possibly work with this person? Perhaps I have to hire a gladiator to protect myself.

A reasonable question that requires a reasonable answer.

To those who have survived this stage without declaring war, born of their fear, and have found their way into a mediation setting or have hired lawyers who seek to collaborate and meet the interests of both parties, this is what I would say: Let’s just assume that your spouse is untrustworthy. This is your current perspective. You may be wrong but you may be right. So, why not simply accept his/her untrustworthiness as a reality and design a settlement that doesn’t depend on trust. Assert the power you have to say no to anything proposed until you are ready to say yes, to see the documentation for every fact alleged, to test conclusions with the involvement of appropriate experts, to make no decisions until they are fully informed decisions.

In marriage we expect trust, a global trust that we will always be told the truth and emotionally supported. That perfection may not always exist, but it is a legitimate goal.

In divorce we may have to give it up. A new trusting relationship may well be established, incrementally, but until it is, a “show me” attitude is completely appropriate.

Abandon Fairness

While I’m always pleased to hear my mediation clients articulate the goal of a fair outcome, I rarely let the statement go by without a note of caution.Two individuals have agreed to share a process. While no doubt some of their values converge, there are likely many values they do not share. I tell them that in the mediation process, we will not strive to change that.

My expectation is that their perceptions of past events will also differ. While their perceptions may well factor into the decisions they are willing to make and so are of importance, coming to some meeting of the minds about what actually happened in the past, some empirical truth being proven, is neither likely to happen nor of importance to their reaching workable solutions for the problems at hand.

I urge the adoption of a flea market mentality. Finding an item you wish to purchase, you ask the dealer “how much?” And when the response is “twenty dollars”, you don’t say “but that’s not fair”. You might offer to pay ten dollars and later settle for fifteen, but the deal is not struck by arguing the fairness of the price, but by reaching an acceptable one.

So too do I urge my mediating parties. Do not try to convince someone whose values or perceptions may differ from your own to agree with your sense of fairness. Seek instead an outcome that is acceptable to you, that meets your interests and that sufficiently meets the interests of your bargaining partner, so a deal can be struck.

Understanding those interests, your own and those of your counterpart, both short term and long term, becomes the key to success. And to get there, asking questions in a non-blaming, non-accusatory way can elicit the information that will bring valuable bargaining chips to the table.

Fairness must exist in the process, each side fully heard and fully informed, but as a criterion for evaluating the outcome, it is an ever-elusive goal, best forgotten.