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.