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.