Mediation and Neutrality

A neutral mediator is key to the mediation process. This neutrality in the mediator can help heal the pain of divorce and increase understanding. It is never simple to determine why a marriage ends.  The end of the marriage takes two, as does the beginning .

My challenge as a mediator is how to understand/empathize with both people. 

Take this situation for example:

Brad & Helen have come into my office. Brad went out to get a newspaper one Sunday morning and did not come back or call for 3 days.  He left Helen with 2 young children, without even a note.  I could imagine her anguish, and the children’s fears.  But during our sessions, Helen never let Brad speak!! What he did was not right. But something drove him to do this.  His experience led him to this decision and both experiences are vital to understanding what is at play.

What is my role as a neutral mediator?

Most of us are doing our best to make our way through life.  We try not to hurt the people we love, or have loved.   But we are imperfect creatures, so we do not always succeed.  We are hurt and we lash out – and the other may not know that he/she has hurt us.  Through my understanding as a mediator, I can often help people to forgive themselves and each other – which will help them to move forward into their new lives post-divorce.

Divorce raises hurdles, as you restructure and begin to figure out your new life, and also raises complex emotions.  Mediation is a good place to explore these changes. When you are navigating the maze, the last thing you want to hear is that your spouse’s position has more validity. 

These feelings are especially intense where the impetus for the break-up of the marriage is a situation with deep emotional effect – for example, where one person has a new lover, or where one person walked out on the other very suddenly and without warning.  The identity as a wronged person becomes compelling and attractive. 

In mediation we focus on a broader picture. A neutral mediator can bring you closer to the truth, and the truth will help you to move on with your life.

A IN-DEPTH EXAMPLE OF HOW MEDIATION & NEUTRALITY WORK IN ACTION:

Anice and Marshall came to me for divorce mediation. Anice expressed her thoughts clearly. She loved Marshall passionately and still believed that he was the love of her life. She had made a commitment to him which, to her, meant that she would stay with him no matter what. She told me that Marshall had had other affairs in the past, and had always returned to his commitment to her. “How do I know that this time you are serious?” she asked him. “What makes you think that, 3 months from now, you won’t change your mind again and come back to me?”

The couple had recently purchased a house. Anice said, “Why did you buy this house with me if you wanted to get out of the relationship?” The couple had greatly disparate incomes, and although Anice had been the motivating force behind their buying their home, she was not at the present time able to figure out how to pay the expenses of the house by herself.

I could have felt that Anice was “right,” and Marshall – a lousy toad. She was the one with commitment and vision, she felt sure that this marriage was the right thing and was able to stick with her husband through thick and thin. She planned and worked to enable them to buy a home. And after this loyalty, what was her reward? Constant betrayal, multiple affairs!

Then Marshall told me about his experience. He spoke eloquently about his need to move on from a relationship which felt stagnant to him, and from which he could no longer derive any sense of intimacy or romance. He was very grateful to Anice for all the love and support he had gotten from her, and the achievements he accomplished because of her support. But for a long time he had felt that there was something missing. This feeling drove him to seek outside relationships, even though he had derived from Anice love such as he had never before experienced in his life.

At the present time, he felt stifled by the relationship. He felt responsible for Anise. He was aware that she wasn’t able to earn as much money as he could earn, and he felt trapped. Although he felt platonic love and respect for Anice, he had a new girlfriend. For Marshall, the 12-year relationship had evolved into a friendship.

After hearing Marshall, I felt his pain. I felt how Anice’s willingness to stay in a relationship with a man who was sleeping with another woman made Marshall feel trapped. He saw her as a crazy woman who had no self respect, who would live with him even though he rejected her.

In truth, I felt great empathy for both Anice and Marshall. Through my understanding of them, I was able to sympathize with Anice, who felt deeply committed to this man, and hurt every time he told her that he still loved her – and who felt that she would have stayed with him no matter what happened, even if he had outside relationships.

I felt empathy for Marshall, who expressed that this marriage, though it had endured for 12 years, had never completely fulfilled him. He felt an excitement at the change to break free and try again in a new relationship for something that felt more healthy and fulfilling and less co-dependent and suffocating than his relationship with Anise.

My job, now was to do my best to increase their understanding of each other. Marshall had a better understanding of how Anice felt than she had of his point of view. Once understanding is improved, they would be ready to negotiate the fairest way for them to divide their house and their possessions.

Anise had to confront the reality that Marshall wanted a divorce. When I helped her to accept this, she was able to negotiate alimony for a period of time, so that she could keep the house and eventually become self-sufficient. Marshall saw the alimony as a way to buy his freedom, and it was a great relief to him to be able to do that. They were both satisfied with the terms and their divorce agreement was completed.

Children perceive their parents neutrally during a divorce. As much as you might want your child to side with you against the other parent – it won’t happen – and it shouldn’t happen. A child will never thank you for taking away his mother or father. The children each contain a little bit of each parent, and they are able intuitively to understand both parents’ points-of-view. The children understand the limitations and strengths of both their parents and love them.

I can think of many cases where I had deep empathy with both people, and could see both their sides. I had a case where the marriage was breaking up because the woman was a lesbian. I empathized with the husband, Allen, who, in his early 50’s had to leave his beautiful house. He had to rethink his whole life with Marge, in light of these changes in her outlook. He had believed he’d had an OK marriage. He didn’t want a new life, but the old one had been snatched from him.

Marge was able to communicate to me the excitement and liberation she felt as she embarked on her new life. She showed me that something had always felt “wrong,” in her life, and now, for the first time she didn’t have that feeling.

Marge came to mediation believing that she had embarked on a course of self-discovery. But during our sessions, she came to a new understanding of how this journey had affected Allen. She ended up giving him a more generous financial settlement, partly to assuage her guilt, and partly to help Allen to also feel that he was getting an opportunity to embark on a new life – that might hold some promise, excitement, even happiness not present in their old one.

The truth is that it is never simple to determine why a marriage ends. Something was probably always lacking in Allen and Marge’s marriage. Why didn’t Allen see that? Why didn’t Marge know earlier? The end of the marriage is created by both, as the beginning was created by both.

My challenge is always to understand both people. In another case the husband, Brad, went out to get a newspaper one Sunday morning and did not come back or call for 3 days. He left Helen with 2 young children, without even a note. I could imagine her anguish, and the fear of the children. But during our sessions, I could see that Helen never let Brad speak!! I’m not saying that what he did was right, only that I understand that he did the best he could and that something drove him to do this terrible thing. Something that he felt had been equally awful had been done to him or he would not have done this to her.

And that is probably the crux. I do believe that most of us are trying the best we can to make our way through this life. We try not to hurt the people we love, or have loved. And we do our best. But we are imperfect creatures, so we do not always succeed. We are hurt and we lash out – and the other may not know that he/she has hurt us. Through my understanding, I can often help people to forgive themselves and each other – which will help them to move forward into their new lives post-divorce.

Divorce raises all kinds of hurdles, as you restructure and begin to figure out your new life – and also raises all kinds of complex emotions. When you are navigating the maze of these changes, the last thing you might want to hear is that your spouse’s position has some validity. (And that is one of the appeals of the adversarial system. When you are hurt, angry and shaken up, who would not want to hire an experienced warrior, who will tell you that you are right and that your evil spouse should make amends – usually monetary – to avenge these wrongs?)

These feelings are especially intense where the impetus for the break-up of the marriage is a situation with deep emotional effect – for example, where one person has a new lover, or where one person walked out on the other very suddenly and without warning. The “right” spouse might find that the new identity as a wronged person becomes intensely compelling and attractive.

The answer is that neutrality will bring you closer to the truth, and the truth will help you to move on with your life.

Seeing Both Sides – A Challenge

Had an irate e-mail from a former client, who is now in litigation with her husband and was feeling (retroactively) that I was not neutral, but was instead biased in favor of her husband.

They were in litigation before they came to seem me – and came in for 6 hours of mediation, to try to settle their differences – but ended up back in litigation.

People often do feel that I’m ‘on their side.’ But what they don’t always see is that I’m also on the other person’s side.

In this case, the father really wanted more time with the child, and I was certainly sympathetic to that. The latest research shows, very clearly, that children who have good relationships with their fathers do fantastically better, in school and in life, than do children who have been cut out of their father’s lives (or abandoned by fathers).

In fact – even for children whose fathers just walked them to school on Mondays after week-ends – or fathers who attended parent-teacher conferences but otherwise never set foot in the school – get a much clearer message that their parents both feel that school is important. A little bit of dad goes a long way.

But – on the other hand – this guy was a kind of a loose cannon. He’d had his driver’s license suspended for speeding, and had in addition had several accidents, and he did not want to agree not to have the child in the car while he drove. He wasn’t even supposed to drive at all – no license! I tried to make him see that that wouldn’t go over too well with a judge, and he really didn’t get it.

(Was this narcissism – nothing I do can be wrong? Or stupidity. I don’t know – but came to the same thing – that dad might not have been a safe person for that kid to be with.)

Anyway – I reminded the wife of these things, and assured her that I had seen them – and she felt reassured that I was also “on her side.”