The ex-wife and mother of their son had some choice words about his new wife. They all detested these exchanges. These were tense door-slamming screaming and shouting matches. The mother agreed with her former husband that they had some serious “issues.”
Miraculously, their son was doing well in school, and each parent claimed to be happily re-married. Equally miraculous to the mediator, was the fact that both parents were recognizing and talking about their “issues” early in the mediation. With some coaxing, they had been able to separate their problems from themselves as distinct “issues.” Neither parent was stuck on cataloging the personality flaws and failings of the other party.
Both parents, and their new extended families, were in enormous distress. The mother had quickly revealed how having to interact with her ex-husband made her feel exhausted and physically sick. He was passionate about never ever wanting to hear or see her; never again! It was not a far stretch to point out to them that their “issues” were costly for both of them. They knew it. “Are you interested in eliminating the issues,” I asked. This was the key move and turning point where they became cooperative in their attack on the issues that divided them.
The father was insistent that he had been trying. He had de-friended his ex on Facebook, changed his phone number, blocked her email, all as early steps before sending his new wife to the child exchanges. His theory was to take himself out of the picture. He now wanted his ex-wife to send someone else too. That way their son could have neither of them around during the evidently stressful pick-up and drop-offs.
“How has that been working for you” I asked, referring to this separate lives approach. His ex-wife was about ready to burst a blood vessel at that point: his distancing himself from her had just made her more and more angry. “Who has decision-making for this child” I asked. “The court order says we have joint decision-making he said.” Surely he was joking . . .!
The fog of war was lifting for this father who was beginning to see that his separate lives strategy was not making the issues go away. He was sure that he did want the stress out of his family life: he wanted the issues gone. Now he was collected enough to consider some different ways to reach this goal.
This was a couple that readily accepted TalkingParents.com as a positive step in the right direction. As a storyline for the future, the father would try opening up communication in a secure way, confident that mother’s every word would be in writing and plain for all to see if need be. The ex-wife agreed to limit her contacts this way, and not call the new wife or otherwise do things that were taken as harassment. She was happy to have an avenue open to communicate about their son. That was her heart’s desire and need.
After building some initial rapport, my game plan in this narrative was to separate the problem from the participants. That helped both parents express how much they did not like the status quo without attacking each other. Then they could say how much they wanted the status quo changed. That generated the possibility of cooperative problem solving, and it took the conversation away from either party having to admit any personal failings. Each conserved their identity as a good parent and spouse within their new and separate families.
This only became a typical interests based mediation in its closing stages. Early on, the key was to hear the stories of two people who converged on a narrative in which they were toxic with each other, but not with their child or the rest of the world. The win-win or dividing-up the pie model of conflict often has to be abandoned to resolve emotionally intense disputes. These parents needed to conceive a new story that included a vision of how they must continue to work with each other.
This couple committed to working on their toxicity issues. They may be back to court in the future, but the mediation gave them the insight that there may be some respite within their grasp. They had at least resolved the legal difficulty that brought them into the mediation.