A newspaper columnist recently reported on moving out of her apartment in Italy to allow her husband to self-quarantine at home after he returned from a trip to London. She moved in with her elderly mother a few doors down the road. She and her elderly mother decided to keep to their separate rooms. All was easily agreed upon, as the three of them began fourteen days of quarantine. For that extended family, things went smoothly because there was a thread of agreed purpose and shared values that held them together, albeit separately.
Everything works out when people have shared values, but not everyone has them. In one of my recent mediations a client burst out in evident frustration with the current state of affairs: “this is nothing but the [expletive deleted] flu” he exclaimed! He did not think COVID-19 was anything worthy of change in his daily routine. I happened to know that his own attorney had recently been through the ringer with this disease and the lawyer was only just recovering himself.
When values are not shared, tensions arise. Some of us are natural germophobes. Combine that with a compromised immune system, or one of any number of other underlying health conditions, and you have a very real risk of mortality. Most of us can see why someone could be quite reasonably terrified by a family member returning home from international travel. If the returnee thinks COVID-19 is an overblown hoax, you have the perfect recipe for conflict.
At a very basic level, what we mediators do is help people have difficult conversations that they can’t easily have for themselves. In my mediation between roommates, their values and concerns were undoubtably not shared.
It does not matter whether it is a roommate relationship, or an intimate partnership, or even a married couple. The relationship is tested. Perhaps the relationship was strained before, but now the stress is out in the open for all to see. Mediation can perhaps band-aid the current dispute with a practical agreement. At its best it can allow participants a profound and deep understanding of where the other person is coming from. Mediation may save a relationship because conflict ends as positions converge upon a new understanding. It may also lead to a conscious decision to sever a relationship that is no longer wanted. Either way, the mediation has served its purpose in allowing the difficult conversation to be safely had.
There is not a lot of pandemic law to guide us. With our courts also grinding to a halt, mediation is perhaps the only viable process for bringing closure and resolution to the conflicts generated by our current circumstances. Mediation does not always work, but the fewer disputes that fester unresolved the better.