The procedural frame for every mediation session is the agenda. I ask the couple what they want or need to work on and make a list prioritizing their topics. Then, before the meeting, I get their approval on the list.
Paul said, “I’d like to share an experience I had two weekends ago that taught me a lot about anger.” This was a promising development as it was the first time either party asked to talk about the emotional substrate of the case. Paul seemed to understand its significance.
Rose didn’t expect a proposed subject like this and was thrown off-balance. “Anger? You want to talk about anger? Sure, let’s do that. Hmm. … But is there enough time? Can we afford it? You tell your little story and I’ll tell mine. Hmm. … I’ll have to limit myself.” She turned toward me, “Didn’t you say that you always cut sessions off at two hours because things go downhill after that?”
“That means I’d have to restrict myself to the last couple of weeks. … No, if Paul uses five minutes to tell his little story, I would have to limit myself to the things he’s done to make me angry within the last 10 days. That’s not realistic. It will have to be for the last few days.”
“I haven’t spoken to you for the last week.”
“A good place for me to start.”
“Are you saying that you want me to contact you?”
“Yes. I’d like you to inquire about the health and welfare of your baby. You could also ask about your dog, and wonder of wonders, you might even ask about me.”
“How are they?” Paul asked.
“My baby and my dog,” Paul said with a smile.
Rose glared at him before saying, “Fine. They’re thriving. Why do I feel like this isn’t information that interests you?”
Paul replied, “Because you know I already know. You left my dog and my baby with my parents all weekend while you, according to my mother, went somewhere to do something for yourself. While you were gone I spent a lot of time with them at my parents’ house. I know you, and I know that you asked my mom if I had been to see the baby, and I know my mother would have given you all the details.”
“So your mother was judging me for taking time off from being the mother of an infant and a zookeeper for your dog?”
“It was the opposite. She was glad that you were doing something for yourself. I got the lecture on how hard it was to be a married parent and how infinitely more difficult it must be without a supportive spouse. My father started to double-team me, but my mother cut him off, remembering that he was at the hospital taking care of other people’s children when Sarah and I were infants.”
When we have one thought in mind, we need to express it before we’re able to give attention to a different subject, which means that a certain degree of venting can be a prerequisite for a good discussion. But too much emotional display creates a tit-for-tat dynamic that does nothing but demonstrate how efficiently each person can infuriate the other. The last part of Paul’s reply to Rose was a slight digression, and it also breached what was — more than I realized at the time — the delicate subject of Paul’s mother.
I decided to break up the exchange and asked, “From what you’ve both said, I think the subject of this session is anger. Paul, you’ve had an experience you want to describe. I want to hear about it, and Rose knows that she needs to hear about it, too. Rose, you want to describe how Paul and various aspects of the divorce have made you angry during the last few days. Paul doesn’t want to hear about it, but he also knows that he must.”
The contrived addition of that final sentence ran the risk of alienating or confusing Paul, but I decided to make it part of the Move because the risk was minimal. Both Paul and I knew that Rose wanted to hurt him for leaving her; we both knew that her feelings were normal. Paul knew that if he wanted a divorce, and he clearly did, he would have to endure the suffering inflicted by Rose’s words. Our mediation sessions could help contain and limit her expressions of anger, and my ultimate goal was to help her consider the possibility that she could do more with her emotions than express them dramatically.
“So,” I continued, “Paul, we’ll hear from you first. Then, Rose will have the floor and as much of the remaining session as she needs to describe her experience of anger during the last few days. Paul needs to hear you to know what you are going through so he can become increasingly aware of what he does or doesn’t do that causes you pain. With that additional information, there’s at least a possibility he can do something to mitigate your suffering. Instead of giving us a chronological account of what has happened and how you’ve responded, you might want to give us a narrative in which you describe the worst incidents in order of their intensity. But you can do it in any order you wish.”
Paul’s remarkable contribution to the session came from a struggle he had with cognitive dissonance created in an earlier session, when I asked him if he thought he had the power to decide on his emotional reaction to an external event. I pushed him to do some introspection to discover if one of his deep beliefs was that he had no control over his emotions. He was a high functioning individual, so he obviously knew that he could control the way his emotions were expressed, but at the end of that conversation he told me he believed that, “Fundamentally, I am what I am thinking and feeling at any particular time.”
The conclusion bothered him as revealed in the story he told.
• • •
“Two weekends ago I went to Mexico with three friends to hunt pigeons.”
[At this point there was an interruption by Rose. She wanted to know why he was going hunting for the first time in his life; why he didn’t hunt the pigeons in front of the library; how much it had cost; the identity of the other hunters; where he got a gun and if he still had it; and why Mexico? Her question about the gun carried with it an implication that his acquisition of a firearm would be a threat to her safety. He borrowed a shotgun in Mexico, and he left it there. It took three different Moves to give the floor back to Paul. While Rose intended to collect evidence to throw back at him, he nonetheless had her attention.]
Paul continued, “This guy, Coburn, who Rose knows, has made a lot of money. He was the one to set up the trip. He flew us in his plane to the U.S. side of the border at Tecate. We were supposed to be picked up by a representative of the ranch where we were paying to hunt. Coburn, or Coby, had to make several calls before a guy called ‘Fernando’ arrived in an old pickup truck. There was a seat for only one passenger in front so the other three of us didn’t hesitate to climb into the bed. The wait (and the fact that we had to sit in a truck-bed) got Coby into an angry-man frame of mind, and he directed his anger at Fernando, who said the same thing in Spanish three times. It contained the words ‘corta distancia,’ which should have ended the matter. But Coby raved against him even though he was an employee of the ranch in no position to talk back to a paying guest. I thought about telling Coby to knock it off, but I didn’t. Maybe I was afraid of his emotional volatility or maybe I was afraid of his disapproval; I hope not. I rationalized my silence by deciding that my interference wouldn’t do anything to cool Coby down, and it could even make it worse for Fernando. And if I did speak out, what was the next move if my words had no effect?” [Paul is thinking like a mediator here.]
He continued, “We got to the border in two or three minutes — corta distancia — and had to clear immigration. The authority was one man with a gun-belt and the paperwork non-citizens have to complete to visit Mexico. Fernando was our dragoman. He gave each of us a simple form. After completing a couple of lines, Coby made a mistake; he swore, crumpled the form into his hand and ordered Fernando to get him another copy. The immigration official seemed mildly shocked by Coby’s behavior and when Fernando made the request, we didn’t need to speak Spanish to understand what ‘No¡’ meant. ‘México no necesita más hombre incendido’ was almost as transparent.
“Coby understood what had been said as well as I did, and he was in shock only briefly before he had an immediate personality change. It wasn’t an act; he got physically smaller and started to — the only word is ‘grovel’ — before Fernando, the person he had just been berating and ordering around. He pleaded with the driver to get another form. Now the exchange between the guard and Fernando was too fast for me to distinguish one word from another, but you could tell that it wasn’t going well for old Coby.”
[Paul’s story of his trip, the reversal of power experienced by his companion, Coburn, and the significance of each for Paul and his divorce will continue in the next letter.]
— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.