Dear Pinky and Spike:
Don’t tell our parents.
The last letter concluded with an exchange between Rose and me. I asked her to think about the role she’d have in her “family of origin” once the divorce was over — and also about the likely consequences of a mediation session that included her parents.
When outsiders are affecting the course of mediation, there’s usually a dramatic shift when I suggest they be invited to a meeting. Typically, the mediation client is mildly in favor of the idea; however, when the invitation is extended, the “interloper” almost always refuses to participate. For the client, the extension of the invitation and its unequivocal rejection is revelatory. It becomes immediately apparent that the interloper is getting a free emotional ride without direct experience of the suffering and, when asked, is unwilling to take personal action (by attending a session).
None of that happened here.
I looked at Paul and explained that after my separate conversations with Rose, I had been thinking about inviting her parents to one of our joint sessions, and I wondered how he felt about the idea.
He said, “I need a few seconds to think.” After a minute, he continued, “This is something I hadn’t anticipated. I want to answer the question, but I don’t want to shoot from the hip. I know we just started, but would it be possible to take a break long enough to walk around the block?”
I said, “Anytime anyone wants to walk around the block during one of these sessions, it’s permissible and encouraged.”
“OK,” Paul said. “I’ll be back in less than 10 minutes.”
Rose, on the other hand, had been thinking about the question since I’d last seen her. While we were waiting for Paul’s return she said, “I don’t want them here, and I can tell you why.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“It could be awful. They might forgive him and then say something like, ‘We don’t want your money.’”
“Which one would be worse?”
“Both would be terrible. Suddenly, I’d be completely dependent on them and there wouldn’t be anyone else to blame. It would all be on me.”
“Would they use money to control you?”
“They would set something up where I would have more money than I need and my mom might say, ‘You are our child and we support you and our grandchild 100 percent. We want you to have the money without any strings.’”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Are you kidding? When you are supported by your parents with ‘no strings attached,’ there are a zillion strings attached. And there’s a big rope tied around your neck that’s called, ‘I can’t disappoint my parents.’ I happen to be an expert on this subject.”
“I get it.”
“If we’re going to talk about my parents coming to a meeting, what about Paul’s parents?”
“Yeah, what about Paul’s parents? I’ll inquire.”
When asked upon his return, Paul replied, “I haven’t seen Rose’s parents since I left. Early on I thought about driving down there to apologize and to accept what I knew would be hard feelings and anger. I haven’t done it. Maybe it’s cowardice and maybe it’s because I feel, as hard as it is for her, that this divorce is between Rose and me and no one else.
“But right now it’s become equally obvious that I’ve got to try to make peace with them and they have to try to make peace with me for the sake of our child and their grandchild. Rose’s parents are demonstrative, and they’re also smart. I know them well enough to know that they are getting a kick out of being mad at me. The same is true with Rose’s brothers and all of her brothers’ girlfriends. I don’t know about the girlfriends — there are so many — but no one in Rose’s family is going to stay angry with me as soon as any one of them suggests that the baby is becoming collateral damage. They’re getting their jollies by being mad at me, but the welfare of the baby will come first. Some will forgive me. I think her father will, eventually. At worst, most of them will be indifferent toward me, but there won’t be any smoldering resentments.
“Maybe this would be a good time for me to start taking what I’ve got coming while also starting to make peace with them.”
Rose interjected, “How nice for you, for them …” She didn’t say the words what about me?, but she communicated the sentiment with her tone of voice and the way she gathered into herself.
Paul continued, “I know how it would go. Rose’s dad would talk first. He’d describe me in the worst possible terms, and I say 'worst' because everything would be absolutely true. I’d have to accept it. I couldn’t hide behind a defense like, ‘He exaggerates,’ because he wouldn’t. He’d probably point out that my behavior has been despicable in ways I haven’t thought of — even though I’ve given the subject all of my attention for several months now.
“But the thing with Rose’s dad is that he’s an original. I’ll remember what he says for the rest of my life. So will both of you. That’s because no matter how nasty his words, there will be an extra dimension that will be hysterically funny. He’ll do it on purpose and with a perfectly, I mean perfectly, straight face. Under the circumstances laughing while my father-in-law is ripping me a new one would be impertinent, insolent and so rude that it would make any kind of reconciliation impossible for years to come. We would all know that and we would all be on the verge of busting a gut. It would be like not laughing in church when there’s really high stakes.”
Rose cut him off, “For once I agree with Paul. We shouldn’t do it.”
Paul replied, “That’s not what I’m saying. Maybe we should.”
I’ve gotten to know Paul well enough to see that he was aware of and enjoying Rose’s discomfort. It was time for a wild card.
I asked, “What would you think about inviting your parents to a session, Paul?”
“What?” he asked in a tone that added, Are you nuts?
Not at the moment. The question was planned and strategic. In the next letter I’ll show how the answers Paul and Rose give to the two questions about parental inclusion create powerful positive norms for the rest of the mediation process.
— 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.