Dear Pinky and Spike:
I screamed at him because he yelled at me!
Rose and Paul seemed to do well for about three months after I asked them about inviting their parents to a mediation session. We met three times, and each meeting was fairly cordial. The fourth meeting, however, began with Rose’s description of what happened after the previous session.
“Even though I couldn’t say we got anything done at the last meeting, I felt encouraged by the way Paul and I were communicating; I felt pretty good as we left your office. We walked down the stairs together, but by the time we got to the sidewalk on East Figueroa, Paul was yelling at me.”
Paul interrupted, “Me ‘yelling’ at you? You were screaming at me!”
“Yes,” Rose declared, “I screamed at you because you yelled at me.”
“But I didn’t,” Paul insisted.
“That’s what you always say. You never admit to yelling at me, but you do it. You used to do it all the time. I bet you don’t dare do it to your Laura.”
This session was quickly getting out of control, so I intervened.
I asked, “Rose, what does Laura have to do with the story you’re telling? We can learn something from the argument you had after the last session. If Laura was part of that encounter, fine; but if she was not, then we’re adding a subject that will make it difficult or impossible to learn from that experience.”
Some people feel a responsibility to answer the phone when it rings. Others rarely answer a ringing phone because it means they will have to stop whatever they happen to be doing and attend to what the call is about. Similarly, some believe that the tacit change of a conversational subject is rude while, to others, it is the appropriate way to drift a conversation along the subjects of your interest. Rose felt no obligation to stay on a topic chosen by another during a conversation, nor did she feel obliged to remain on a subject of her own choosing.
She said, “Laura has everything to do with my story.”
Exasperated, Rose said, “Because she’s ideal to Paul and everyone else in his family.”
I asked, “Was Laura’s name mentioned by you or by Paul in whatever happened after the last session?”
“No,” Rose admitted.
“So how did she get into the story you’re telling now?”
“My mom may have brought it up.”
“What do you mean?”
Rose replied, “Well, we were talking about the divorce in the kitchen while the guys were watching baseball. My mom asked me if Paul was with Laura now. I asked why she was asking about Laura. She remembered meeting Laura at our wedding and noticing how pretty she was. I almost asked her if Laura was prettier at my wedding than I was, but I didn’t because when you ask my mom a question you’ve got to be prepared for her answer; she can be brutally direct. She said she saw how Laura looked at Paul and how Paul’s parents looked at Laura. They were all wearing happy faces but by mom thought they were sad.
“My mom said, ‘Laura is beautiful; she tries to hide it and that makes her lovely. She’s your husband’s oldest friend; his parents look at her adoringly, and she’s not married. Of course she’s potential trouble. And at the wedding I didn’t know how accomplished she was.’ So Laura’s even my mom’s ideal! That’s why Laura matters.”
I decided to blunder into an attempt to find out what was going on with Rose because this kind of a start decreased the session’s probability of progress to somewhere near zero. “Rose, do you think Paul is with Laura?”
“I don’t know,” Rose replied.
“Is it important to you?”
“Apparently, it’s important to my mom, so yes, it’s important to me.”
“Do you want to ask him?”
“No,” Rose declared. “I want him to tell me.”
“What?” I asked, mystified.
“He should just tell me; I shouldn’t have to ask,” Rose insisted.
“Why should he tell you? What difference would it make?”
“He’s still my husband, isn’t he?”
“He is still your husband, but from everything I’ve seen and heard, the marriage has been over since he moved out. I know you’ve told me — more than once — that the marriage is over.”
Rose ignored me and said, “If he’s with her, he’s happy. Meanwhile, I’m alone nursing a baby. The only male companionship I have is a father and brothers who sit in front of the TV, drink beer and make what they call masculine noise. I don’t want Paul to be happy; I want him to be as miserable as I am.”
I said, “That’s a typical response to a situation like yours, so what you’re feeling is normal.”
Rose shot back, “I don’t think we are here to have you tell us whether we’re normal or abnormal.”
I asked, “So, why are you here?”
In the next letter I’ll explain why this wasn’t a simple question and the complex answers it evoked.
— 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.