Dear Pinky and Spike:
“Shut-up!" "No, you shut up!" "No, you …”
This session got off to a rocky start. Rose reported that she and Paul got into a loud argument after the conclusion of the previous session. Within seconds Rose declared, “I’m here so I can be with Paul in a place where he can’t yell at me.”
Paul couldn’t resist saying, “Rose, I don’t yell at you.”
I interjected, “Yes, you do; no, I don’t; yes, you do; no, I don’t … . Can we put a stop to this exchange so we can work on something else? Incidentally, did you talk about the question of whether or not Paul yells at you with any of the therapists you saw while you were married?”
Rose said, “We’re still married.”
I said, “Fair enough. Did you talk about ‘yelling’ with any of the therapists you saw while you were married and living together?”
At the same time, Paul and Rose exclaimed, “All of them!”
I said, “Then I don’t think we’re going to solve it today.”
Paul said, “There’s nothing to solve. I don’t yell at Rose. If I did, I’d be yelling right now because this topic is so old and stupid!”
I asked, “Rose, what’s it like when Paul yells at you?”
Rose answered, “He sounds like a big, strict school teacher who’s making me be in trouble.”
I said, “Making me be in trouble … what does that mean?”
Rose said, “It’s what teachers do to bully kids … make them feel like they did something wrong when they didn’t.”
I asked, “Did that happen to you often?”
“It happened enough, but I never thought I’d have a husband who would bully me like a school girl.”
Paul spoke up: “We’ve been through this a thousand times. This is what I can make of it: Rose feels bullied whenever I don’t do or say exactly what she wants. If I don’t — didn’t because I don’t want to do it anymore — I’m bullying her. What’s worse is that sometimes she doesn’t know what she wants! I hate bullies, and I hate being called a bully.”
“Then don’t be,” Rose said.
“Well,” I said, “what do you think happened during the exchange we’ve just had?”
“Once again I’ve been called a bully by Rose,” Paul said.
“Paul has once again been a bully, and I called him on it,” Rose said.
I asked, “Would you describe this exchange as intimate?”
“It’s hostile,” Rose said.
“It’s stupid,” Paul said.
“Paul, you participated in this exchange. I think you tried to keep out of it at first but then you joined in with a defense. I don’t have any way to tell if what you said was true, but it made sense to me. Do you think it was stupid?”
Paul answered, “I don’t think that what I said was stupid. What was stupid was to say anything at all. Rose will never convince me that I’m a bully and I’ll never convince her that I’m not. To her it seems like Paul equals bully, end of story. There’s nowhere to go with that conversation. If it has to take place, Rose should have it with herself.”
“Do either of you remember me talking about the false- or quasi-bargaining that takes place during all divorces?”
Paul said, “Sort of.”
Rose said, “Not really.”
I said, “I’ve given you both plenty of written material on the subject, but I’ll explain it again. Then I’ll explain it again and again. I don’t know if the explanation will be understood, but, by insisting that you are normal, I am trying to keep you doing what you’re doing until you’re done with it. The experience of Stage III is unpleasant, normal and finite.
“During this stage of the grief process you will talk about working out a settlement, but you’ll find that you either start to go around in circles or you get sidetracked like you did this morning. While there’s an apparent lack of progress on designing a settlement, you are working on three tasks on an unconscious level. They are:
» Finding or creating a non-intimate way to communicate;
» Finding or creating a non-intimate way to do business with each other; and
» Becoming more and more realistic about the terms of the eventual settlement.
“These tasks have to be completed before your case can become ripe for settlement.”
I finished with, “There is a great New Yorker cartoon with barking dogs in opposite apartment windows. They alternate saying, ‘Shut up,’ and ‘No, you shut up!’ The captions go back and forth in a way similar to what was going on here. It is unpleasant to listen to and it is no doubt unpleasant to participate in — but it is intimate.”
Rose said, “I don’t get why you think it’s intimate …”
“Is there anyone else in the world with whom you would have that kind of conversation?”
Rose answered, “I’ll have to think about it.”
“OK, that’s a good assignment for both of you. There are really two questions to think about and to discuss at our next session: 1) Who are the other people with whom you could have a conversation like the one you just had, and 2) What caused the argument after the last mediation session?”
Rose tried for the last word. “By the time I got to my car I was crying and a nice man looked at Paul and said, ‘What have you done to her?’”
I said, “Really?”
Paul said, “Yeah, ‘really.’ It’s not the first time it’s happened. It makes me feel about one inch tall. It also makes me want to attack the guy who’s taking Rose’s side — one of her many rescuers.”
“OK, Paul, for you there’s a third exercise. How could you have acted differently when the guy asked, ‘What have you had done to her?’”
“You mean, what could I have done other than slither away like a snake?”
“Yes, a response that doesn’t slither.”
— 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.