Saturday, June 23 , 2018, 12:20 am | Fog/Mist 60º

 
 
 
 

Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 71) — Can Paul Control His Feelings?

The last letter concluded with a description of my conversation with Rose after she came to a session with a dog and an infant to “show Paul what he was leaving and losing.” This wasn’t on Paul’s agenda, but it was conscious behavior used by Rose to work her way out of the first stage of grief, which is to deny the loss has occurred. Seen this way, what Rose did was essential to the creation of conditions that are necessary for Paul to be able to accomplish what he’s come to mediation to do.

Paul waited while I talked to Rose. My best guess was that he had built up a head of steam he could use to show me how angry he was at Rose. While he could justify his anger, the fact remains that he was leaving his wife six weeks after the birth of their child. Getting angry with Rose wouldn’t get him anywhere, but I didn’t think he’d be ready to hear me say it directly (even though that’s what I would have preferred to do).

My thoughts returned to what Paul had done while I was talking to Rose. Did he use the time to fuel his anger or to defuse the effect of his emotional reactions? I decided to start the conversation by sidestepping what had happened during the meeting and focused instead on what he had done with those few minutes.

“Paul, what did you do while you were waiting for me to talk with Rose?”

“I went downstairs for a cup of coffee — a latte.”

“Did you sit at a table?”

“Yes.”

“While you were sitting at the table with the latte, what did you do with your mind?”

“Do with my mind?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t do anything with my mind.”

The purpose of my conversation with Paul was to enhance the probabilities of a successful mediation. If a mediation client does not believe that he or she has power to make choices about thoughts and feelings, the possibility that he can is a revelation that will strengthen the mediation and promote the client’s mental health for the rest of his or her life.

When I raise the subject with some people, the response is “I know” and nothing else has to be said. With others the response will be defensive and will range from, “What are you talking about?” to “That’s crazy!”

Here I saw a chance to break through Paul’s defenses if I could think of exactly the right thing to say. This is what’s called an “intervention.” I knew from experience that I had one chance to come up with the right words. If I didn’t get it on the first try, the moment would be lost.

I couldn’t think of what to say, so I resorted to my basic rule for mediation: “When in doubt, do nothing — deliberately.” I said nothing. Paul didn’t know my rule; to him, I simply employed the power of silence.

Before long he said, “I don’t do anything to my mind; my mind does things to me.”

“Do you try to influence how your mind makes you feel?”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“OK. When Rose told you that you had to take Popsicle tomorrow morning or she was going to the pound, did you experience a rush of anger?”

“Of course I did.”

“You got a sudden burst of outrage. It triggered the release or creation of a bunch of neurochemicals that energized your mind and reminded you that you’re alive. Was it that way for you?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Well, I’m guessing you’ve had similar energizing encounters with Rose during your courtship and marriage. It may even be something you like about her.”

“That’s almost true. You might not believe me, but I didn’t wake up one morning and think, ‘I don’t like it here and I’m going to leave. Too bad about the baby.’ I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I can’t stand living with Rose. I’ve also thought about what she could do or what I could do to change things. There’s nothing. What you said is right. I did like confrontations with her because she’s good at it and so am I. But she’s much better; she always wins, and when I’m with her I always feel like a loser. I’m not a loser and I’m not going to live my life like a loser. I’m not going to let that happen anymore.”

“I want to make sure I understand what you’ve told me. One characteristic of your relationship with Rose is that it has always been infused with interpersonal conflict. It’s a kind of conflict you have enjoyed, and it is something you are good at. But Rose is better, and she’s beaten down your sense of yourself to the point where you must disengage as an act of self-preservation.”

“Those are bigger words than I would use but, yes, you understand.”

“Do you think you will be able to disengage with her by maintaining conflict?”

Another long silence.

“Yes. I will be stronger and meaner than she can be because this is a matter of life and death to me. But I can’t let this thing drag on; the longer it goes, the easier it will be for her to wear me down.”

Paul has revealed his reliance on what is the basic War Metaphor to describe and explain his experience of divorce. It is a bad metaphor because it is inaccurate; yet, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I decided that this was not the time to take on the metaphor that’s central to his thinking because I doubt that he could hear, literally, the challenge. Instead, I tried to stay on the subject of his feelings and his mind.

“So you will use the fear created by the threat to self-preservation to stay as angry as you can until it’s over.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“When you were drinking the latte, did you use fear to stoke the anger inspired by Rose?”

“I guess so.”

“Did it work?”

“Are you asking if I got angrier?”

“I’m asking if you were able to cause yourself to get angrier.”

“I think I did.”

“Paul, we are going to meet again for a longer session on Friday. Between now and then it would be useful for you to think about two things.”

“OK.”

“You told me that you don’t do anything to your mind because your mind does everything to you. You also just told me that you were able to use fear to stoke the anger sparked by Rose’s behavior. Are those two conclusions consistent?”

“I don’t understand what you are getting at.”

“I’m suggesting that as humans we may have the power to influence or even control our feelings and emotions. I should say the potential power to control feelings and emotions. You told me that it’s the opposite for you. You think you are controlled by what your mind does to you. Could it be the other way around?”

“I’ll think about it, but I’ll tell you right now that, to me, the way I feel is pretty much who I am.”

“That's a remarkably good insight and it sets up a problem. If who you are is how you feel, but you have the power to influence how you feel, who are you? It’s a terrific paradox. Then there’s a deeper issue of believing something to be true or false on the basis of the effect of your conclusion and not on the basis of evidence.”

“I understand. I can’t promise to remember, but I understand.”

“We can come back to it. The second question has two parts.

“First: You have the statistics for South Santa Barbara County. You know that the average interval between separation and entry of judgment is 29.9 months (sbdivorcearchives.com). What makes your case different from the average?

“Second: If you must prevail in a conflict with Rose to get what you need, how good are your chances when she’s the better fighter, her rage is supported by virtually everyone she knows — and by most of the people you know — and when time is going to work against you?”

Your friend,
Bucky

— 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 [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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