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Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 11:02 pm | Light Rain Fog/Mist 59º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 83) — ‘Drifting’ Mediation Clients

Dear Nick and Dear Nora:

Herding cattle; drifting longhorns.

Cowboys herd or drive ordinary cattle; I’ve read, however, that longhorns are drifted from one place to another. Mediation clients won’t be herded or driven. It is often possible, however, to drift them from where they are to where they have told me they want to be.

In the last three letters I’ve described how I’ve worked to drift Paul away from his belief that he’s bound by his immediate thoughts and feelings — and toward the idea he has some control over both. Once there, I asked him to consider the possibility that he might be able to make at least a few deliberate decisions about his behavior toward Rose.

I don’t know who drifted whom, but in the last letter I reported the story Paul told me about his friend, Laura, and his parents. They were able to reframe an incident in which Rose used her histrionics to hurt Laura personally and in a way that could damage her hard-earned professional standing.

Laura, instead accepting the part of the innocent victim, deliberately characterized the incident as one where Rose helped her see that she can injure without intent, and that her near-divine power as a physician can be taken from her in an instant. Laura values humility but she hasn’t had many opportunities to feel humble, so she decided Rose had given her an experience she needed and will never forget. While she’s still feeling Rose’s sting, she’s confident she’ll soon be grateful to Rose for the lesson and for the efficient and effective way it was taught.

Paul understands the story is about the power to first seek or create an attitude that can help accomplish a goal and then find a way to discipline oneself into assuming that attitude. By telling me the tale, Paul has created his own psychological template better than any I could have given him. I believe he now has enough confidence in his ability to deal with Rose that he’ll be able to give me some time and room to work with her.

                                                                         •        •

Impasses of Divorce, published in 1988, is one of the few classics in the field. Janet Johnston and Linda Campbell worked with a small sample of 80 very “difficult” divorcing families. They postulated that the causes of impasse fall into three major categories; they divided each into subcategories that served as tentative “diagnoses.” For each diagnosis they suggest one or more interventions.

At the first diagnostic level, impasses are fueled by External Influence. Families, friends, lawyers and judges are the usual suspects. The diagnostic questions have to do with whether there are people with an active influence on the mediation who are not at the mediation table. Being absent for the real process makes it possible to:

» Consider only one version of the facts.

» Consider their own notion of the applicable law — usually what they think it should be.

» Avoid responsibility for the effects of their advice when it is followed.

When mediation is being sabotaged by an External Influence, the treatment of choice is to identify the peanut gallery and invite them to one or more sessions.

I wanted to test the hypothesis that the divorce challenged Rose’s standing in her own powerful family of origin. If so, my second hypothesis was that she and her family colluded to demonize and punish Paul as a way of avoiding the more sensitive and vital issue of Rose’s shame. The term shame is used in different ways and should always come with a definition. Here, I use it to describe a form of social control by which the subject/victim is excluded from the tribe, group or family, usually for a reason over which she has no control. In a primitive setting it means death, and we can all summon up the dread of involuntary exclusion from a group of which we want to be a part — whether we’ve had the experience or not.

Rose’s family role has been to be desirable in a feminine way. Her objectives, fully supported by her family, were to find and acquire a desirable mate, to create a stable secondary family and to produce desirable children. She had it all, but after only two months she turned into a single mother. It wasn’t what any of them had in mind.

The other members of Rose’s family of origin are happily involved in sports and the grease business. It’s a masculine culture, and it doesn’t sound like Rose — as a girl or as a woman — had a chance of being an integral part of it. She was an ancillary project. Can her family find a place for her as a single mother? Is there a place in the grease business for her? Can she learn to like football if she isn’t a cheerleader?

I decided to dive into what could be the source of a long-lasting impasse.

“Rose, I’d like to know more about you and your family. You told me you went to visit them every other weekend and your parents — especially your mother — came to Santa Barbara when you weren’t in Los Angeles with the whole family. Is that right?”

“Yes, pretty much.”

“You told me your parents and your brothers are all furious with Paul, and he’s the subject of ongoing conversation.”

“Yes. I have to hand it to Paul, his thoughtless, inconsiderate, cruel behavior is an ongoing source of new material for the conversation.”

“When you visit them, how long do you stay?”

“I might get there in the early afternoon, stay for dinner and leave for home between 7 and 8.”

“About six hours. Surely you don’t talk about Paul the whole time. How does that conversation start?”

“You have to know my family to understand. When I arrive, everyone will be watching a sporting event. My mom or my aunt might be cooking or making snacks, but otherwise they’ll all be sitting in front of my dad’s huge, gross TV screen with my brothers and their friends. If my mom’s in the kitchen, she’ll ask about how I’m doing and what has happened during the week. Then we go in with the guys. During a commercial, my dad or one of my brothers will ask what Paul has done in the last week. I tell or my mom tells. Then I tell what I did back to Paul. Sometimes they will yell and clap, and other times they’ll tell me what I should have done.”

“Does the conversation stop when the game comes back on?”

“It goes into suspension. There might be three or four commercials or station breaks when no one says anything about me. There are so many commercials and breaks in professional football, I don’t see how anyone can remember what’s going on in the game. Anyway, the subject of my divorce pops back up, again and again. At dinner I get words of wisdom from my dad and sometimes everyone else, including my brothers’ friends — both male and female. People who don’t even know me are telling me how to live my life. It would be awful if they weren’t so funny. Even when my brothers are talking about doing deliciously horrible things to Paul, they’re funny about it.”

“Is your divorce the main topic of conversation when you’re at home?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Overall, is your family’s concern and interest supportive of you?”

“Well … yeah.”

“Do you want to qualify that answer?”

“I guess. I tell them that things are a certain way and I’m a certain way. They support me by saying, ‘It’s OK, Rose; you’re OK, Rose.’ I feel they are there for me as long as my life is completely screwed up, but I don’t know if they think I’ll pull myself together or whether they think I am a big, hopeless loser.” Rose begins to cry.

I ask, “Is there a way you can continue being ‘a mess’?”

“Sure, I fight with Paul. I get him to do stupid things, which isn’t hard. Since this is all on him, I can be as crazy as I need to be to get him to screw up. If I act crazy it’s because of what he’s done to me. I’ve got him, and I think he knows it.”

“OK, say your family wants you to stay messy. How long do you think it can go on? I mean, how many more six-hour visits can there be when the story of your ongoing divorce is the main topic of conversation? Really, won’t they get bored with it at some point?”

“It will be awhile. I might get bored with it before they do, but that’s not going to be soon.”

“So the purpose of mediation for you is to punish Paul — and hopefully get him to react to what you say and do in ways that are stupid, either during or between mediation sessions. Then you can report back to your family with new material for the Great Divorce Conversation.”

“OK, that sounds bad, but after what he’s done to me, he’s very lucky I’m willing to come to this office to confront him here by myself. I don’t think he’d like to have these conversations with my dad or my brothers. So as far as I’m concerned, he better take whatever I have to dish out and be grateful it’s here and not in the streets or in a courtroom.”


“Yes! Punishment … until I’ve made him feel as bad as he’s made me feel.”

“How long will that take?”

“As long as possible.”


“No. He doesn’t get miserable in the same way I do. He’s always running at a low level of misery, so it doesn’t show.”

“Rose, I have two things I want you to think about between now and our next meeting.”


“I’m thinking of recommending — maybe insisting — that your parents attend an upcoming mediation session.”


“You said that Paul was lucky that your father and your brothers weren’t here. That’s probably true, but I wonder if it would be good for both of you to have your mother and father here.”

Rose is a good actor. Her facial features and body language say at once: “That’s absurd,” “The idea frightens me,” “You are a fool,” “Well, as long as it doesn’t have to be any time soon.”

“Eventually you and Paul have to figure out how to live your lives apart while raising your child. Then you’ll have to figure out your role in your family of origin — you know, your mother, father, brothers.”


I think this is probably a move that Rose is putting on me. I think she knows exactly what I mean by “role.”

“Yes. Everyone else is involved in the business. They don’t just have jobs. They each have a function they do better than anyone else, and they all like what they are doing. At the same time, each one seems to be recognized by the others for being particularly good at one or more sports, which gets reinforced every weekend. So when they are done with the drama of your divorce, where and how are you going to fit in?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t want an answer now or next week. I want you to think about bringing your parents to a mediation session, and I want you to think about what your role will be in your original family.”

“Are you going to ask me these questions in front of Paul?”

“Maybe I’ll talk about bringing your parents to a session. We won’t talk about the other stuff when he’s here.”

“This isn’t fun.”

“Maybe that’s a sign of progress.”

Your friend,

— 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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