I Should Have Told Them
She arrived at my office for the appointment looking chipper and relieved. He showed up twenty minutes later. Twice in the time it took to walk to my office he apologized by saying he got lost. When we sat down at the table I saw a man seemingly suffering from sleep deprivation.
It was not an untypical story for a couple exploring mediation as a way to alleviate some of the pain of terminating their marriage. I could see that the wife was, in her mind, already out of the marriage. She had plans for the future and she wanted to finalize the breakup.
The husband was on a totally different page. He took notes when he could bear to. He had very little to say and no questions to ask. It appeared he was still in the fog generated by being told his spouse wanted out. He was, in truth, lost.
If I had spoken magical words that would make everything better that day, he would have not have heard them. He was simply way behind in dealing with this new development in his life. Luckily, the mediation process provides the time to catch up.
I made no move to schedule their mediation, since they were there for a consultation only about mediation in general. That’s not to say they didn’t try to get into specifics. Snark raised its ugly head, along with broad accusations of conspiracy by her family. I had to state a number of times that we were not in mediation yet. We probably shouldn’t be, given his state of mind.
As usual, I told both of them they should feel free to call me if any questions arose. They left after the wife assured me they would be setting up an appointment in the near future. I watched them walk to the front door, each trying to keep an extra bit of distance from the other.
When I thought about the consultation later that day, I realized I should have told them more. Everyone knows that the three most important factors in real estate are all called location. In divorce mediation those three key factors are preparation, preparation, and preparation.
I should have told them I don’t just mean having the necessary documents and information with them. I mean having a plan for the next part of your life. That means where they will live, how they will deal with any children, how will they deal with their mutual friends, and who gets Fido.
I should have told them that if one spouse wants out, that divorce is going to happen sooner or later and it’s self-defeating to prolong the agony. The other spouse has to do what they can to come to terms with that inevitability.
I should have told them that, if they decide to mediate, both must identify what it is they need to get on their feet, and they must do that honestly.
I should have told them that when they negotiate they should keep in mind the other person’s needs along with their own. That’s not being altruistic. It’s because there are times negotiations can be made much easier when spouses are aware of what the other is looking for.
I should have told them to park the snark. Yes, there’s a real temptation to sock it to your soon-to-be ex, a feeling of triumph when you land a caustic comment on the person upending your world. But that feeling of ‘gotcha’ passes quickly and the end result can harden a heart like it was Pharaoh’s. You don’t want that. You’re going to be looking for concessions from your spouse, so you want to keep him or her positive about the process.
I should have told them not to treat their children as an objet d’art, something to put on the wall and delight in observing. Children begin trying to be individuals early on and only increase their efforts as they get older. They want to spend more and more time with their friends, too. Parents who will soon need to spend separate times with their children need to focus on making those periods quality times for all concerned.
I should have told them that the old Zen expression, “The only way out is through,” is especially germane to what they will go through. Neither one can run away from an issue because it’s scary. But they will have assistance from their mediator and should not be afraid.
But I did remind them that they are as capable of undoing the marital bond as they were of tying it in the first place. And that thought, I hope, will remain in their heads as they decide whether to mediate or battle it out in court as adversaries.
Ray Patterson is a divorce mediator. He can be reached at email@example.com.