Warring parents make peace
I mediated child arrangements between a mother and father – I’ll call them Jill and John. John hadn’t seen his 4-year-old son for 7 weeks. He said he had never experienced such emotional pain. He was agitated when I saw him alone at the Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAMs) and even more so at the first joint mediation session with Jill. Jill was clearly distressed too, she suffered from anxiety and her panic attacks had escalated since the conflict between them.
I saw them apart for the first mediation session and I went between them working out what had gone wrong – but without them meeting. Jill feared a panic attack if they came face to face. During their shuttle mediation, I was able to identify issues and concerns and helped them get some insights into the conflict and how they played a part in it. They began to see each other’s perspective and to think about what they needed from each other to move forward. I was relaying their thoughts, fears and feelings – to create a shared understanding. Sometimes this type of mediation helps ease anxious clients into face to face mediation and in some cases it’s the only way to mediate.
Both clients were tearful at the joint session and worried about the effect their conflict was having on their son Sam. He was clingy and unhappy at school – not his usual confident self. John had asked his solicitor to apply to court for a child arrangement order – he didn’t think mediation would help and he worried it would just cause delay, he wanted a judge to tell Jill she had to let him see Sam – he wanted a court order. His solicitor urged him to try one session before issuing court proceedings. These parents had hurt each other very much and were no longer able to speak. John used to collect his son every Friday from school and then he would bring him back to Jill’s home on a Saturday evening, but communication had deteriorated and each had a long list of examples when the other had been insensitive, selfish, controlling or hurtful. As is often the way, their accusations against one another were almost a mirror image. They were both feeling similar hurts and fears.
After a particularly unpleasant altercation about Sam, each issued ultimatums and John refused to return Sam to Jill, who said she could no longer trust John, and so she insisted contact took place in her home or at a Contact Centre. John wouldn’t agree to this and thought Jill was deliberately trying to damage his relationship with his son. Jill told me this was a temporary arrangement in a crisis so John would have to listen to her, but John was too angry to hear or accept this. Communication after this degenerated to angry text messages. “I’ll take you to court.” texted John “Go on – do it!” came the response. John feared court was his only option – yet neither wanted to go to court.
Joint mediation session with Jill & John
After separate Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAMs) we started the joint mediation session in separate rooms. Each was willing to listen and be flexible – whilst being convinced the other would not and that they were wasting their time. I encouraged them to listen carefully to one another and to put their son’s needs first. I fed back what each was saying to the other in a calm way, which meant they could get the sense of what the other was saying instead of reacting in a panicky way to the other’s fury. Anger simply escalates conflict so no one can understand what the other person is saying, as they are too flooded with emotion to hear. Their concerns when voiced by me seemed understandable. I was using mediation skills to improve communication, looking towards the future and not dwelling on the past – as it can’t be changed and people don’t agree what happened.
Mediators translate issues into understandable language. For example in a work place two colleagues had fallen out. Ben said Sally was a slob and had turned their shared office into a dump. I’d focus on what Ben needed from Sally so they could share an office more harmoniously. I would reword what Ben said, removing personal insults, so Sally could understand Ben needed a tidy environment to work and I’d identify clearly understandable and specific problems, so Sally knew exactly what to do. She would need to know Ben didn’t dislike her personally – but it was her dirty mugs in the kitchen and smelly food in the fridge that drove Ben mad. Then she could put that right and not feel rejected as a person. By removing the criticism and name calling the mediator re-focuses on needs, removes judgement and opens up a route to a more positive future. Mediating some jointly formulated ground rules about the issues that were causing trouble would help. As both parties have shaped these rules and agreed to them they are far more likely to keep to them than if they’ve been demanded and they feel ‘told’ and ‘bullied.’
Back to Jill and John; both said they had tried very hard at first to remain amicable for the sake of their son. We began exploring the issues and discussing what had worked in the past and what hadn’t worked so well. Then something happened halfway through the session which completely changed the dynamics. Jill asked John to come into her mediation room, so they could speak face to face. Jill was worried they wouldn’t get the agreement Sam so badly needed in separate rooms. They needed to be able to be able to talk to co-parent him – and she wanted me to help them to do that. I reminded her we could stop for a break or even to end the mediation at any time. John realised what a huge concession this was and he softened. He saw a light at the end of the tunnel – maybe mediation could help them move forward and co-parent again? When they met in the same room he thanked Jill and then made a spontaneous and heartfelt apology. He said he was sorry for his part in what had gone wrong and then Jill said she had also made mistakes and they both accepted responsibility for their part in the conflict. This was a very positive start and a huge turning point.
Sometimes it just takes one person to show vulnerability or to be sorry to create the movement in mediation necessary for change. They began to talk and wondered how they had let the situation escalate. Why hadn’t they sat down and thrashed this out earlier on? They were both genuinely bewildered to start with – but then realised they were both too afraid and angry to back down. When a breakthrough occurs –which it often does in mediation – the solutions seem so simple and obvious. However, often couples stuck in conflict need some outside help from an impartial professional before they are able to understand and end the circular nature of their conflict. Mediation takes place in a safe and neutral environment – the mediator is truly impartial and does not take sides. Couples can signal hope of change by agreeing to attend. They are helped to resolve problems and issues and to end their conflict instead of perpetuating it in a stuck way.
Jill and John had more work to do in mediation. However, they left the session with an arrangement for their son to see John very soon. They communicated with a newfound respect for one another and a determination not to fall back into old negative patterns of communication. They started to work towards creating new boundaries and shared understandings of how they could build a parenting alliance that they could work within safely and which would benefit Sam hugely. Realistically, this was never going to happen by accident – how could it? Mediation was the only way they could achieve this. I love my work and John and Jill went home smiling and relieved.
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Warring parents make peace