Dawn: “Couples often have difficulty agreeing who has what of the contents of the house. Yet lawyers and the Courts will very rarely want to get involved in the division of contents, simply because the cost of arguing over such things often exceeds the value of the contents by a very considerable margin.”
Mary: “One solution might be to go round the house with coloured stickers taking it in turns to choose, with a friend to help you – and a glass of wine! This debate can cause huge bad feeling. There’s no special “right answer”, just what people work out that they can live with.”
Dawn: “When couples can’t agree the division on contents, if pushed, a Judge may order the sale of everything, or that they bid for what they want. Why do some people struggle so much with this?”
Mary: “Many reasons. They have exhausted compromise or they’re afraid of the waiting void, the silence. After years in a conflicted relationship, people may struggle to leave that conflict. Also, often they simply can’t bear to feel they might lose the last argument!”
Dawn: “So … they could sort it out, but unconsciously they don’t or can’t you mean?”
Mary: “Yes, but the conflict has to go somewhere and attaches to things of which the worst may be totems or ginger jars (a.k.a “this is our ditch it and we will die in it”).
Dawn: “You must explain that!”
Mary: “Totems or ginger jars are often a symptom of subconscious, deep psychological or emotional aspects of a relationship. A totem is often some legal principle like the “clean break” on spousal maintenance or inherited property, but couples can get completely hung up on those issues. There are accustomed ways of dealing with them and it is best not to resist the conventions, but none of that matters to them – they are implacable! A ginger jar often has no value and no legal or practical significance at all, but it becomes infused with immense importance – granny’s old photos or the children’s Monopoly. When people look back it won’t matter, but it matters immensely at the time.”
Dawn: “I know what you mean – people can be totally adamant about something relatively unimportant and the fact that there may be accepted ways of dealing with it just don’t matter to them. Nor do they care they’ll spend more arguing over the principle than it is worth. People may cling to their ginger jar until the death.”
Mary: “OK – but some people need a ginger jar, it’s the last argument no one can lose! I tell people in advance if I think there’ll be something they can’t agree – then when we get to arguing over the food mixer, after everything else is sorted, they may even see the funny side and that is a good result!”
Author: Mary Banham-Hall LLB FMCA, Family Mediator, Milton Keynes & Bedford
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