It’s a regular Monday morning; it’s 9 am; my new mediation clients, Jenny and Steve, are in the waiting room; I observe they are sitting as far as possible from each other.  I notice their body language; both busy on their phones and completely ignoring each other. Not a great start.  It has taken quite a fight (and several weeks) to get them here; the fight included who would pay for the session and the babysitter…..

I am thinking to myself, at least they changed their minds about shuttle mediation and have agreed to sit in the same room to mediate; shuttle family mediation doesn’t work for me.

How am I going to engage them enough for them to want to work with me?

I have an intake meeting with Steve who immediately tells me he suspects Jenny of having had an affair with (probably) her fitness trainer – she has lost two stones in the past six months and is always at the gym.  He says she is a ‘terrible mother’, ‘rotten wife’ and ‘terrible housewife’; ‘the house is always a pit, she doesn’t have a job; we agreed she would stay at home with the kids and I would keep my job…but she does nothing all day but go to the gym’.  No respect or dignity here then.

” I know she’s gonna shaft me…she’s not having a penny from me and I want my kids 50% of the time.  She can go out and get a job like the rest of the world.  I’m not a cash-cow.  I’ve been online and googled divorce……fathers can get the children half of the time.  We’ll just split them.  I’ll pay the minimum CMS payments”.  I am thinking ‘this is not going to be easy’ and am reminded of Black LJ’s comment to a separating couple “childhoods slip away while you litigate over their futures”.

Jenny’s story is that Steve and she have ‘drifted apart’, she never meant to become pregnant with their second child (6 month-old Lucy); ‘I should listened to my mum and left Steve after the first was born’ (Sean, aged 3 years).  ‘I need my space, I can’t bear him to be in the house…. I can’t bear him near me’ and so on. 

I am thinking of the day to day psychological and physiological effects on Steve and Jenny of living with this level of conflict.

Mediator notes to self:

  1. Steve refers to their children as ‘my’ children.
  2. No mention from Jenny of another relationship.
  3. Is Jenny’s mum strongly opinionated in this?
  4. Are Steve and Jenny’s lawyers helpful?
  5. How am I going to de-escalate this level of animosity and get them into a working alliance?

Finding the key:

I see Jenny and Steve together.  They immediately start to argue about who is at fault and why they are breaking up.

I have to find a way to unlock this level of anxiety and acrimony.  I ask, “Do you have a photo of your children?” I am gratified that both scrabble for their phones to show me their latest pictures.  I feel this may be a point where a mediator can foster a level of connection and I encourage them to spend a few minutes looking at, and comparing photos.  I ask Steve and Jenny where each photo was taken and so on.

I say how beautiful their children are, and each parent takes a breath (or is it a sob?).  I go on to ask them what effect their current rancorous relationship might be having on their children.  They both say that they feel they ‘keep it away’ from the children –  “They never hear us arguing”.  They seem convinced that their children are untouched by this conflict.

I point out that they are their children’s role models for adult relationships.  They shift uncomfortably.  I say I can see how precious the children are to both of them and ask how they want each child to look back on this period in 10 years (pointing out that Sean will be 13 then and Lucy will be 10).  I ask, “Will you want them to say that their parents did their best?  Is this relationship between you the best you can offer your children?”  Each wells up with tears and is silent and reflective, possibly connected as parents for the first time in the meeting.  Eventually Jenny says softly, “No, this is not our best.  I think we can, and should, do better”.  Steve nods quietly as he wipes his eyes.

I think I have finally broken through the barrier, and am hopeful, for the first time,  that they will have shifted from blame and bitterness towards a more co-operative co-parenting partnership.