Doing mediation with high conflict couples requires a model that is especially suited to them
There you are sitting in your lovely office in your favorite chair enjoying the serenity of the moment. Your office light goes on, and within a few minutes a couple walks in for their first mediation session. As soon as they sit down you can feel a tension in the room that you'd have to be numb not to recognize. In a short time the calmness you were experiencing will most likely become only a memory.
Hardly settling into their respective chairs the couple opens with,"We don't do too well with professionals, especially the last six. You possibly begin to think, "I'm in for trouble."
But you start to ask some preliminary questions. With each question that you ask, the couple continuously interrupts or corrects one another before any answer can be completed. Again you wonder to yourself, " How in the world am I going to ever get to the tougher questions? Pursuing further you inquire about the major issues that they are going to need to address. The husband responds, " I believe we need to come to some understanding about spousal support. The words are barely out of his mouth and the wife retorts, "There's no use in discussing that with a man as cheap and devious as you and who never did want to take care of me." Unable to curtail these eruptions and noticing that you are not even past the first half hour, you may start to feel a tightness in your chest and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
Welcome to the world of the high conflict couple during their ultimate moment...the divorce process.
Divorcing someone that you have many attachments with is a difficult experience in the best of times. In the hands of the high conflict couple, divorce often feels like the great crippler. It becomes a scene of high drama, with each partner displaying their most primitive attack styles. The movie War of the Roses while slightly exaggerated is not far from the truth. The object of this article is to help you understand this type of couple, so that divorce mediation can become a viable alternative to the more typical adversarial courtroom situation which they are prone to create. Furthermore, it is my perspective that most mediation models need to be modified in order to accommodate the particular nature of these couples, and I will show you how to accomplish that.
Before I share with you the specific ways of working with this couple, I want to make sure we are looking at the same combatants. There are several characteristics inherent in this couple.
Quite often for the high conflict couple, divorce is not something that occurs after a period of time, since the threat of ending the relationship is an ongoing part of the relationship. They borrow from Shakespeare the phrase "To be or not to be." as they take turns using this as a weapon during many of their hostile altercations. One of the partners may be more overt with the threat, but you can bet that the other has had the thought on numerous occasions.
The presence of constant fighting is an understatement with this couple. In fact, there are rarely any issues that do not provide material for their angry and righteous interchanges. No topic is too small, since every disagreement is taken as a personal afront that requires defending or attacking of the other. Thus the divorce situation with its numerous decisions provides a field day for this couple, duplicating the power struggles inherent in their marriage.. The high conflict couple tends to make frequent comparisons as to who is the most hurt, unloved, or has the least commitment. These so called imbalances provide enormous fuel for the rage that is so prevalent between them. After all, when you can sustain the belief that you have been the one who has been hurt the most in a relationship, it enables you to feel justified to hurl any insult at the other and perform any outrageous act. When this attitude is brought into the divorce arena, it translates into one huge YOU OWE ME with attorneys and therapists alike added to the chorus.
Finally, you will experience very little actual dialogue from this couple, as they love to talk in monologues with almost no indication of any doubt as to their view of the other. At the point in which either one of them has built up a sufficient case that the other is truly a relationship cripple, divorce becomes the alternative of choice.
If the high conflict couple chooses mediation rather than going into a court, it is a tenuous pursuit at best, typically motivated by external costs such as hurting the children or spending exorbitant monies on legal bills. It is definitely not due to any great desire for a respectful, harmonious, amicable end for the marriage. Both motivations mentioned are fragile and can be lost sight of in a second when their emotional fears and hurts take over the scene.
As a mediator faced with the blow-up of the process or a sensing that the couple is merely going through the motions of cooperating with the task at hand, you are faced with several choices. You can hope that the couple fits into your mediation model, find some forceful way to get them to follow your mediation process, or create a model that reflects and takes into consideration the nature of the high conflict couple.
For those who are interested in the latter, there are four things that need to be taken into account:
Couples who are too intense cannot do typical mediation because their emotionality precludes listening or focusing.
High conflict couples are filled with all kinds of negative associations which trigger reactivity, from just looking at the other or hearing their partners say the slightest thing. This greatly inhibits communication.
Couples at this level of intensity cannot relate and agree on extremely sensitive issues that have long-standing consequences.
High conflict couples are very powerful in their commitment to create heat and escalate the relationship into chaos. Thus, any model that you use needs to be just as powerful in reducing heat as the high conflict couple is in creating it.
In order to meet these unique demands, I have created the mutual divorce mediation model that addresses the nature of the high conflict couple and is best implemented by an interdisciplinary team of divorce professionals consisting of two collaborative attorneys, a mediator, two therapist coaches, and a financial planner or accountant. The attorneys agree to focus on fixing the problem rather than fixing the blame. In addition they sign a disqualification stipulation, which states that they will leave the process if the couple chooses an adversarial path with the court becoming the ultimate judge and not the participants. The finance professionals work towards dealing with the division of the assets in a neutral, objective manner. All of the professionals involved maintain their focus on dissolving any and all attempts at polarization.
The basic principles of the model are:
The model creates a safe container that truly respects their brittle and explosive nature and doesn't try to force them into being anyone they are not.
The model is designed to contain the rage of the couple without denying its existence.
The model offers a real alternative for communication beyond defending and blaming.
The model is just as powerful in reducing heat as the couple is in raising the heat.
The model allows for increases in responsibility when the couple demonstrates that they can handle it.
The model permits a couple to operate from a distance that is emotionally suitable for them.
The model assists in balancing the extreme imbalances, real or imagined, that exist.
The model insures that both voices will be heard.
The structure of the mutual divorce mediation model involves four stages. Some couples are able to skip certain stages depending on the level of their intensity. Before beginning the process, each partner is given a coach and a collaborative attorney whose sole purpose is to represent their individual needs and interests throughout all the stages. This contrasts with the usual model wherein the mediators attempt to remain neutral at all times. With each partner having their own coach and attorney, it provides them the security that their voice will be heard and that someone is on their side. This lessens their need to interrupt and make continuous demands. It needs to be noted that at no time will the coaches or attorneys express any hostility or put down of the other partner. Their task is to implement the process and not add to the escalation.
During the first stage, the coaches and attorneys meet privately with their respective partners in order to get a sense of their position, needs, feelings, and interests. They keep asking questions until they feel they have a clear picture of each partner and could easily talk for them.
In the second stage, the coaches or the attorneys represent each member of the couple and dialogue with their counterpart with the couple listening. In engaging in this way, the intensity is totally eliminated since the couple merely observes. This enables them to experience the discussion of their mutual needs and interests voiced at a safe, unemotional distance. This sets the tone for the focus to be on the task at hand without any emotional drama. It also takes into account the fact that this couple is not ready to talk directly and doesn't ask them to participate in a discussion they are not ready to handle. To do so would only create a premature failure.
By the third stage, the couple is now invited to engage in the process but is still not allowed to talk directly to the other. Instead, all talking occurs through the coaches and or attorneys. For example, the husband may express a need to the wife's coach who would then relay the message on. The wife in turn can respond to the husband's coach who will deliver the statement to him. It continues in this manner until the issue is resolved. The filtering through the coaches keeps the process free of any hostility directed at the other, and provides a buffer zone for the couple.
If the couple seems to have mastered the other stages and demonstrates a reduction in intensity, drama, and power trips, then they are asked to dialogue directly with the other for the first time. However, the coaches or attorneys remain at their sides at all times, and it is understood that they will reenter the process if the couple regresses into their old behavior.
Other professionals, such as the financial planner and accountant are brought into the process when it is appropriate to resolve a particular feeling of inequality in the areas of support and equalization. They maintain the same core attitudes of collaboration congruent with the other professionals. As you can see in this model, responsibility is earned and is not just given out with no regard to who is involved. Also the coaches and the attorneys are constantly monitoring the power ploys of the couple, and are using themselves to equalize all mismatches. This reduces the opportunity for one partner to use their greater ability in the areas of logic, emotionality, or articulation to the disadvantage of the other.
In conclusion, this approach allows the divorce professional to fit the model to the couple rather than make the couple fit the model. The high conflict couple is then respected for who they are and is not asked to be what they are not.
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This article was originally published at The Relationship Doctor Bruce Derman. Reprinted with permission from the author.