So many relationship problems seem to relate to the issue of control within those relationships, maybe its presence or absence defines the difference between those relationships which are sustainable and will last and those which are bound to either ultimately fail or lead to a position in which at least one person is trapped by force of circumstances only into staying in a destructive relationship.
One of the insights a mediator is given is the privilege of understanding the perspective of both of the couple in a dispute, it is part of the role. Something that I frequently hear each of the couple say in mediation is;
I feel controlled by the other person yet they will both say I deny controlling the other person.
How can that be? Can both feel controlled whilst being unaware that their own behaviour is perceived by the other to be controlling?
I think that the answer is yes, but calls for an explanation on which my take is the following.
When in conflict it is easy for fears to dominate thinking, fears are a very powerful emotion tapping into our most basic need to survive, and when we feel threatened the flight freeze or fight response is triggered. In an attempt to address fears we naturally attempt to control our environment, to make it feel a safer place to be. We then exercise such power as we have to provide that feeling of security, of being safe and again in control, thus okay. We exercise that power, that area in our lives over which we can exert control instinctively, out of a sense of self preservation, not consciously out of a need to diminish anyone else.
So what power is available in the context of a separating couple? What are the fears which stimulate the instinctive exercise of power?
There is that power which comes with possession of financial knowledge and control of the money. There is that power in the ability to exercise influence over children by the person with whom the children live and on whom the children are dependent, to whom they instinctively show the greater loyalty.
There is relationship power, to give or withhold cooperation, politeness, clarity and information that is held by only one of the couple.
The moment that a separation is perceived as likely, the instinct of self-preservation takes over, any focus on mutual interests disappears. Fears are fed by not only our own nightmares but also those around us who encourage us to portray ourselves as the victim of any situation, the other person as the aggressor. Self-interest is dominant.
We think fears are silenced by the exercise of such power as is available to us, we think it will give us security. However being on the receiving end of the exercise of such power generates ever greater fears in the other person, a spiral is created and the sense of being controlled follows.
So let’s take for example the mum who has never had to budget, because the dad has always paid the bills etc. Her greatest fear may be of not having the mortgage paid, or being cut off from electricity, or not being able literally to feed herself and the children, the loss of a home. These are fears of basic needs not being met.
Dad’s choice is one of the following, he could actually feed and increase those fears by not paying bills, he could leave her in a position of not knowing, allowing those fears to grow by doing and saying nothing, or exercising conscious choice he could actively recognise that fear and take steps to put her mind at rest. The latter would be the kind thing to do for another parent, but too often the anger arising from the ending of a relationship gets in the way. The first would undoubtedly call for an instinctive response in which mum protests maybe through lawyers, or exercises what power is available to her, and the circle of conflict will either grow or diminish depending on the course chosen.
Take another example, the Dad whose greatest fear is that he, having left home, will lose his relationship with his children. The Mum’s choices include the following, she could feed that fear by discouraging or actually impeding contact, she could undermine the Dad by criticisms of him or say his new partner, or, she could choose against her instincts and, putting her own sadness or anger aside, foster a good relationship between the children and their Dad by encouraging contact, overcoming obstacles and giving the children permission to love both parents, whatever she thinks of him as a partner.
The right choice in each case is counter intuitive, by doing something positive for the other parent when we are hurting, we deny our instinct to hurt another whom we feel has hurt us. However, one small positive action, one acknowledgement, one thank you, one kind word or action has the power to break that vicious cycle.
Every separating couple is faced with such choices at the time of separation.
Family lawyers are well placed to help clients who may understandably be in distress and fearful of the future as they address such issues, if they understand the dynamics above. Having first taken time to understand and acknowledge the fears of their own clients (rather than ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist) their aim should be to help their client to see the problem not as “the other person”, but rather how to find a way of addressing the fears and needs of all concerned, using as the benchmark the overriding needs of their children to dictate their actions.
The choice for every family lawyer is whether to feed the fears that generate conflict and cost or to be a force to help take the heat out of the situation by following the Resolution code in seeking wherever it’s both possible and safe to:
Focus on identifying not only the client’s interests but also the mutual interests of the separated couple / family;
Aim to find solutions to all issues which work for all, minimise conflict and costs, and treat the other person and their representatives with respect:
Keep the improvement in the lives of any children involved as their guiding principle.
It is time that we as a profession grew up, and resolve to be a positive problem solving force for good in what is a hugely difficult time for clients, leaving behind the litigious mindset which focuses on scoring points and creates a race to mutual destruction in which fears are fed, unnecessary conflict and cost is generated and children pay the greatest price.
You may rightly say “What if one parent or lawyer gets it, but the other doesn’t?
Doesn’t that expose my client to be disadvantaged?”
That will be the topic of my next note “Transforming conversations”.