Sometimes it takes a hundred hearings before we actually wake up to what’s being said. Perhaps I heard it different because this was role-play rather than ‘real life’. More likely it was because I was sat in the corner observing, rather than in the chair mediating. Whatever the cause, it was as if I was hearing the words for the first time.
It was a refrain that many of us have heard before……
She says: "You left us."
He says: " I left you. I didn’t leave the children."
And so it goes back and forth. The battle is for the right to claim the ground, to define the problem. The weapons are guilt and blame. Neither side is interested in much less than unconditional surrender.
Mediators instinctively recognise the battlefield nature of this exchange. In an attempt to leave the fight behind, we tend to focus on the presenting issue, which is almost always about re-establishing contact with the children. Only in this instance, I believe our instinct is wrong – in at least two distinct ways. Firstly, in shifting away from the content of this argument, we risk taking up a collusive position. And secondly, we may very well deprive the parties of a hugely significant conversation.
Sitting outside the scenario, with no responsibility for ‘fixing things’, I had the freedom to simply pay attention to what was being said. I was under no pressure to ‘move parties’ towards negotiation.
What dad seemed to be saying was that in leaving the marriage, he had chosen to leave the family home. From his perspective this may well have felt like his only realistic choice. He probably never considered asking mum to leave — with or without the children.
In making this decision, he was acting in line not only with his personal desires, but also responding to a whole set of implicit gender expectations — one of which is that mums stay with kids. The adjoining assumption is that dads are more likely to be able to afford separate accommodation. This in itself might be fertile ground for conversation — noticing how our choices are to some extent ‘prescribed’ by the social world we inhabit.
However, what lead me to sit bolt upright and interrupt the role play wasn’t a matter of social construction. It was something far more factual. For whatever reason, dad had made a choice — and was no longer in the family home with the children. He had, in fact "left the building". This was simply so. And I believe there is a real danger of collusion – of pretending something is other than it is – when we fail to point this out.
Less simple is how to acknowledge this reality. I think we need to be very careful not to say to dad "Don’t be ridiculous, of course you’ve left the children". What can be said – and is far more likely to be heard – is that dad has left the marriage, and in doing so, removed himself physically from the children. This clarifies that the choice was not to leave them ’emotionally’ or in terms of any ongoing relationship.
Which takes us to the potential conversation.
When dad says he left her, not the children, he is wanting to have his intention acknowledged as an ‘internal reality’, and as such, should also have some currency in the external world. And intentions clearly do matter. Having said that, from a purely pragmatic point of view, dad no longer resides with either mum, or their children. He’s not there in the morning at breakfast, not there to tuck them into bed at night. So from a child’s perspective (depending on age and understanding of the situation), it may very well feel like dad has left them. Whatever his intention, the impact on his children may feel very different to them.
Which is precisely why dad needs to acknowledge that in some sense, mum is right. He has gone — and is deeply worried about how they – as parents – will manage the potential fallout of that truth. This is far different from arguing with her about intentionality. It is also very different to say "Leaving you felt like a necessary choice. Leaving the children behind felt unbearable, but I don’t think I could have done it any differently."
Leaving the intention argument behind opens up a space for dad to acknowledge the hurt that his actions caused — in her, the kids, and for himself. He could, if willing, offer an apology for not being able to find a way of meeting his needs that didn’t cause pain — especially for the children. He can also express his deepest desire to find ways of minimising that hurt. He knows that he can only do so with her help — and suspects that helping him may not be very high on her list of current priorities.
There is obviously an ideal element in this depiction. And while reality might play out less smoothly, it won’t play at all unless we can hear what’s actually being said. If mediators hear the "You left/I didn’t" as an unhelpful battle of wills – they may fail to see what other conversational opportunities are also present.
In not identifying the difference between intention and impact, we do a disservice to everyone involved. We disavow mum’s all too acute awareness that the house is now minus one adult. We pretend that children won’t have a range of reactions to the sudden absence of one of their parents (including it was me who drove him away). And we veer towards collusion in not unpacking more thoroughly dad’s claim that he hasn’t ‘left the children’.
So what can we do differently?
Firstly we need to find a language which doesn’t overly simplify, but nor does it collude. Mum is in no mood to make fine distinctions, and dad is not wanting to look at the pain and consequences of his actions. These conversational blind-spots are precisely what we are being employed to bring back into view. We need to create space for conversations that acknowledge facts, feelings and intentions.
Secondly, we need to help couples differentiate. In lumping her pain in the same basket as the children’s, mum makes it much harder for dad to acknowledge the hurt he’s caused — or to offer an apology. In denying that the children haven’t been left, dad misses out on engaging mum as co-parent to find ways of minimising the pain of their separation.
From a mediator’s perspective, slowing down, taking care to name truly, and to value messiness, are key elements of our practice. To break the cycle of attack/defend ("You left us/I didn’t leave the children") is only possible by creating a space wide enough to encompass the complexity of where they currently stand. Only when they can stand where they really are, do they have the necessary vantage point to look ahead. To see how and where they can take their next step. A step that hopefully takes them off the battlefield – and back into the reality of all their lives.
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